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Missional Hermeneutic: Ephesians?

[Part one of a series that will be at least two parts long]

Darrell Guder recently visited Fuller’s campus to deliver the annual Payton Lectures. In his first of two public lectures Guder made the distinction between a maintenance-oriented church and a missional-oriented church.

Guder maintained that during the long period of time when the Church represented a dominant power structure in the Western world, Christians gradually shifted their understanding of the Church from being an outwardly oriented gathering that launched mission to being an inwardly oriented gathering that maintained believers. … The mission of the Church, Guder said, is “not saving souls and collecting them into communities, but the formation of new witnessing communities.”

This notion of missional vs. maintenance got me to thinking about the epistle to the Ephesians, specifically 5:3-14. On the whole I think Ephesians is a highly missional epistle. In many ways it is an identity-shaping letter for its largely Gentile recipients. Paul (I’m using this as shorthand for the epistle’s author, whether it be the actual Paul or not) takes great pains to remind his readers about who they are. They are a blessed people (1:3-14), who have been raised with Christ (2:1-10), who are a part of a new body that is neither Jewish (2:11-22) nor Gentile (4:17-24). Paul longs for them to understand the mystery of this new “formation” (to borrow a Guder term). Lying beneath this formation is an implicit and sometimes explicit (see 2:10) missional identity. Paul, to my mind, is not writing this letter to say to the Ephesians (another shorthand term, see kata ta biblia for more on this), “Hey guys, you are a new body, act like it!” His is not a maintenance only letter. There is a reason for his reminding the Ephesians of their blessings, of their identity, of their learning Christ (4:20). There is good reason for Paul to exhort the community to make every effort to keep the unity (4:3) and to take care how it walks (5:15). There is certainly a bit of “Because you are God’s dwelling place” (2:22) rationale for this exhortation, but it seems to be more than that. There seems to be a missional element to the whole letter. The Ephesian community, as all missional communities, is the “fullness” of Christ “who fills everything in every way” (1:22). They, and we, have the same “incomparably great power” that God “exerted when God raised Christ from the dead and seated Christ at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms” (1:20). Indeed they, and we, have been raised and seated with Christ in order to make known God’s incomparably great riches (2:6-7), to do good works (2:10), to do immeasurably more than anything we ask or imagine (3:20).

With that in mind, we must read all of the paraenetic material in the second half of the epistle.

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1 Comment»

  Tyler Watson wrote @

Great post. Ephesians has been a favorite book for a while, since there is so much there in terms of “formation.” But most of my life, I’ve understood formation as good for the sake of formation. Guder and others have kicked my butt to remind me that we’re shaped for a purpose. Your reading of Ephesians excites me greatly. Thanks for this.


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