I started reading this book after somebody mentioned how influential it had been on their ideas and practice of ‘church’, and looking at my shelves to realise that it was among a small collection of books graciously donated to me at the start of my seminary studies several years ago.
Banks’ book is a refreshing read, since it deals with a mass of biblical material, primarily Pauline epistles, but in a manner very different to the usual theologising and biblical exegesis. Instead, he sets out to very deliberately examine Paul’s “idea of community”, as it emerges through his writings to various communities that he has founded or been involved with. As such, it shines a different kind of disciplinary light on the Pauline material.
It took me longer to read than I’d planned, mainly because of the other distractions of life. Nonetheless, every time I picked up the book to read another of its 18 chapters, I was either refreshed by the novelty of its vision, or challenged by its careful historico-social reading of Paul and his communities. Banks does an excellent job of contextualising Paul against Greco-Roman and Early Jewish communities, as well as various religious and philosphical groups. The portrait one gets of the Pauline communities is invigorating and attractive.
Treatment of gifts, women, authority, mission, and the like, round out the book with significant contributions.
Perhaps the greatest pay-off from reading this, was the way Banks managed to rehabilitate the Knox-Robinson ‘model’ of church for me. I’ve always been critical of Knox and Robinson for largely doing an extensive word-study of ekklesia in the NT, and saying, “Hey, presto, here’s an ecclesiology!”. Banks has roughly the same kind of conclusion, that ekklesia in the Pauline material refers to communities that actually and regularly meet, along with a ‘heavenly’ usage of the term once or twice, but never a ‘church universal’ throughout the world view; but Banks is careful not to turn it into an ecclesiology, as if it were the sum of a doctrine of Church. His exploration of Paul’s use of metaphors, such as the Body, nice complements this from a textual study, and makes Banks’ contribution both more palatable and more persuasive.
The text is neither technical nor dumbed-down, and is a fairly short and pleasant read. I’d recommend for anyone interested in rethinking “community”, or after a new (though old) slant on Paul.
Paul's Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Cultural Setting, Revised Edition