Fortunately for us, Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 do not stand alone. In another letter to the Corinthians, chapters 8 & 9 of what we call 2 Corinthians, Paul felt compelled to further encourage the Corinthians to follow through on their commitment to the poor saints in Jerusalem.
This is fortunate because we have a wonderful opportunity to observe how Paul attempts to persuade the Corinthians to contribute to the needs of a group of people unlike themselves–the potential recipients are economically deprived (poor), ethnically Jewish (racial bias), geographically distant (why should we help people way over there?), and politically distinct (Jerusalem was synonmous with Jewish nationalism). Paul attempts to persuade wealthy Gentiles in Achaia to help poor Jews in Jerusalem. There is tremendous ethnic and nationalistic prejudice lying beneath the surface of this venture. There is much to overcome here.
We have the privildege to overhear how Paul theologically grounds the collection for the saints. We see the inner workings of Paul’s theology as he provides a theological-biblical rationale for the collection itself. We see Paul’s own hermeneutic at work–its biblical base, theological grounding and specific application. Perhaps it provides some guidelines (even model?) for how we should do our own hermeneutical work.
What He Does Not Do
He does not command the Corinthians to give. He explicitly states: “I am not commanding you…” (2 Corinthians 8:8). It is not a command, but a “test” of the “sincerity of their love.” I think I would rather have a command myself! Give me a command; give me some specificity; tell me how much. I can do that. But to act out of the authenticity of my love is much more demanding. It calls me to imitate God, to be like God, to share like God. My selfish heart would rather have a command to tithe.
He does not demand they obey the pattern some think is in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4. Paul does not remind them of the ”prescription” (as some would call it) of his previous letter. He does not illuminate the pattern. He does not give details about how this is a pattern within the new covenant, that it is necessary to obey to be a faithful church, and he does not describe the pattern or itemize its particulars. He does not specify the laws that govern this “act of worship” and remind them of the dire consequences of neglecting it. This would have been a perfect opportunity for Paul to explain to the Corinthians (if he had not previously) how their congregation must follow the pattern that God showed Paul just as God showed Moses the pattern for the tabernacle. Perhaps he does not do this because there is no such thing like what God showed Moses.
He does not draw a line in the “fellowship” sand concerning the collection. Paul does not make their contribution a matter of fellowship or communion with him. Their lack of participation would be an embarrassment, it would be a failing, it would be a lack of grace on their part, but it would not be a violation of some legal pattern. The failure would be the failure to imitate Jesus and not the failure to practice the pattern many have envisioned.
In other words, Paul does not do what many CEI patternists tend to do and have done on countless Sundays over the past century. Paul does not say, “you are commanded to give every first day of the week, and if you don’t you are not faithful to the pattern God established.” How often have we heard every Sunday, “We are commanded to give on the first day of the week.” Historically, Churches of Christ have been concerned to outline the “laws” that govern or regulate the practice of giving; to insist on everyone giving every frist day of the week as part of the assembly because it is part of the pattern for the church. We isolate 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 in order to fit it into the puzzle we are trying to solve, that is, the pattern we are seeking to construct (the patternistic temple we are building). We treat 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 as a legal prescription that belongs to the exclusive pattern of “five acts of worship” instead of recognizing that it is actually one among many embodiments of the grace of God overflowing through us into the lives of others. The latter is how Paul viewed it, but the former is what Enlightenment Baconian Regulative Constitutional Patternism has created.
What He Does Do
So, what does Paul do hermeneutically to encourage the Corinthians to contribute to the fund for the poor saints in Jerusalem? This deserves much more attention than I can give in a single post. Nevertheless, below is a brief outline of Paul’s thoughts.
Ultimately, Paul does not use a two-step method such as ”This is the legal pattern; do it.” Rather, he calls us to the grace of God, embracing its meaning and embodying its practice. It is the theology that calls us, not a legal pattern. Paul’s theological exposition, I think, reflects the (1) theological substance of God’s own life; (2) the redemptive-historical practice of that life among God’s covenant people; and (3) the metanarrative (or symbolic world) that is the story of God among his people. For a fuller picture of these three categories, read my post that summarizes them.
