“Yet I have written you quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again, because of the grace God gave me to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles.” Romans 15:15
It is worth remembering that Paul was writing from Corinth toward the end of a fifteen-year period where he had pioneered the proclamation of the gospel to a sector of the Roman world from Jerusalem to Illyricum, (approximately 20 million people and about a third of the Roman Empire). His eyes were now looking to Spain. He had carried a long term desire to visit Rome and during a three-month stay in Corinth, he penned the letter to the Roman church that is the first of thirteen in the New Testament that bear his signature.
It is evident from the last chapter of Romans that Paul knew quite a few people in the church there. There is no definitive information about how or when the church was planted. It is possible that Jews who visited Jerusalem for Passover and Pentecost (Acts 2) are possible suspects. We also know that during the reign of Claudius Jews were expelled from Rome and two of those were followers of Jesus: Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18). The many greetings in Romans 16 are impressive from the point of view that Paul names at least 27 different individuals and refers to at least five groups, probably house churches. That’s a lot of people to know by name. The message being shouted across the centuries is about close networks that develop between leaders like Paul and others who shared the ‘NoPlaceLeft’ vision.
Regardless of who planted the church in Rome, Paul’s words indicate that there was a special relationship between them. He has the qualification and the willingness to speak apostolically to them. In our part of the Christian world, we would refer to this as an apostolic connection. It has almost nothing to do with a different but more common form of authority in our world. I speak of the authority that is associated with a particular position or rank within an organization. In the case of Paul his boldness to write and the assumption that believers in Rome would hear and receive what was written has nothing to do with human status or position. It has to do with what is inside Paul and the relationship he has with the people to whom he is writing.
What was inside of Paul, put there by the Holy Spirit was what he described here,
“the grace God gave to me to be a minister of Jesus Christ (i.e. a servant) to the Gentiles.”
We know a lot of the things that happened to Paul. It started on the Damascus road encounter, then years of relative obscurity (though probably he was preaching the gospel in Arabia and in his home town of Tarsus), then to Antioch as part of the leadership team with Barnabas. Fifteen years later he has seen this “grace” give birth to churches that create Jesus-looking communities among people who were formerly separated by ethnicity, religious background or social status. It is not just the capacity to plant churches. It is the ability to see supernatural community. That’s what makes this apostolic.
Paul knows how this works. It comes from Holy Spirit revelation and its implementation. He also knows how to address the issues that rise up when these diversely drawn people get into trouble along the way. His boldness is not because he happens to be an alpha-male personality type. It comes from the revelation he has received from heaven and its revolutionary effect on his life. Again and again in the letters of Paul, he hauls the believers back to the pathway that had been forged in his passionate relationship with Jesus. These convictions were not simply downloaded in the hallowed sanctity of a room with a desk and walls covered in books. It was hammered out in all of the places where he had been obedient to the vision from heaven. It was sharpened in the face of suspicion and harsh criticism from some of the influential church leaders, and yet it carried the commendation of the apostles in Jerusalem and the council of leaders who met to resolve contentious issues. (Acts 15). It would have been there with or without formal human recognition. As he says in this same chapter, the “signs” of apostleship were from heaven, not from the earth.
It is also true that Paul’s apostolic ministry was attested by his ability to speak “boldly” to a group of people, many of whom he didn’t know personally. He was able to do so because he was appealing to the other side of this same coin. For apostolic connections to be genuine, there needs to be a Holy Spirit recognition in the hearts of the people of God. We know that many others went about claiming they were apostles (see e.g. 2 Corinthians) but where the outcome was to call people away from Christ toward various personality cults. Often these associations involved significant amounts of money going into the coffers of these same apostles. How amazing that so little has changed over the centuries.
Paul admits he has
“written quite boldly on some points to remind you of them again…”
Without reference to individuals, as he does elsewhere, he writes to a people in Rome from a distinct knowledge of their circumstances. He is certainly not writing a doctrinal thesis. He writes to resolve issues that challenge the integrity of the gospel and of the community it produced.
