Sensitivity towards Outsiders: Exploring the Dynamic Relationship between Mission and Ethics in the New Testament and Early Christianity

Written by Kok, Jakobus, Tobias Nicklas, Dieter R. Roth, and Christopher M. Hays, eds. Reviewed By Darian Lockett

Sensitivity towards Outsiders is an edited collection of papers originally offered at the Prestige FOKUS Lectures on Mission and Ethics held at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. Taking place twice a decade, these lectures attempt to provide “cutting-edge research for the benefit of academy, church, and society by bringing developed-world and developing-world scholars together in mutual learning experiences” (p. v). The research question guiding all twenty-nine essays “centered on the role that identity, ethos, and implicit ethics played in the missionary dimension of the early church” (p. xi).

The editors of the volume note how it is a common assumption that the early Christian movement was populated by converts who had experienced an abrupt and radical change in life, such that social relationships where individuals once had been “insiders” now, as a result of conversion, were reclassified as “outsiders.” A means of accessing this new identity has been funded by the social-scientific model of Social Identity Theory (SIT). Accordingly, identity formation depends on stereotypical categories of “insider” and “outsider,” demarcation of which leads to group formation and maintenance by means of inclusive and exclusive boundary markers. Such markers functioned to keep some out (exclusive boundary markers) and others in (inclusive boundary markers).

Careful to avoid methodological oversimplification, the editors probe SIT’s assertion that identity is formulated primarily by defining oneself against the “other.” A model dependent on conflict may distort Christian identity formation by highlighting differentiation—identity by means of “what we are not.” The editors note the problem with understanding conversion as “always includ[ing] a radical and complete turning from one religion to another” (p. 7). Rather “the boundaries between insiders and outsiders were perhaps rather complicated, especially when considered with attention to Dialogical Self Theory” (p. 8). Dialogical Self Theory (DST) arises from a growing dissatisfaction with SIT and asks the question of whether early Christians definitively moved from one “group” into another “group” as a result of conversion. Individuals are able to hold a variety of identities together in a coherent fashion (mother, sister, daughter) and, with those identities, a number of loyalties. With this methodologically nuanced approach the essays consciously address the dynamic relationship between mission and ethics in the way early Christians “constructed and reconstructed social and theological boundaries in their attempts to shape/direct the readers’ thought (and actions) regarding sensitivity towards outsiders” (p. 9, emphasis original).

The first section of the volume (pp. 27–78) focuses on sensitivity toward “outsiders” in the OT and Philo of Alexandria. Ehrhard Gerstenberger and Dirk Human both consider the OT and its complex perspective regarding inclusivity and exclusivity. Gert Steyn’s essay reflects on Philo’s reading of the OT keeping in view personal relationships with outsiders.

The bulk of the volume (pp. 81–417) dedicates sixteen essays to the topic of “Sensitivity towards Outsiders, Mission, and Ethics in the New Testament.” These contributions focus primarily on the Gospels and Paul, with individual essays on Hebrews, James, and Revelation. