THINKING MISSION WITH PAUL AND THE ROMANS:

Romans 15:1-33

 

 

Daniel Patte

Vanderbilt University

 

(to be published in Mission Studies, Spring 2006, pp 81-104)

 

 

Abstract

I write these notes on Romans 15:1-33 (read together with 1:1-15 and other passages of Romans) as resources for a group discussion of Romans 15 and its teaching about mission for the group’s life context.  I presuppose that the group will want to have three rounds of discussion. According to the size of the group these three rounds can take place in one long session—with the larger group breaking down in smaller groups and coming back together three times, for instance during an evening—or in three shorter sessions.   The first round-table discussion is focused on the group members’ first readings of Romans 15.  The second round-table involves comparing the members’ readings with those of scholars.  For this purpose, since there are presently three types of scholarly readings of Romans, I present them, underscoring the different ways they conceive of Paul’s teaching about mission.  Throughout I also presuppose that each member of the group is committed to “read with” the other members this text of Paul as a Scripture about mission, a process that requires a third round-table.

 

READING ROMANS 15 WITH OTHERS

 

“Reading with others” means that we read the Biblical text with the expectation that we will learn from the other members of the group something about this text and its teaching.  This also means that we expect that others in the group will bring to the discussion insights, understandings and interpretations that are different from ours; otherwise we would not learn anything from them.  Divergent views concerning what Paul says about mission in Romans 15 are expected and welcome; they reflect the richness of the biblical text and the fact that different readers focus on different features of the text.  “Reading with others” presupposes that the group meets as a “round table,” where no one has a privileged status.  Initially, no interpretation is privileged, although the group will seek to discern which of the proposed interpretations is most valuable and helpful (in the third round-table).

Reading with others in a round-table may demand from some of us (especially, biblical scholars, priests and pastors, but also engaged believers) a radical change in attitude.  With all our experience of studying the Bible, don’t we have to guide the other members of the group toward the true or better interpretation that we already know?  The problem is that with such an attitude we presuppose that we have nothing to learn from others.  We do not “read with” them.  We want to “read for” them--demeaning them to the rank of children or inferiors unable to read correctly by themselves. 

Expecting to learn something from the reading of the biblical text by other members of the group demands from us a two-pronged shift of attitude.  It demands from us:  to “consider others as better than [ourselves]” (Philippians 2:3), since we have to learn from them; and also “not to think of [ourselves] more highly than [we] ought to think” (Romans 12:3).<![if !supportFootnotes]>[1]<![endif]>   As a biblical scholar, I find it very difficult to follow these exhortations.  Yet the members of an African Initiated Church, the Church of the Eleven Apostles in Botswana, demonstrated to me how this could easily be done.  In this church, sermons are not delivered by the priest or pastor but by the members of the congregation.  The priest simply announces the biblical text of the day.  It is read by someone in the congregation, who then preaches.  Then, in turn, others in the congregation--all kinds of people, well educated and illiterate, poor and better off, women and men--stand up and deliver their own short sermons on this biblical text.  This is remarkable enough; a model for biblical study round-tables!  Yet, what makes each of these interpretations of the text authoritative for all without denying the value of other sermons is that the rest of the congregation responds to each sermon by a moment of prayer at the request of the preacher.  Indeed, each sermon concludes with the words: “Brothers and sisters pray for me so that I may better understand the Scriptures.”  In more informal group settings, the same is achieved by concluding one’s remarks on a biblical text by asking:  “Help me better understand this Biblical text!” 

 

READING ROMANS AS SCRIPTURE: 

THINKING MISSION WITH PAUL AND THE ROMANS

 

Reading Romans as Scripture is reading it as a text which has a teaching for one’s life as a believer in a particular context.   In so doing we adopt a position similar to that of the Romans to whom this letter was addressed.   Yet, contrary to what we might think, this is not entering a one-way communication, in which together with the Romans we would simply be passive receivers of a message from Paul.  Romans is a letter, and thus part of a larger dialogue.  More specifically, Romans is a letter aimed at initiating a dialogue with a church which Paul does not personally know, but that he hopes to meet very soon (Romans 15:22-23; 1:10-15).  From the very beginning of the letter, Paul emphasizes that he expects a two-way, reciprocal exchange with the Romans: 

For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you-- or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged [exhorted] by each other's faith, both yours and mine” (1:11-12). 

Paul does expect to bring something to the Romans:  a share of his spiritual gifts (1:11), the gospel (1:15).   And he might have been tempted to conceive of his relationship with the Romans as that of a superior - - an apostle, with a special authority concerning the gospel because he has been set apart (1:1) for the task of instructing others, including the Romans (1:11).   But he catches himself up:  this exchange of gifts is to be mutual (1:12).  He also expects to receive from the Romans certain spiritual gifts, as well as encouragements and exhortations (same word in Greek).  Yes, his ministry is producing fruit among Gentiles and, he hopes, it will also do so among Gentiles in Rome (1:13).  He certainly saw the performance of his ministry to the Gentiles as his “duty” or “obligation” in response to God’s call and love for him (as many translations of 1:14 imply).  Yet with the NRSV and other versions the most direct translation of 1:14 is:  “I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (emphasis added).  In the same way that his relationship with the Romans is to be a mutual exchange of gifts, of exhortations, of encouragement, of instructions, Paul conceives of his ministry among Greeks, barbarians, the wise and the foolish as a mutual exchange.  He has received something from them, therefore he owes them (he is indebted) to share with them what he has, namely the gospel.

