Book Review: Paul’s Idea of Community, by Robert Banks


It’s a dangerous thing to leave out part of the Bible—especially when you’re talking about whole books of it.  Everyone is aware of the debates about this or that sentence or paragraph, and whether they really belong to the original canon (the last verses of Mark, for example). But if there’s one thing we can say without much hesitation, it’s that if the Holy Spirit included a certain book in the Christian canon of Scripture, He probably had a good reason for it.  And Christians should pay attention to it.  The alternative is to end up with a whole mess of problems.

In a word, that’s the fatal error with Robert Banks’s Paul’s Idea of Community (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994).  It’s a very well-written book—well-organized, well-argued (for the most part), clear, and even illuminating at points. Yet sadly, Banks doesn’t even make it past page 3 before he writes a sentence which sinks his entire project from the start.  Here’s the offending member:

Since for me their place is uncertain, and yet it is unwise to be too dogmatic on the issue, I have discussed them [the Pastoral letters—1 and 2 Timothy, Titus] at the close of the book, where their compatibility or incompatibility with what is drawn from the other writings is left for the reader to gauge.

An unfortunate sentence, since it means Banks refuses to interact or even consider three whole books of the New Testament in his study of the church—at least until a short and equivocal appendix we’ll consider later.  You might imagine such an omission would lead Banks into error, maybe even into saying some things which are directly and specifically refuted by the Pastorals.  And of course, you’d be right.

Before we move on to the errors, however, let me make note of some really interesting parts of the book.  I don’t recommend buying it for these paragraphs, but if it’s sitting on your shelf already, it wouldn’t be a waste of time to check these out.  First and most importantly, Banks is right to emphasize the role of community in the church.  In an individualistic age like our own, it is good to hear someone saying that Christianity is not finally an individual matter—it is a corporate one.  Second, he also does some very good work on Paul’s historical context.  Chapter 1, “The Social and Religious Setting,” will give you a good, quick grasp of both first-century Judaism and the Hellenistic “mystery cults” which dominated the Roman religious scene.  (Chapter 2, by the way, is not so good, hamstrung as it is by Banks’s less-than-adequate conception of sin which leads him to put “freedom” at the center of Paul’s thought instead of salvation.) There is an interesting and fairly convincing section on the Greek word koinonia (56-57), which Banks argues should not be translated “fellowship” after all, and his section on the Lord’s Supper (80-85) is also worth giving some thought to. Finally, Banks provides some good ammunition against the idea of a provincial, national, or global church.  Baptists around the world will rejoice at a conclusion like this (42):

We find no suggestion here of a visible, earthly, universal church to which local gatherings are related as the part to the whole.  Nor does Paul speak of any organizational framework by which the local communities are bound together.  He nowhere prescribes an ecclesiastical polity of this kind and nowhere suggests that the common life that communities share should be made visible in this way.

As much as I can applaud the above sentences, they bring us to the first of several problems with the book.  Like many Christians before him, Banks rejects the idea of an invisible church consisting of all God’s people throughout time. The notion of a church “consisting of all those who are in Christ, whether living or not, to which the genuine members of “visible churches” also belong . . . has no basis in Paul’s teachings,” (39).  This is where I part company with Banks.  As I read the New Testament, there are several places where his definition of a church as “an actual gathering of people” (29-30) simply will not suffice.  Take, for example, Ephesians 5:25-27, where Paul says Christ gave himself up for the church, “so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”  That simply cannot be referring to any single local congregation.  Paul is using the word “church” to refer to all those for whom Christ died, and it is from such passages that the idea of an invisible church is drawn.  Banks answers this objection in chapter 4, “Church as Heavenly Reality,”  arguing that Paul has in mind not an invisible church or a universal church, but rather a “heavenly assembly within which [Christians] are already participating and whose culmination will take place on the Last Day,” (40).  “Christians,” he says,

belong both to a heavenly church that is permanently in session and to a local church that, though it meets regularly, is intermittent in character.  This means Christians are in a common relationship with Christ not only when they meet together—nor, for that matter, when they individually relate to him in thought and prayer—but at all times, wherever they are and whatever they do. (41)

That’s a fine way of putting it, but the idea really doesn’t seem much different from the traditional notion of an invisible church.  Everything Banks says about the “heavenly church” could be said with equal fitness about the invisible church.  As far as I can tell, Banks is not offering an alternative interpretation of Scripture; he is just giving a new name to an old idea.

