This essay examines the theme of reconciliation through three of Paul’s letters: Philemon, Colossians and Philippians. By tracing Paul’s concept of unity and reconciliation as they flow through these letters, I hope to gain insight into how the reconciliation demonstrated by Christ’s submission to God unto death, developed into the ethical practice for Christians.
The Church embraces the role of submission in the here-and-now while anticipating the future kingdom. What does that submission entail? The subject of reconciliation implies that a prior harmonious relationship has deteriorated to the point that intervention and restoration is necessary to bring that relationship back into fellowship. This is the work of reconciliation, but what does it mean in a theological sense for the Body of Christ?
I like how Ross Langmead describes the work of reconciliation in “Transformed Relationships: Reconciliation as the Central Model for Mission” as a “reordering of relationships so that justice is involved.” Langmead, continues,
“Of all the metaphors of salvation reconciliation has the potential of being the most inclusive and comprehensive, encompassing ideas such as “cosmic reconciliation, the Hebrew notion of shalom, the meaning of the cross, the psychological effects of conversion, the work of the Holy Spirit, the overcoming of barriers between Christians, the work of the church in the world, peacemaking, movements towards ethnic reconciliation and the renewal of ecological balances between humanity and its natural environment.” Mission Studies 25 (2008): 5-20
THE COMMODIFICATION OF POWER
Reconciliation is a provocative metaphor that raises important questions and concerns regarding subjugation, submission, and surrender. Shalom, peace or unity can only be accomplished when the alienated parties forfeit something for the greater good. There is an exchange of goods, so to speak, between the disagreeable parties to attain the sought after shalom.
Reconciliation raises questions about power distribution. What is power? Who has it? Why is it distributed as it is in the world—in the religious realm and in secular society?
Is power a negotiable commodity? Does power lie absolutely in the hands of some? Does voluntary submission accomplish greater lasting good than coercive subjugation? What are the ramifications for society and church when this is misunderstood?
A HERMENEUTIC OF HIERARCHY
Apostle Paul committed himself to understanding and rectifying the distortion of power commodities after accepting the call to the ministry of reconciliation, in which he believed the world and the whole of humanity would be put right through the gospel message of Christ (2 Cor 5:18-21).
But Paul’s heartbeat for reconciliation is difficult to detect. Biblical feminist scholars have wrestled repeatedly with these issues and justifiably so, and especially in this day and age of historical reconstruction.
I agree with Anne Mercedes’s point in Power For: Feminism and Christ’s Self Giving, (p 2). She says none can deny, “the long legacy of female subjugation that has relied on women’s sacrifice as a fundamental currency of patriarchal economies … in which self-emptying doctrine [was] a token of hierarchical enforcement.”
I witnessed my mother, believing she was fulfilling God’s will, silently subjugate herself beneath the hand of a tyrannical husband whose power-brokering was an excessive extrapolation of the theology of the Reformed church. The husband’s role, as the controlling-head, is given permission to present itself in stark contrast to that of Christ’s self-giving nature, as the Head.
I am convinced that this level of distorted theology — lived out in concrete reality in my childhood home, and replicated in many homes— is a prideful arrogance that craves absolute and authoritarian control of a woman’s mind and body. It is one of the greatest obstacles to the gospel message that ever existed.
Unfortunately, when female scholars began to engage in theological studies they discovered what they had suspected all along: a hierarchical hermeneutic was at work excluding them from important conversations. For some this resulted in a breach between Apostle Paul – whom they understandably held responsible for this line of reasoning – and the female interpreter.
Is there any hope of reconciliation between the two? Dare we hope for the day when male and female believers will set together round the table discussing the important matters of faith and practice without demeaning one another? What were Paul’s intentions when he taught submission to Christ and to each other.
The terms—submission and surrender and power and domination—have been forced into a female and male duality:
Weaker women, slaves, and the poor—submit. Real men—virile and valiant men—dominate. Taken further, this weakness is portrayed as a ‘female thing’, while strength is predominantly a ‘male thing’.