From the perspective of this interpretation of Roams 1:1-15, it is appropriate to envision Paul’s interaction with the Romans as similar to a round-table discussion.  Of course, Paul has much to contribute to their dialogue; but he is also expecting to learn much from them.  As a round-table is an invitation to the participants to “read with” each other, so Paul’s letter is an invitation to the Romans to “think with” him about certain issues, so that ultimately (when he will see them) they might mutually instruct each other on these topics.  

When in turn we enter this discussion by reading Romans 15 as Scripture, we can read it as an invitation “to think about mission with Paul and the Romans.”   We could say that we enter the dialogue initiated by Paul’s letter.  Yet, it might be more accurate to say that we invite Paul and the Romans to participate in our round-table.  First, we take the initiative, by the very fact that, with the rest of this BISAM issue of Mission Studies, we chose mission as our the thematic focus.  Yes, Paul and the Romans were concerned about mission (in Spain, 15:24, 28; and to the Gentiles elsewhere, 1:13-15; 15:20-23).  But we (not they) choose this theme as the focus of our round-table discussion, whether or not it was the main issue for them. 

Second, we are quite selective in our readings of Romans as Scripture.  We frame them 1) by our particular perception of what is most significant in the text, 2) by specific questions coming out of our own theological perspectives; and 3) by concerns arising from the actual life-context in which we read this Scripture as a Word to live-by.  Precisely because we read this text with the expectation that from it we will learn something which will challenge our views and our way of life, we consciously or subconsciously frame our readings of it with our questions. 

As we read and reread Romans ch. 15 (together with 1:1-15), we find that Paul invites the Romans and us to think “mission” in different ways according to what we take to be:

1) the most significant features of this chapter and the letter to the Romans as a whole;

2) the core of the gospel as a theological concept;  and

3) the urgent needs and predicaments that we and others are confronted with in our particular contexts. 

This particularization of our interpretation is appropriate and legitimate, provided that we acknowledge the choices we make, and in so doing explain and assess our reasons for these choices.  Yet, by ourselves, we cannot be aware of the choices we make; we need to encounter other readings.  This is what “reading with others” in a round-table discussion achieves for us.  A first round-table will help each of us begin to recognize the broad choices we make.  A second round table will make an inventory of the interpretive choices available to us.   Then the third round table will assess which set of choices, and thus, which way of thinking mission is “best.”  

 Each of us starts, of course, with the conviction that our original reading of Rom 15 and our original way of thinking mission with Paul was “the best.”   Yet, as we “read with” each other and learn from each other, we encounter possibilities we are not aware of.   All the readings and the ways of thinking mission with Paul are on the table.  We, as a group, will have to assess these readings and either reach a consensus that one interpretation is “better” than the others, or agree to disagree—for instance, because we have different needs in our particular contexts.

 

PREPARING OURSELVES FOR A FIRST ROUND-TABLE DISCUSSION

ON ROMANS 15 AND MISSION

 

For the first round-table, each participant is expected to come to the discussion with her or his provisional conclusions concerning the teaching of Romans 15 (and 1:1-15) about mission.   The goal of the discussion will be to recognize the differences (not the similarities) between the interpretations of the members of the group- -and thus the richness of the text.    

In Romans 15:1-33 (and 1:1-15) there is no “Great Commission” (there is no “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” as in Matt. 28:19).  Yet, mission is one of the central themes of this chapter, as Paul invites his readers- -the Romans and also us- -to participate in mission with him.  Paul mentions his plans to extend his mission to Spain (Rom15:24).  He hopes to receive support from the Romans in this mission:  “to be sent on my way with your support” (15:24b, NJB).  To gain this support from the Roman churches, Paul carefully explains how he conceives of and implements his mission among the Gentiles, and also, as we shall see, invites them to participate in mission.  These explanations offer us a rich teaching about mission which we can explore by asking:

 

According to your reading of Romans 15,

  1. What does mission involve?
  2. By what kind of authority does one pursue one’s mission?  How is one’s mission related to Christ and God?  
  3. What are the goals of one’s missionary activity?
  4. How does one carry out this mission?    

 

As you read Rom 15:1-33 (and 1:1-15) with these questions in mind, jot down 1) what are the characteristics of mission offered by Paul which are the most significant for you in your context; and 2) the verses that most directly express these characteristics of mission.  Then in group, when each presents her or his conclusions about what is most significant in Paul’s teaching about mission in these verses for their respective contexts, the discussion should underscore the differences among the various conclusions - - and thus what each learns from the others- -, rather than the similarities (the areas where we did not learn from each other).

 

PREPARING OURSELVES FOR A SECOND ROUND-TABLE DISCUSSION

ON ROMANS 15 AND MISSION

 

This second round table discussion has two goals.   Its first goal is to establish the legitimacy of the different conclusions reached by members of the group>  For this we propose to show that reputable biblical scholars also reach different and often contradictory conclusions, according to the aspect of the text they choose to emphasize.   By reviewing these scholarly interpretations, each member of the group should be able to find support and refinement for her or his conclusions in one or another of these scholarly interpretations without losing the specificity of one’s own.   Since there are several legitimate ways of interpreting Paul’s teaching about mission in Romans 15, we have a choice. 

