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"Badges of Membership": Part II

The object of worship is, for Paul, the most foundational distinguishing badge between his Christian communities and pagan communities, on the one hand, and Jewish communities, on the other. The God who is the object of Christian belief and confession is a markedly different God than the God confessed by both Jews and pagans, and the worship of this Christian God serves as an “identity-marker,” as a badge of those who belong within Paul’s communities.
Over against the polytheism or pantheism of the pagan religions, Paul maintains a Jewish emphasis upon monotheism.[5] Thus, in 1 Cor 8.4, he argues that the idols count as nothing because “there is no God but one.”[6] Furthermore, this Pauline monotheism also stands in stark distinction from certain Hellenistic philosophies that embrace monotheism as a means of advancing syncretism and tolerance within a pluralistic society.[7] Within his Gentile mission, Paul embraces exclusionary monotheism as a badge that defines his communities over and against the pagan communities, who carry “idolatry” as a fundamental badge of their identity.[8]
However, the monotheistic worship of Paul’s communities is also to be distinguished from the equally exclusive monotheism of Judaism. This is so because the Christ-event and Pentecost cause Paul to rework his understanding of monotheism in three significant ways. First, in Paul’s epistles, “we see a remarkable ‘overlap’ in functions between God and Jesus, and also in the honorific rhetoric used to refer to them both.”[9] Thus, “[t]he story of Jesus is not a mere illustration of the divine identity; Jesus himself and his story are intrinsic to the divine identity.”[10] Therefore, passages like Col 1.15-20 and Phil 2.5-11 ascribe to Jesus attributes and roles that, within Judaism, are reserved for the one God alone. Indeed, in 1 Cor 8.6, Paul goes so far as to rework the Shema, the ultimate Jewish profession of the oneness of God, in order to include Jesus within that oneness.[11] This, then, relates to the second point: YHWH is now redefined as the Father of Jesus, who raised Jesus from the dead.[12] This transformation of God’s identity in light of the sonship, cross, and resurrection of Jesus causes “a structural shift in [Paul’s] whole pattern of beliefs.”[13] Third, and finally, one must note the ways in which Paul incorporates the Spirit into the character of God.[14] Thus, we can conclude that Christ and the Spirit redefine both the people of God and the one true God.[15]
Therefore, over against the worship of the Jews, which Paul sees as fundamentally marked by the rejection of Jesus as the Christ, Paul’s communities embrace Jesus as Lord.[16] Indeed, because true worship has been rethought in light of Jesus and the Spirit, we discover that the worship practiced by Judaism is, according to Paul, “compromised with paganism.”[17] Thus, in Gal 4.1-11, Jewish worship becomes a means by which one is enslaved under the old gods, and it ceases to be a badge of those who know, and are known by, the one true God.
The fundamental outward expression of this badge within Paul’s community is confession. As Wayne Meeks asserts, it is confession of Jesus as Lord that is the “absolute boundary marker” between Christians and pagans, and it is the “distinctive boundary marker” between Christians and Jews.[18] Those who belong to Paul’s communities are most fundamentally demarcated by the confession that “Jesus is Lord.”[19] While the pagans are marked by idolatry and the worship of “many gods” and “many lords,” and while the worship of the Jews is fatally compromised because it rejects the Lordship of Jesus, Paul’s communities are marked by worship of one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus, and they make this confession by the power of the one Spirit.[20]
[5] N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 2; What Saint Paul Really Said, 59, 65-67; Paul, 91-101.
[6] For other explicitly monotheistic statements in Paul cf. esp. Ro 3.30; 1 Cor 8.6; Gal 3.20; 1 Thes 1.9.
[7] Cf. Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press), 165.
[8] It is almost redundant to identify “pagans” as “idolaters” but the point must be made because it has often been overlooked that this idolatry is, from Paul’s perspective, a fundamental identity-marker of a particular (i.e. pagan) community. Cf. 1 Cor 5.9-11; 6.9-10; 12.2; 2 Cor 6.16; Gal 5.19-20; Eph 5.5; Col 3.5; 1 Thes 1.9. A number of these references occur in so-called “vice lists” which will be further evaluated in Section III.
[9] Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 234; cf. 234-53.
[10] Richard Bauckham, God Crucified: Monotheism and Christology in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 69 et passim.
[11] Wright, The Climax of the Covenant, 125-29.
[12] Cf. Ro 4.24; 2 Cor 4.14; 2 Cor 1.9; Gal 1.1; Col 2.2; 1 Thes 1.10.
[13] Meeks, 180; cf. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant, 89; Michael Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 18.
[14] Cf. esp. 1 Cor 12.14-6; Gal 4.4-6; Eph 4.4-6.
[15] Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 73-74; cf. Bauckham, 76-77.
[16] On Paul’s understanding of the rejection of Christ as an identity marker of Judaism cf. Ro 9.32-33; 1 Cor 1.23.
[17] Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said, 137.
[18] Meeks, 164-80; cf. Rudolph Schnackenburg, The Church in the New Testament (trans. W. J. O’Hara; London: Burns & Oates, 1965), 130; Judith M. Gundry Volf, Paul & Perseverance: Staying In and Falling Away (Louisville: WJKP, 1990), 156.
[19] Cf. Ro 10.9-10; 1 Cor 12.3.
[20] Cf. 1 Cor 12.3; Gunther Bornkamm, Paul (trans. D. M. G. Stalker; New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 180; Gordon D. Fee, Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), 88. This is also the point at which one should explore the role of the sacraments as further expressions, alongside of confession, of the Christian badge of worship. However, given the complexities of the debate about the role of the sacraments in Paul’s theology, and given the limited scope of this article, we must leave that point aside.

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