There are other more important problems with the book, all stemming from Banks’s refusal to include the Pastoral epistles in his study.  Granted, the vast majority of secular scholarship dismisses Pauline authorship on these three letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus).  Nevertheless, that conclusion is far from monolithic, and many evangelicals have written on the problem.  D.A. Carson, Doug Moo, and Leon Morris, for example, address it in their Introduction to the New Testament, concluding there is no compelling reason at all to deny Paul’s authorship.

Banks addresses the letters in an appendix he calls “The Drift of the Pastorals,” an innocuous-enough sounding title until you read the first sentence of it:  “When did the drift away from Paul’s idea of community begin?” (emphasis mine, 193). In the same cheeky way, the next seven pages are filled with statements pointing out how the pastorals differ from the rest of Paul’s writing, and Banks even employs the time-honored and slightly weaselly tactic of using scare quotes.  An example:  “So we could have here a particular situation in which “Paul’s” words are to be interpreted . . .” Etc., etc., etc. (197).  Reading the first part of the appendix, you’d think Banks had no doubt at all that the pastorals were fake.  Yet in a model of studied ambiguity, the whole thing finally dissolves into the last sentences of the book:  “It is a close call.  But even if these letters were written by a follower of Paul, not the apostle himself, they are still canonical and still relevant to church life today, especially to situations encompassing tendencies and problems similar to those these letters address.”

Still canonical?  Still relevant?  If that’s the case, then why doesn’t Banks use them in his book?  If they’re canonical, then don’t push them off to an appendix. And if you’re so squeamish about them that you’re going to hide them in an appendix, then don’t try to throw the rest of us a bone by reaffirming that they’re “still” anything.  Be honest, reject them outright, and get on with it!

Of course, practically speaking, that’s what Banks does with the rest of his book.  He ignores the pastorals entirely and ends up in several different kinds of confusion.  He denies the existence of any church office, saying that terms likedeacon and elder referred simply to “tasks” a certain person would fulfill at a certain time (142-144).  But what about those qualifications Paul gives in I Timothy for elders and deacons?  Doesn’t that imply some sort of office, even if it is based on a prior disposition to perform the work?  Maybe, but Banks can conveniently ignore that.  I Timothy, after all, is a Pastoral.  He can also ignore I Timothy 2:12-15 and conclude instead that “Paul’s statements elsewhere imply that women had some share in teaching and exhorting in his communities.” (123)  It’s not clear whether Banks includes shepherding a church in that statement, but the fact that he’s ruled 1 Timothy out of order makes it easy to avoid such nasty distinctions and make a much broader statement.

The most objectionable page in the book, bar none, is page 108.  Having rightly stressed the importance of community in Paul’s idea of the church, he comes to the following egregious conclusion:

This means that the focal point of reference for Paul’s community is neither a book nor a rite, neither a code nor a cult, but a set of relationships.  God primarily communicates to them, not through the written word and tradition or mystical experience and cultic activity, but through one another.

Then he caps the whole thing off by saying that in light of Catholicism’s insistence on making a rite (the Eucharist) the center of its activities and Protestantism’s insistence on “placing a book at the center of its services,” Paul’s idea of the church based on neither is still revolutionary.  Talk about throwing the baby out with the bath water! I can lock elbows with him in attacking Rome’s idea of the Mass—not to mention the mystical and cultic junk that happens in many churches today.  But where does Banks get the idea that God speaks primarily through “each other” and not through His written word, the Bible?  Even without the Pastorals, that is a wholly unfounded conclusion.  In Ephesians 3:4-5, for example, Paul insists on his special status as one to whom God has revealed the mystery of Christ.  And how are the churches to become privy to this mystery?  By reading what Paul wrote!  The Pastorals, of course, with their undeniable emphasis on sound doctrine and preaching, put the point beyond cavil.  Banks concedes as much in his appendix (196):  “Teaching now occupies the primary position, along with exhortation.”

I applaud the emphasis many people are putting on community in the church these days.  It has been far too long that the church has been seen as less a congregation of God’s blood-bought people and more a once-a-week theatre production.  But community can never be emphasized at the expense of God’s Word.  In fact, true Christian community cannot exist unless the Bible is at its center.  There are many communities in the world, but the Christian church’s distinctive, godly character comes from its members’ unflagging commitment to hearing, preaching, and reading the Word of God.  That is where its strength, its life, its vibrancy, and its attractiveness come from.  Displace the Word of God from its central position in the church, and you destroy the very foundation of the community God intended to exist.

 In the final analysis, Banks’s book is fatally flawed by its refusal to learn and teach from the entire Bible.  We should all take care that our own preaching ministries are not so lacking.

Greg Gilbert

Greg Gilbert is the Senior Pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. You can find him on Twitter at @greggilbert.

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