Yet, in biblical study groups, the readings might be variations of the same type. Consequently, the second goal of this round-table is to present to members of the group three distinct families of interpretations.   I will now successively present three types of scholarly interpretations of the teaching about mission of Romans 15.  These brief notes will be more helpful if you have first read the text yourself for its teaching about mission (as suggested above).

 

-I-  Paul as a Model Missionary in Romans 15

 

a)  What does mission involve according to Reading # 1?

 

A first way of reading Romans 15 and its teaching about mission posits that a) Paul’s mission is a model for our missionary activity, and b) that Paul’s mission is centered on the proclamation of a message- -the good news of the gospel.  The gospel message needs to be preached (1:15, 10:8; 10:14-15; 15:19-20) to people who do not know it so that they might believe and be saved (from eternal condemnation) by being justified by faith (cf. 5:9-10 and 10:1-17).   As someone called and set apart to proclaim the gospel so as to bring Gentiles to “the obedience of faith” (1:1-5) Paul is a model for missionaries, who are themselves called and commissioned to preach the same gospel message and for the same goals. 

These are the conclusions reached by the scholars who read Romans by focusing on the theological argument of Paul’s letter.  There are, of course, plenty of textual evidence to support this reading and its view of mission.  One first notes that Paul wrote this letter primarily because of his project to pursue his mission in Spain (15:23-24, 28).   As Peter Stuhlmacher says in his commentary, Paul wants to make sure that they will “agree with him concerning the subject-matter of his gospel [the message] and to grant him the support he needs to accomplish the goal of his apostolic commission to the Gentiles” (Stuhlmacher, 1994, 235).  

This reading understands Paul to have, throughout the letter, explained and substantiated his proclamation to the Gentiles of a gospel centered on “justification through faith” rather than on “justification through works of the law” (understood to be the belief Paul shared with other Jews before his conversion, as Stuhlmacher [1994, 55] underscores about 3:20; see also Stuhlmacher, 2001).  Rather than convicting and punishing sinners for their sins (and “all have sinned” 3:23), God “justifies the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26) and thus the believer is put by his/her faith to the benefit of Christ’s death (3:24-25).  Paul defends this gospel against his detractors (including those in Jerusalem, 15:31) in two related ways.  First, Paul defends himself against those who said his emphasis on justification through faith leads to a life without moral rules (“as some people slander us by saying that we say, ‘let us do evil so that good may come,’” 3:8, or “sin in order that grace might abound” 6:1 [see 6:15]).  Against such slander, Paul exhorts church members to have a sanctified way of life through numerous moral teachings, especially in 12:1—15:13.  Second, against his opponents’ assumptions that he would take the side of Gentile Christians in disputes with Jewish Christians, Paul urges Gentile Christians (the “strong”) to defer to Jewish Christians (the “weak”), though without abandoning their own perspective.  Far from demanding that Jewish Christians and their followers abandon the observance of the law (including kosher food laws and observance of Sabbath and Jewish festivals, 14:1-23), Paul insists in 15:1-13 that the “strong” - - those who because of their convictions about justification through faith are free from the law - - “ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please [them]selves” (15:1).  

According to this first reading, it is this gospel-message that Paul the missionary has proclaimed throughout the eastern Mediterranean world (hyperbolically presented in 15:19 as “from Jerusalem to as far around as Illyricum,” the region by the Adriatic Sea that would includes the modern Albania).  Any missionary is to proclaim this same gospel-message.  Yet Paul’s mission is different from others in that it is an apostolic mission dedicated to planting churches where Christ had not been preached “so that I do not build on someone else's foundation” (15:20-22).   Having no room left in the East he plans to stop in Rome on his way to his new missionary field, Spain, and hope to receive support from the Romans for this new missionary venture (15:23-24). 

 

<![if !supportLists]>b.      <![endif]>By what kind of authority does Paul pursue his mission?  How is his mission related to Christ and God? 

 

All scholars agree that Paul’s authority is most directly expressed in 15:15-16 (which echoes 1:1), when Paul speaks of “the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles.”   The question is what is this “grace” to which Paul refers?   According to this first reading, the “grace” to which this verse refers is Paul’s apostolic commission received at the time of his conversion.  Thus for Stuhlmacher Paul pursues his mission with the authority given to him by “the grace of the apostolic commission which has been granted to him by God” (Stuhlmacher, 1994, 236-237).  In this perspective, because of his commission Paul is empowered to proclaim the gospel in the name of Christ.   Thus Paul can boast of his missionary work because it is nothing else than Christ’s work.   Following this interpretation the NRSV (and other translations) renders 15:17:  “In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to boast of my work for God.” As we shall see, this is choosing one translations among other possible ones, since the Greek is more open, merely speaking of boasting “of the things related to God” (DP).  Then 15:18 is understood in the same way:  “For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed” (15:18, NRSV).  When Paul proclaims the gospel that he has received from Christ, Christ works among the Gentiles.  According to this model, because Paul and other missionaries work in the name of Christ and God, it is through the intermediary of their preaching that Christ and God work among the people to whom they preach.

 

c.  What are the goals of Paul’s missionary activity?  

