A life-giving world-changing community envisioned by Paul (Part 1)

[The article below was originally published in Zadok Perspectives, Spring, 2012, pages 19–21. I will post the article as a series in this blog. The article is used with permission from the editor of Zadok Perspectives. I have slightly edited the article.]


I love the Scripture. I also believe that God loves the poor and that we are called to proclaim Christ as the king and Lord of the cosmos. For nearly seven years I worked in an overseas relief and development organisation. My job was to engage with Australian Christians about issues of poverty and injustice. To be honest, I found it a very difficult job. There are two main reasons. The first is that theologically there seems to be a polarisation of views between those who put emphasis on evangelism and those who believe in social justice. The second reason is that socially many Christians have little contact with the poor and it is hard for them to understand what it means to be living in poverty.

I have come to realise that it is far better to use real examples to illustrate what poverty and mission look like in practice. In this article I will first outline a contemporary mission challenge in Taiwan. I will then share stories about my own personal experience in poverty overseas and what I have learned in an inner-city community in Melbourne. It is also vital to study the Scripture and allow the biblical texts to speak to us, rather than allowing polarised theological presuppositions to dominate the discussion. I have, therefore, selected Romans 12:9–16 for our discussion below. In doing so I will draw our attention to some recent research on the social condition of early Christianity, and see how it may bring fresh insights into Paul’s theology and mission.

Working class in Asia

My involvement in mission has alerted me to a phenomenon in Taiwan. The working class in Taiwan makes up two thirds of the population. They are factory workers, taxi drivers, shop workers and small business owners. They are mostly uneducated. Most of them are involved in Taoism, Buddhism, ancestor worship and other folk religions. Despite more than 100 years of missionary activities in Taiwan, less than 0.5% of the working-class people are Christians. But there are many churches in Taiwan, except that their members are typically middle-class and educated. It is recognised that working-class people find it hard to fit into these churches. About 2.6% of the overall population in Taiwan are Protestants, and 1.3% Catholics. This means that not a few non-working-class people are Christians. Realising the needs of the working class in Taiwan, missionaries from organisations like OMF live among them, seek to identify with their struggles, and endeavour to reach out to the most marginalised people in their midst. [a]

I have not undertaken research into why there are few churches among the working class in Taiwan. But the situation reminds me of my own working-class background in another Asian country. I was born in a relatively poor urban neighbourhood. As a child I had to work in a factory so that we could make ends meet. Everyone in the family worked long hours in order to survive. We didn’t have a bedroom and the whole family slept in one bed. I find that people can understand these facts intellectually, but it is harder to recognise the anxiety and fear that are associated with these living conditions.

Working long hours for the sake of survival is not only tiring but also emotionally draining. When children have to work they don’t have time to play with their friends, and are deprived of a normal childhood experience. When a teenage girl has no bedroom she doesn’t have any privacy. Then there is the constant fear that the whole family will go further into the downward spiral of poverty. Indeed life in that situation is very stressful. Depression, mental illness and family breakdowns are all too common. I can say from my own experience that it was a life that I would rather forget, for it brings back horrifying memories.

[To be continued here.]

[a] Source: http://www.omf.org/omf/taiwan/ministry_in_taiwan/our_ministries (accessed on 10th June 2012).

Timothy Gombis on Paul’s Letter to the Romans

Tim Gombis has written a series of blog posts on Romans. He reads Romans as a pastoral letter. I think his reading is insightful. Click on the links below to have a look.

What sort of text is Romans?

Paul’s ‘Gospel’ ministry in Romans

Paul’s ministry of mutuality

Paul’s apostleship and God’s mission

Paul’s confidence in the gospel

Paul, Habakkuk and faithful improvisation

No one has an inside track with God

Justification and the unity of God’s people

Faithful readings of the law foster unity

God’s universal sovereignty and church unity

Ephesians, not Romans, represents Paul’s theology

Body language in Romans, Part 1

Body language in Romans, Part 2

Body language in Romans, Part 3

Paul sends Abraham to Rome

Justifying the “ungodly”

Scripture behaving badly in Rome

The law’s return to Rome

Tim Gombis on American politics and evangelicals

Tim Gombis has just written an insightful blog post entitled “Paul’s politics of exile,” which is about Jeremiah 29 and Romans 13:1-7. Here is his concluding paragraph.

“American evangelicals would do well to consider how Israel’s exile shaped Paul’s conception of the church—his vision of a weak and vulnerable wandering people among the nations.  We feel that we’re losing power, influence, access, our former position of political leverage and cultural dominance.  We grow worrisome, anxious, nervous about the sort of future our churches will face and the conditions our children will encounter.  I’ll just suggest to you that this might be a strategic moment for us to embrace our identity as God’s wandering people among the nations.  It just may be that this emerging moment of cultural weakness is God’s gift to his church.  What if it’s an opportunity for the God revealed in the crucified Jesus to press his people into the shape of the cross?  What if the Lord of the church is grieved when we strive for power and agitate to control the course of history?  Do we risk being blind to Paul’s vision for the polis of Jesus because we’re overcome by cultural resentment fueled by memories of former days when our opinions held sway?”

I think this is relevant to Australian Christians and their behaviour in the public square. Tim Gombis’ original blog post can be found here.

For me, what is profound about Romans 13:1-7 is that it is bracketed by 12:9-21 and 13:8-10, and both of these passages are about love. Romans 12:9-21 is about love within the Christ-community and love for outsiders, which is characterised by “repaying evil with good.” Romans 13:8-13 is about the love commandment, “love your neighbour as yourself.”