1. Fundamental Theological Substance: Grace. There are ten occurrences of the term “grace” in these two chapters (8:1,4,6,7,9,16,19; 9:8,14,15)–the highest concentration in the New Testament. Giving is a “grace” God gives which rebounds to God’s own praise and thanksgiving. Literally, the text affirms that God gives “grace” to us so that we might “grace” others with the result that “grace” is given to God–God graces us to grace others who, in response, grace God. It flows from God’s own life and character to his people so that it might flow through them to others and thus back to God. The purpose of ministry (8:4; 9:13) to the poor is to glorify God. Whether the poor are known or unknown, Jew or Gentile, is unimportant, the primary motive is the glory of God in mutual fellowship. We do not give to the poor out of mere compassion for the poor as if it were some humanistic duty, but that God might be glorified and that we might participate in God’s own life and ministry. God’s own grace (creation, providence, redemption; cf. 8:9, 9:8-11,15), and the glory that will rebound to him, are the theological values which motivate gifts to the poor. Giving to the poor embodies a commitment to the grace of the gospel itself (9:13).
2. Redemptive-historical application: Reading the Christian story through the lens of Israel. Paul draws on redemptive history in at least three ways in this text. (1) God’s gift of manna in the wilderness exhibits the principle of equity: the needy will be supplied out of the abundance of the wealthy so that all may have what they need (8:13-15). (2) He quotes Psalm 112:9 (2 Corinthians 9:9)–the paradigm of the “blessed person”–as a model for the wealthy sharing with the poor, that is, God has given us seed (wealth) to be scattered. The redeemed community should imitate God’s own scattering of his gifts to the poor (Psalm 111 blesses God and the righteous person of Psalm 112 is a mirror image of God’s attributes described in Psalm 111). (3) Deuteronomy 15 lurks in the background as the language is very similar. Just as God had blessed Israel so that there should be no poor among them, Israel should give generously without a grudging heart (Deuteronomy 15:10; 2 Corinthians 9:7). Paul uses the language of Deuteronomy 15 to encourage the Corinthians.
The redemptive story continues among the churches of God. Paul draws on the model of the Macedonian disciples in order to convict the Corinthians and wants the Corinthians to be an example to others (8:24). The on-going story of God among the Macedonians teaches the Corinthians too!
3. Theological Center: The Christ Event. The incarnation itself, however, is Paul’s primary paradigm–Christ became poor that we might become rich (8:9) which is God’s indescribable gift (9:15). He does not command in this text but tests their love because they should know the love of Christ who became poor for their sakes. If Christ did this for the Corinthians, then they should do this for the saints in Jerusalem. We follow Jesus into poverty in order that the needs of others might be supplied.
We see Paul’s hermeneutic at work here. He does not lay down a pattern–”This is the way the church ought to do ’X’ as a legal pattern; so, do it this way.” Rather, he seeks to instill in his readers a theological dynamic–a way of looking at the world through the eyes of God–which moves them to give as God gives. No pattern is offered except what God himself has done. This is what we emulate; this is what we imitate. We imitate God; we imitate Jesus who is the image of God.
Paul calls the Corinthians to imitate the theology embedded in the Moasic law and redemptive history. God has always been the same–he loves the poor, calls his people to care for the poor, and share their resources with the poor so that there are no poor among the people of God. Paul calls the Corinthians to imitate the Macedonians because they display that theological dynamic. We are not called to reproduce or duplicate the churches of the New Testament. Rather, we are called to imitate them as they imitate Jesus who is the image of God. That, to me, is the essence of a more simple hermeneutic.
How do we follow Paul’s hermeneutic or use it as a guideline for our own thinking? What does that look like? More to come…..stay tuned.