 

 In this perspective, Paul’s mission is a “priestly service” (15:16) in the limited sense that Paul’s role is to bring the Gentiles as an offering to God.  In this case one understands the phrase the offering of the Gentiles” to mean that the converted Gentiles are the offering that Paul brings to God (objective genitive) - - as we shall see, it can also refer to an offering made to God by the Gentiles themselves (genitive subjective).  The goal of Paul’s mission is “to win obedience from the Gentiles” (15:18), bringing them to the “obedience of faith” (1:5), a phrase referring to “the conversion and subordination to the sovereign authority of Jesus, which is the result of preaching the gospel” (Stuhlmacher, 1994, 20).  In this way, Paul brings the Gentiles to see and understand what they did not know (15:20-21).

 

d.  How does Paul carry out this mission? 

 

In this reading, it is self-evident that Paul’s primary activity was “by word” (15:18), by the proclamation of the message of the gospel.  Thus, we find in many translations of 15:19 and 20 the repeated mention that Paul “proclaimed the good news.”  This is once again a plausible choice of translation, but a choice nevertheless, since the verbs do not specify the way in which the gospel is manifested.<![if !supportFootnotes]>[2]<![endif]>  In this reading, mission and proclamation of the message of the gospel are so much identified with each other that the possibility that the propagation of the gospel might also be in deeds and by the performance of miracles and by the power of the Holy Spirit, mentioned in 15:18b-19a, is viewed as secondary.  In this interpretation, Paul mentions them here simply to show to the Romans that he has the essential marks of an apostle, according to his opponents’ definitions, although he does not himself view these as important (see Stuhlmacher, 1994, 238).  

In this reading, Rom 15:1-13, as an exhortation to Gentile Christians, is simply a part of Paul’s effort to convince the Romans of the validity of the gospel he preaches, and does not have much implication for understanding the church’s mission. 

 

-II- Romans 15: Paul Calls the Churches to their Distinctive Mission  as the People of God in the New Covenant in Jesus Christ

 

a.  What does mission involve according to Reading # 2?

 

A second way of reading Romans 15 underscores that Paul’s ministry is a particular kind of mission, an apostolic mission, different from the mission of the churches.  His apostolic mission is an itinerant mission exclusively focused on church-planting:  “I make it my ambition to proclaim the good news, not where Christ has already been named, so that I do not build on someone else's foundation” (15:20).  As soon as a few Christian communities are established in a region his particular missionary ministry is finished.  This is why he can truly say, speaking of all the eastern Mediterranean regions (from Jerusalem to Illyricum [Albania], 15:19), that there is “no further place for me in these regions” (15:23). 

Does this mean that the missionary work of propagating the gospel is finished in these regions?   Hardly!  But now this missionary work passes from Paul to the churches he has helped to establish.  In effect his church-planting is the establishment of missionary centers.  Each Gentile church community is a part of the body of Christ (12:4-5), or, in other words, a part of the people of God (15:10).  They are “called to be saints” whether they are in Rome (1:7), anywhere in the world (8:27; 12:13; 16:2, 15) or in Jerusalem (15:25-26, 31).  As such any church community established by Paul (as well as, in his mind, any other church) is called by God to carry out a special mission in its particular Gentile context, just as Israel was and remains called by God to carry out a special mission as the People of God.

The churches’ mission and Paul’s mission, while distinct, have a fundamental similarity;  they are similar to the mission that Israel as the People of God is called to carry out, and they prolong the mission that Jesus carried out “among the circumcised” (15:8).

These are the conclusions that one can draw from the interpretations of Romans by scholars who read this letter with an emphasis on its rhetorical structure.<![if !supportFootnotes]>[3]<![endif]>  For these scholars, Paul addresses his letter to the Gentile Christians in Rome, and not to Jewish Christians (although they may overhear this conversation).  Paul seeks to help the Gentile Christians to recognize that their inclusion into the covenant means neither that they should view themselves as superior to Jewish Christians (see especially 11:16-24 and 14:1-15:13) nor that God’s covenant with Israel is abrogated (11:29, “for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable”).   In this reading, the central point of the gospel is the proclamation that both Jews and Gentiles are “justified through Jesus’ faithfulness” (3:22)<![if !supportFootnotes]>[4]<![endif]>.  

 

b. By what kind of authority does the church pursue its mission?

 

Being “justified through Jesus’ faithfulness” is the call that authorizes the churches to pursue their mission- -whether these churches were established by Paul or not (as is the case with the Roman churches).  This justification/righteousness involves being reconciled with God (Rom 5:10) and is the promise of future salvation (5:9-10; 13:11), as the preceding reading would emphasize.  But in this second reading justification/righteousness is also and primarily the “right relationship with God” which marks the present way of life of the believers as members of the people of God, or body of Christ.   Through Christ’s faithfulness, Gentiles are “called” or “chosen” (Rom 1:6, see 1 Thess 1:4) to be “saints” (set apart for a mission) as Paul was called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel (Rom 1:1).  They are called and set a part as Israel was called (11:29) to be the people of God, “entrusted with the oracles of God” (3:2) and given the covenants, and together with them “the law, the worship, and the promises” (9:4).  Like Israel (but neither as a successor nor as a replacement of Israel), they are now a people with whom God is in a covenant relationship “through Jesus’ faithfulness,” called to walk by faith as “saints” as Abraham the ancestor of all believers already was (Rom 4).  Thus, as is the case for Israel, the people of the “new covenant” (2 Cor 3:6) are chosen, called, set apart for a certain mission. 

