December 14, 2009

Paul and Church Order—J. D. G. Dunn

Continuing my multi-author look at church order in Paul's letters takes me to James D. G. Dunn's perspective as displayed in the chapter, "Ministry and authority" in his massive Theology of Paul the Apostle. Dunn begins his characteristically thorough treatment with a survey of some of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century discussion around the issue, highlighting especially the discussion about the church structure mirrored in Paul's letters as one of "office" verses one of "charism," a debate which occurred largely in protestant circles but also emerged in Roman Catholic ones, especially as can be seen in some of the changes that took place in Vatican II. Dunn concludes that the importance of Paul's "charismatic" vision can't be questioned but that a further step must be taken, in looking at how Paul's churches actually implemented that vision, since his understanding of the church as a charismatic community shouldn't be taken as a complete ecclesiology or a complete set of instructions on church order.

Dunn's first step, after the historical survey, is to look at Paul's own apostolic authority and how it was exercised. A few insights prove helpful here. One is that Paul exercised his authority from within the community, to equip the community. Dunn observes that Paul exercises a lot of restraint in the use of his authority, rarely if ever calling for "obedience" to him but instead seeking to convince and persuade. A second salient point is that Paul sees even his own authority as subordinate to the gospel and limited in scope to his own apostolic commission.

With regard to other leaders in the congregations, Dunn makes a number of observations. One that is quite interesting is that apart from the possible mention in Phil 4:3, Paul makes no appeal to church leaders to fix a situation or handle a problem, nor does he rebuke the leadership for the failure of a church on a particular issue; instead he makes his appeals to the gathered assemblies in toto. While there are clearly people who take up certain roles or hold various leadership positions in his churches, Paul seems to envision his congregations as an integrated whole who are all responsible for these important matters. (The situation of the Pastoral Epistles is slightly different here; Dunn regards them as later developments in the Pauline tradition, but even considering them Pauline doesn't change the aforementioned situation too much since the type of authority being exercised by Timothy or Titus is more akin to Paul's own authority that it would be to that of a local elder or overseer.)

A second observation Dunn makes is that there is a careful interplay between charism and office, with the former spoke of more than the latter. Prophecy serves as a good illustration of this: Dunn asserts that "prophetic authority derived from prophetic inspiration," and "prophets didn't prophecy because they were prophets; they were prophets because they prophesied" (582). He goes on to assert that prophetic authority also wasn't limited to prophets (others could seek this gift as well), and further, that prophetic authority was subject to the assessment and discernment of others. The position of "teacher" functions similarly.

To me, this seems to mean that, while clearly envisioning a position of "authority" for those designated "prophets," this paints a much more fluid and interdependent picture of how that particular position worked than we might think of today, with categories like ordination and office being more natural and familiar to our thinking about church order.

Dunn concludes by reflecting that the canon includes both Paul's earlier letters and the later Pastoral Epistles, meaning we must hold the two together in some way, even though he sees somewhat divergent tendencies, but he concludes that while we the Pastorals show some level of routinizing and institutionalizing of the more charismatic structure evident earlier, the two elements can and must be held together.

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