We know Paul was privy to the Platonic and Aristotelian view in which female represented that which was less human and male as that which was fully human. But these were Greek concepts in contradiction to the Hebraic understanding of humanity. Through these three letters we find Paul giving a better way to express our humanity:
Paul’s understanding of reconciliation offers a correction to this Greek concept of humanity, in which genuine reconciliation takes place in all human relationships.
THE ECONOMY OF RECONCILIATION
There is a high cost to the business of reconciliation, the ministry to which Paul devoted his life (2 Cor 5:11-20). Reconciliation is an underlying theme hinted at in his letter to Philemon (14,15; 17). I explore this more in Part 2. The concept of reconciliation is expanded in Colossians (1:15-23) and is practically presented in Philippians (2:1-12).
For this essay Paul’s letters are considered genuinely Pauline. I wrote about this in an earlier post, “The Conundrum of a Faux-Paul.” I follow the order given by Bo Reicke: 2 Thess, 1 Thess, Galatians, 1 Cor, 1 Tim, 2 Cor, Romans, Titus, Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Timothy and finally, Philippians.
I’m grateful to one of my profs at Central Christian College of the Bible for pointing me to Re-examining Paul’s Letters, The History of Pauline Correspondence, (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2001). Pages 39-102 give his rationale for this order. Therefore, the letters written first by Paul inform my understanding of reconciliation in his later letters.
In order to understand the origin of Paul’s concept of reconciliation a little background is necessary. In the historical narrative of Acts, Luke, who is one of Paul’s trusted companions, describes what appears to be the beginning of the ministry of reconciliation initiated with the resurrection of Jesus, the promised Messiah. Early in the narrative Luke shows the horizontal expression of reconciliation when men were joined with women to pray together in one accord (1:14).
This reconciliation went beyond that of uniting male and female. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit fell upon the young and old, the slave and free, just as Joel had prophesied (Acts 2). Reconciliation reached out to the lame and bedridden, to the eunuch and the unclean; all who were formerly estranged were now welcomed into the body of Christ (3:1-10; 8:26-40; 9:32-35).
Luke records the unlikely and quite miraculous conversion of Paul, a faithful Pharisee and chief persecutor of Christians (9:1-31). Paul, hostile to the early believers in Christ, experienced an unprecedented call while on his path of destruction. According to Joseph Fitzmyer in Acts of the Apostles (p. 448), this was not “just another conversion story” but represented God’s plan to begin an outreach to the primary excluded people group in the mind of the Jews: the Gentiles.
In The Origin of Paul’s Gospel, (p 312-4), author Seyoon Kim helps us discover the grand purpose for Paul’s life: God’s enemy was transformed into a messenger of the life-changing good news of the gospel. The gospel message would expand beyond the boundaries of the circumcised nation and Paul, formerly a faithful Pharisee, would suffer great loss, sacrificing his own life in order to accomplish the work of reconciling many to Christ (2 Cor 5:16-20; Col 1:20-22).
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians and his first letter to Timothy, Paul recalls his past identity as an offender, a blasphemer and persecutor, a reviler of Christ because he was deceived into thinking he was doing God’s work (Gal 1:13, 14; 1 Tim 1:12-15). But now he is an apostle – not because of anything he had done (2 Tim 1:9; Tit 3:5-7; 2 Cor 10:17) – but because Christ, the offended one, reached out to him with mercy and grace (Gal 2:20; Eph 5:2; 1 Tim 2:1, 14).
Any person in Christ is now no longer identified by his or her previous life and actions. Instead, now each one in Christ are received not by his or her past identity, but through the lens of a newly created identity (Gal 2:20; 2 Cor 5:17).
When we wholeheartedly enter with Paul into the ministry of reconciliation (which is the role of all Christ-followers) our identity is ontologically altered. Our new identity not only transcends but it transforms one’s economical status, one’s racial identity, and one’s gender in a sacred and mysterious way. That identity-transformation is not for the sake of the individual — and it’s not simply to bolster up the Body of Christ.
It is for being a light in the messy and dark corners of the world. It is for being present in the real, concrete, dangerous, unfamiliar spaces. For it was only there, in regions far from his (and our) secure and safe community, that Paul’s (and our own) heart and desire for reconciliation for the other was discovered and demonstrated for all to see.