 

c.  What are the goals of the churches’ mission?    

 

What is this mission?  We need to pay attention to Paul’s exhortations to the Romans in 15:1-13, because they clarify how Paul seeks to prepare the Romans to carry out their own mission as the people of God. 

In these verses Paul brings to a close his exhortations to the Gentile Christians identifying himself with them:  “we who are strong” (15:1).  According to this reading, Paul urges:  Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor” (15:2); “live in harmony with one other” (15:5); “welcome one another” (15:7) following Jesus’ example (15:3, 5, 7-8) and the teaching of Scriptures (15:4).  These exhortations cap the long series of instructions begun in 12:1-2.   In sum, those who have been “justified through Jesus’ faithfulness” are called to be saints, that is, people set apart from the world:  Do not be conformed to this world” (12:2).   In 12:1-15:13, Paul prescribes this way of life to the Gentile churches, because by implementing it they will carry out their own mission among the Gentiles. 

The goals of the churches’ mission become apparent in Paul’s description of the purpose of this way of life.  In 15:1-13, the first statement of purpose focuses on the churches’ need:  So that by steadfastness … we might have hope” (15:4; see also 15:13).  Why do they need hope?  So that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:6).  Glorifying God together in worship services (“with one voice”) is a first part of the churches’ mission, in the same way that “worship” was and is a part of Israel’s mission as the People of God (9:4). 

Paul also stipulates that the purpose of the churches’ actions, here their interactions with each other, is to glorify God:  “Welcome one another . . . for the glory of God” (15:17), that is, “so that other people might glorify God.”  The following verses further clarify this point by giving Christ as an example they should follow:  Christ has become a servant of the circumcised . . . in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (15:8-9).  The series of quotations from Scripture in 15:10-12 reinforces this twofold point:  like Israel, the People of the new covenant should “confess [God] among the Gentiles” by  singing  praises to God’s name  (15:9, Ps 18:49);  and should call the Gentiles to rejoice and praise the Lord with God’s people (15:10, Deut 32:43; 15:11, Ps 117:1), because in Christ (“the root of Jesse”) the Gentiles can have hope (15:12, Isa 11:10).

 

d.  How should the Gentiles carry out this mission? 

 

The preceding verses already show that through their community life Gentile believers are called to have the same kind of ministry as Christ had.  This ministry is appropriately described as a priestly ministry, because of its two-fold goal of glorifying God (in their worship) and bringing others to glorify God (through their way of life).  This observation helps us to make sense of Paul’s description of his own mission as priestly:  he is “a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God” (15:16a; see also 1:1, where Paul presents himself as “set apart for the gospel of God”).   The similarity of Paul, Christ, and the Gentiles’ respective missions suggests the way in which this priestly ministry is to be carried out.

Christ carried it out by “becom[ing] a servant of the circumcised” (15:8a) and by “demonstrating the validity of the promises to the patriarchs” (15:8b DP) by his fulfillment of these promises and by offering himself as a sacrifice.  This is the way “the good news” of God is manifested by Christ, so much so that some of the circumcised and the Gentiles might recognize God’s mercy, and glorify God for it (15:9).

The Gentile believers should carry their mission in a similar way.  Like Christ, they should “present [their] bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [their] spiritual worship” (12:1)- -for instance, by putting  up with the failings of the weak, and not  pleasing themselves (see 15:1).   In their community life and in their daily life the Gentile Christians offer themselves as a sacrifice (the phrase “the offering of the Gentiles” in 15:16 is understood as a subjective genitive).  Yet, to reach its goal this priestly mission of the Gentile believers must “be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (15:16), so that in it other Gentiles might discover and glorify God.

Since the Gentile believers’ mission is also similar to Paul’s mission, we need to re-read Paul’s description of his own mission from this perspective.   The “grace” given to Paul (15:15) is more than a commission to “go and preach”; it is a consecration for a priestly service aimed at helping others (the Gentiles) to make their own sanctified offerings to God (15:16).   Then, Paul can boast, but not for what he does in the name of God or for what God does in him.  He can boast of what God is doing in and through the Gentiles (as is appropriately expressed by the King James Version of 15:17:  “I may glory through Jesus Christ of those things which pertain to God”; my emphasis) and of what Christ has done through him (15:18).   The preceding interpretation (above –I-) had read this statement as a reference to what Paul was doing in the name of Christ.  This second interpretation avoids doing this by paying close attention to the description that Paul gives of his ministry;  “by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God” (15:18-19).  Paul’s ministry among the Gentiles is characterized by manifestations of God, of Christ, and of the Spirit.  Furthermore, through these divine interventions the Gentiles are themselves called to, and sanctified for, their own mission as the new people of God.  Their mission is to glorify God (in their worship) and bring others to glorify God (through their ways of life in which they offer themselves as living sacrifice as well as through their words). 

 

-III- Romans 15:  Paul Urges Christian Believers to Be Missionaries who Manifest  the Gospel as Power of God for Salvation

 

 

a.  What does mission involve according to Reading # 3?