“I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” (Romans 1)
If Paul is offering solutions to problems, we can ask the question: “If this is the solution, then what were the problems needing Holy Spirit revelation? Here is my summary:
- Separation between Jew and Gentile disciples and the discriminatory assumption that Jews were intrinsically better than Gentiles because of their history and traditions (Ch. 1-5)
- The idea that a failure to abide by traditional Jewish customs and practices would lift restraint and people would be encouraged to sin even more (Ch. 6-8)
- Discrimination toward Jews by Gentiles based on the fact that their generation had largely rejected the Messiah (Ch. 9-11)
- The idea that status in the church was related to position rather than everyone being equal but having different gifts and anointing (Ch. 12).
- Attitudes of disrespect and rebellion toward civil authorities, no doubt arising from many instances of injustice or mistreatment (Ch.13)
- People being maligned because they hold different views on certain ritual practices – a situation that would only be resolved with love (Ch.14).
Paul speaks in a straightforward way because he is bringing core revelation to issues that are catalyzed by deep feelings and fiery emotion. He brings revelation God has given him for these very issues. If there was one subject that Paul found himself addressing from the beginning of his ministry to the end, it was the ones raised around the relationship between the message of the gospel and the traditional heritage of Judaism. Of course, it was the issue for Jesus as well. It is clear that church communities throughout the Gentile provinces were always going to have difficulty with these matters and were almost always confused by them. The church in Antioch was confused by a visit from the “circumcision group” (Galatians 2). The Galatians ended up with a false gospel for the same reason (Galatians 1,2). The Colossians were similarly challenged (Colossians 2). It was like a plague in the early church. So when Paul wrote to the Roman believers, he again challenged the foundations for this kind of division.
The universal issue here is the need for genuine apostolic connections. Paul told the Ephesians that the church is to be built on the foundation of apostles and prophets (Ephesians 2). The plumb line of those ministries is the whether they draw people to become more like Jesus Christ. There can be no substance in the view that elevates this ministry to the top of some kind of pyramid structure, nor should apostolic ministry to be equated with exceptional leadership ability. Paul’s apostolic ministry amounted to an authority to keep the churches purely and sincerely devoted to Jesus. When they lost touch with Jesus and the gospel he jealously challenged them to get reconnected.
Paul’s apostolic authority was not something he put on and put off depending on the circumstances. He had authority because on the inside he was jealous for the purity of the gospel message. It was the only message with the power to rescue both Jew and Gentile, and only this message would join people to the “NoPlaceLeft” cause. He is very clear about that in Romans 15. He wants to share ministry with them for their encouragement, and he also wants them to share his commitment to preach the gospel where Christ was not known. In this instance it was Spain. In our case, it would be every person in our spheres who knows nothing of the saving grace of Jesus.
Without apostolic connections churches and their leaders will give way to compromise. It is the record of both Christian history and current experience. No surprise that this is probably the most neglected of all activities in most Christian churches. It is neglected by the predominance of leadership models that are derived from human wisdom rather than divine unction. In many cultures leaders are either treated like rock stars on the one hand or dirt on the other. As a result, it is not just the leadership provision that is lacking but its fruit. Churches morph into comfortable tribal associations and lose both the capacity and the heart for a NoPlaceLeft enterprise.
Hardly anyone wants to do this. Most people are fearful, or too comfortable or too self-indulgent. It will take apostolic presence and apostolic authority to challenge and encourage, train and support. The fact that we have so little practical connections with genuine apostolic leadership is part of the reason our discipleship culture is so compromised. Even though apostolic presence may not be cozy and comfortable, it is essential if we are going to re-discover the grieving heart of God for the people he loves who are lost from him. In Paul’s case, his lifestyle and his message would not allow anyone in his company to stray far from the gospel cause without being lovingly but powerfully challenged to go where they feared to go and do what they were not naturally capable of doing. When this happens, the NoPlaceLeft goal becomes achievable. Believers and especially their leaders need to find good quality apostolic connections. We need to pray for them, be bold in seeking them and be generous in responding to them.
May God raise up many wonderful, humble servants who are willing to put themselves last in the line so that God can use the ordinary believers to carry a Holy Spirit fire that will not be quenched either by the deceitfulness of Western materialism or the intimidations of totalitarian regimes. From current world experience, it seems that the former are more effective than the latter. If there is going to be a capacity in local churches and groups of believers everywhere to effect a NoPlaceLeft vision, it will only come if apostolic leadership is understood, valued and embraced.