Paul was a planter of churches (1 Cor 3:6-9), an organizer of far-flung little communities around the Mediterranean that united clusters of disparate people in the startling confession that God had raised a crucified man, Jesus, from the dead and thus initiated a new age in which the whole world was to be transformed. The letters of Paul that survive in the NT are his pastoral communications with these mission outposts. Though separated from them, he continued to offer them exhortation and counsel about how to conduct their common life “worthily of the gospel of Christ” (Phil 1:27).
These general observations about the Pauline mission merely restate common knowledge, but their implications for Pauline ethics have not been sufficiently appreciated. I would like to draw particular attention to their significance for interpreting the moral vision of the Pauline letters. It will be my contention that Pauline ethics is fundamentally ecclesial in character and that we begin to grasp his moral vision only when we understand that he sees the church as inheriting the corporate vocation of God’s covenant people, Israel. Apart from this foundational assumption, Paul’s ethic can only appear to be what many critics have thought it to be: a haphazard conglomeration of moral notions drawn eclectically from the commonplaces of his time.