 

For I can dare to speak only of the things which Christ has done through me to bring about the (faith) obedience of the Gentiles, in word and deed (made effective) by the power of signs and portents, by the power of God’s Spirit. In this way, from Jerusalem and as far round as Illyricum, I have fulfilled the gospel of Christ. (15:18-19 DP)

 

            The possibility of a third distinctive reading with its different view of mission becomes apparent in these verses, when one pays attention to its apocalyptic language, rather than blurring it as translations often do. Rom 15:18-19 can be paraphrased as follows:   Paul’s ministry has fulfilled the gospel of Christ (15:19b, as prophecies are fulfilled in the end-time) by what Christ has done through it in order to bring the Gentiles to “obedience” under the Lordship of Christ (15:18b; 1:5).  As Käsemann (394) points out, this “obedience of faith” (1:5) is not in response to a message, but a response to an epiphany- -a manifestation of Christ or of the divine among the Gentiles.  Käsemann’s point is confirmed by Paul’s description of his ministry.  His “word and deed” (15:18c) are complemented and made effective “by the power of signs and portents, by the power of God’s Spirit” (15:19a).  These juxtaposed phrases emphatically “designate the experience of the divine presence in mighty eschatological acts” (Käsemann, 394). In Paul’s ministry, there are powerful divine manifestations which rattle and unsettle the Gentiles so much that they submit in obedience to the Lord, Christ (15:18b).   Thus, in this reading, the “grace given [to Paul] by God” (15:15) is more than his commission at the time of his call; it is also the gift of God’s on-going interventions in his ministry.<![if !supportFootnotes]>[5]<![endif]>   These divine interventions are fulfillments of the promise included in his call to be an apostle set apart for the “gospel of God” (15:16; 1:1): 

  • as God intervened in his experience, calling him to a ministry,
  • so God intervened in the experience of those to whom Paul ministered, the Gentiles, who were themselves called to a ministry (as the Romans were, 1:6-7);
  • so God intervenes in the experience of present-day Christians, calling them to a missionary ministry; and
  • so God intervenes in the experience of those to whom these present-day Christians minister.

 

b. By what kind of authority does the church pursue its mission? 

 

Paul’s mission and the church’s mission are authorized and indeed made possible by God’s on-going interventions.  Indeed, this reading underscores that Paul commonly associates the “gospel of God” with manifestations of divine power.   For this reading, saying that the “gospel of God” is a message about God is appropriate, but it is not enough.   “Preaching” or “proclaiming” the gospel is necessary (Rom 10:8, 14, 15).  But it is not sufficient.  Note that Rom 10:8, 14, 15 are the only verses in Romans where Paul explicitly speaks about “preaching” the gospel.<![if !supportFootnotes]>[6]<![endif]>   Reading the English translations of Romans and Paul’s other letters, one is surprised, because they render the verb “gospelize” ( euvaggeli,zw ) in Rom 15:20 (and 1:15, 10:15, as well as in many verses of the other letters) by “preaching” or “proclaiming” the gospel, although it simply means “transmitting” or “manifesting” the gospel—without specifying how the gospel is manifested.  Indeed, bringing the gospel to others involves proclaiming the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  But Paul and any other missionary must also facilitate (or be the conduit for) manifestations of divine power among these people- -divine interventions which by definition are beyond the control of the missionary. 

In the perspective, the use of the phrase “gospel of God” in 1:1 clarifies that “God” is not the object or content of the gospel as a message (objective genitive) but rather its agent.  The content of the gospel message is God’s Son (1:3-4).  But God is the agent who performs the event that can be recognized and proclaimed as a good news, a gospel:  God gave a promise through the prophets (1:2); God resurrected Jesus from the dead, and this manifestation of divine power designated him Son of God (1:4).  Together with the preceding readings, one can, of course, interpret this to mean that the gospel is a message about God’s powerful interventions in the past, especially in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  Yet Paul removes any ambiguity in 1:16 by defining “the gospel” as the present manifestation of “the power of God for salvation”: “it is the power of God for salvation.”  Thus, Paul’s mission, as well as the churches’ mission, is not merely to proclaim what God has done in the past- -although this is a necessary part of the mission “in word and deed”- - but also to be those through whom the gospel is manifested as “the power of God for salvation.”   Paul underscores this same point in his other letters.  For instance in 1 Corinthians 2:4-5 (“My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” NRSV)  and 1 Thess 1:5 (“because our gospel came to you not only in words, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with great effect” NJB). 

 

c.  What are the goals of the missionary activity? 

 

The missionaries’ ultimate goal should simply be to work themselves out of a job.  This is what Paul claims to have done, saying that he has completed his missionary work “from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum” (15:19) and thus that there is “no further place for [him] in these regions” (15:23).  These seem to be hyperbolic statements (as the first reading interprets them).  Yet, Paul seems to be taking them literally, since he plans to move his missionary activity to Spain (15:24).  We need to understand why this is the case.

From what precedes, it is already clear that mission is a priestly service (15:16) in the sense that, in addition to the proclamation of the gospel as message, the missionary becomes the one through whom other people are put in the presence of God and thus confronted “by the power of signs and portents, by the power of God’s Spirit” (15:19a).  The missionary’s ministry is the locus where people are put in the presence of transformative manifestations of God’s presence and thus brought to the “obedience of faith.”  

In order to assume this role, missionaries need to offer themselves as living sacrifices (12:1).  What does this entail?  To begin with, like Paul, they should call attention to what God or Christ is doing in their ministries, rather than to what they are doing (15:18).  Indeed, without divine interventions their ministry is for naught.  Second, together with Paul, they should conduct their ministry with the hope of God’s interventions (see 15:4-5).  Note, for instance, that by asking for the Romans’ prayers Paul makes clear his awareness that without God’s intervention his mission in Jerusalem cannot be successful (15:25-32).  Third, carrying out their missionary ministry as a priestly ministry involves offering themselves as living sacrifices by acknowledging, affirming and upholding the missionary ministries of new believers.  This is what Paul says about the Gentiles among whom he manifested the gospel of God.

 

I was empowered by the grace given to me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus [who manifests Christ] to the Gentiles, acting as a priest through whom the gospel of God [and its power] is manifested, so that the gentiles might offer themselves as an acceptable offering, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. (15:15c-16 DP)

 

As this translation of 15:15c-16 expresses, Paul’s mission and our mission are not merely aimed at facilitating manifestations of the gospel’s power among people who can then be offered to God.<![if !supportFootnotes]>[7]<![endif]>  The goal of mission is also and primarily that the Gentiles among whom the gospel is manifested become believers who offer themselves<![if !supportFootnotes]>[8]<![endif]> as those in whose life the power of God is to be manifested for other people.  

 

d.  How does one carry out this mission? 

 

Thus, the missionary’s ministry soon has another goal.  Beyond manifesting the power of the gospel, this ministry involves acknowledging, affirming and upholding what God is doing in and through other people.  These new believers are people who are themselves manifestations of God or of Christ for us; they bear revelations and gifts from God.  This is expressed in 15:1-2, 5, as becomes clear in the following translation:

 

We who are strong are indebted<![if !supportFootnotes]>[9]<![endif]> to uphold<![if !supportFootnotes]>[10]<![endif]> the weaknesses of the weak, and not to affirm<![if !supportFootnotes]>[11]<![endif]> ourselves.  Each of us must affirm our neighbor for<![if !supportFootnotes]>[12]<![endif]> (with respect to) the good that our neighbor has, in order to build up the neighbor. . .  May the God of perseverance and encouragement give you to have the same mind toward one another as [you have] toward<![if !supportFootnotes]>[13]<![endif]> Christ Jesus.  (15:1-2, 5 DP)

 

Paul begins this section by emphasizing that we are “indebted.”  To whom?  In brief, to other believers.  Paul declares in 15:1 that he and the strong believers are indebted to the weak believers.  In 15:27, Gentile believers are indebted to the saints at Jerusalem.  In 1:14 (“I am a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish”), he is indebted to all those to whom he brings the gospel, be they honorable, such as the Greeks and the wise, or despicable, such as the barbarians and the foolish.  Surprising as it may seem at first, this means that for Paul we have received and continue to receive from others valuable gifts from God.  This is true regarding all believers—including the weak.  In their weaknesses, they bring to us a gift from God for which we are indebted to them.  Our puzzlement is overcome as soon as we remember what Paul says elsewhere about weakness, for instance, when he writes, speaking about the “thorn in the flesh”: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses . . . for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:9-10).   Thus, we (Paul and the strong, as well as present-day missionaries) should uphold the weaknesses of the weak. But this is not in the sense of condescending to patiently bear with the failings of the weak (an understanding expressed, for instance, in the NRSV translation of Rom 15:1:  “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak”).  Rather it is in the sense that we should discern in the weak and their weaknesses “what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2)—or, in other words, the gifts of God they bring to us and for which we are indebted to them. 

Therefore, rather than flattering ourselves by affirming the “good” we bring to others, we should affirm others by pointing out what God has done in them and the gift they bring to us from God.  This is the ultimate goal of the missionaries’ ministry.  Recognizing that the new believers are now the body of Christ (12:5), the missionaries should have the same attitude (“have the same mind”) toward these believers as they have toward Christ.  The missionaries should “not think of [themselves] more highly than they ought to think” (Rom 12:3).   By recognizing others as Christ-like- -as the body of Christ, as people that they should regard as better than themselves (Phil 2:3, “in humility regard others as better than yourselves”)- -the missionaries have worked themselves out of a job.  The mission is now carried by the new believers, and the “missionaries” are now those who benefit from this mission.   

 

*  *  *

During the second round-table each member of the group discusses the differences between her/his own interpretation and two of the preceding scholarly interpretations and the similarities between her/his own interpretation with one of these scholarly interpretations.  In this way, each will become more aware of the choices she/he has made.

 

PREPARING OURSELVES FOR A THIRD ROUND-TABLE DISCUSSION

ON ROMANS 15 AND MISSION

 

            The third round-table is now a discussion of the pros and cons of each of the interpretations found in the group and of the three types of scholarly interpretation presented above.  The members of the group are now aware that there are several plausible and legitimate interpretations and thus that each has a choice between different readings of Romans 15 and different views of mission.  Thus during the third round-table the members of the group are expected to seek to discern among the various teachings about mission found in Rom 15, what is the most helpful teaching about mission for their particular context and time.  All the readings of Rom 15 and all the ways of thinking mission with Paul are on the table.  We, as a group, need now to assess these readings and either reach a consensus that one interpretation is “better” than the others in the present situation, or agree to disagree—for instance, because we have different needs in our particular contexts.  Here also, basic convictions about what is mission and what is the gospel come to the surface.  Thus, it is important to remember that this assessment of the relative values of interpretations needs to be conducted by following two essential sets of issues that reflect the twofold summary of the Law:  Is this choice of an interpretation the best when one thinks in terms of basic convictions and values that Christian believers might have (“loving God”)?   Is this choice of an interpretation the best when one thinks of who benefits from it and who is hurt by it (“loving neighbors”)?   How are these two kinds of assessment fitting together?   Now that it is clear that much is at stake in our choice of one view or another of Paul’s teaching about mission, we can expect a passionate debate among the members of the group.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Campbell, William S.  Paul's Gospel in an Intercultural Context: Jew and Gentile in the Letter to the Romans.  Frankfurt am Main & New York: P. Lang,  1991,

 

Dunn, James D. G. Romans, Word Biblical Commentary 38a, 38b   Dallas, Texas:  Word Books, 1988.

 

Elliott, Neil. Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle.  Maryknoll, N.Y. : Orbis Books, 1994.

 

Fitzmyer, Joseph A. S.J., Romans; A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary Anchor Bible.  New York:  Doubleday, 1993.

 

Käsemann, Ernst. Commentary on Romans.  Translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley.  Grand Rapids. Michigan;  Eerdmans, 1980.

 

Stendahl, Krister. Paul:  Between Jews and Gentiles.  Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1976. 

 

Stowers, Stanley K.  A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

 

Stuhlmacher, Peter. Paul's Letter to the Romans: a Commentary.  Translated by Scott J. Hafemann. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.

 

------------ ,  Revisiting Paul's Doctrine of Justification: a Challenge to the New Perspective / with an essay by Donald A. Hagner Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2001.

 

Witherington, Ben III  with Darlene Hyatt,  Paul’s Letter to the Romans:  A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan & Cambridge, U.K.:  Eerdmans, 2004.

 

 

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<![if !supportFootnotes]>[1]<![endif]>   I quote from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) unless otherwise noted (adding emphases at times).  In other cases, I quote from the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) or provide my own translation (DP).

<![if !supportFootnotes]>[2]<![endif]>   A literal, somewhat awkward, rendering, of 15:19 reads: “I have fulfilled the gospel of Christ” (DP) and 15:20 says that he “gospelized.”

<![if !supportFootnotes]>[3]<![endif]>            A way of reading Paul which was initiated in the modern period by Krister Stendahl (1976) and is exemplified by William S. Campbell,  Neil Elliott, and  Stanley K. Stowers’s studies of Romans.  Many commentaries, including those by James Dunn, Joseph Fitzmyer, Ben Witherington, tend to incorporate features of this “new perspective” in their own distinctive interpretations. 

 

<![if !supportFootnotes]>[4]<![endif]>   This interpretation chooses, among possible translations of 3:22, the translation from the Greek which is actually the most literal, although it was left aside by centuries of interpretations.  In this translation, Rom 3:21-22 reads:  But now, apart from law, the righteousness/justice of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets,  the righteousness/justice of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe”   (DP).

 

<![if !supportFootnotes]>[5]<![endif]>  The aorist  passive participle, doqei/sa,n,  can refer to any time in the past, and in particular to the time of the writing of the letter, also referred to by an aorist,  e;graya in 15:15, as well as to the time of his ministry.

<![if !supportFootnotes]>[6]<![endif]>  Using the verb khru,ssw that he also uses in 2:21 about another kind of preaching. 

<![if !supportFootnotes]>[7]<![endif]>   Here as in the first interpretation, “offering of the Gentiles” in Rom 15:16   is read as a reference  to Paul offering the Gentiles to God (an objective genitive).

<![if !supportFootnotes]>[8]<![endif]>   Here as in the second interpretation, “offering of the Gentiles” in Rom 15:16  is read as a reference to “the Gentiles offering themselves” to God (a subjective genitive).

<![if !supportFootnotes]>[9]<![endif]>    Here, as in 1:14, 8:12, 13:8, and 15:27, Paul uses the concept of “indebtedness” a key concept defining relationships among members of a community governed by the honor and shame system.  Not acknowledging one’s indebtedness to others and thus failing to uphold and affirm them is shameful.

<![if !supportFootnotes]>[10]<![endif]>    As the root upholds the branches of a tree, Rom. 11:18.

 

<![if !supportFootnotes]>[11]<![endif]>    Here I translate the verb avre,skein by “to affirm,” rather than the more literal “to please” or “to flatter,” because the latter two have somewhat negative connotations, which the verb does not have in 15:2 where it is used again. 

<![if !supportFootnotes]>[12]<![endif]>    The preposition eivj can be viewed as a marker of goals (see Bauer-Danker, eivj 4), in which case, the translation treats it as a duplicate of pro.j found in the next phrase.  I choose to view it as a marker of a specific point of reference, translating by “for” (i.e., with respect to, with reference to) (see Bauer-Danker, eivj 5). 

<![if !supportFootnotes]>[13]<![endif]>   The preposition kata. is here a marker of similarity:  according to, in accordance with, in conformity with  (see Bauer-Danker, kata. 5):  in conformity to [something about] Christ.  The first and second readings understand “in conformity to what Christ has done,” thus, following the example of Christ –a translation that befits the rest of their interpretation.   This third interpretation understands “in conformity to your attitude toward Christ.”  This latter translation relates this verse to the preceding one that underscores that this attitude toward others is so that “we might have hope” (15:4b).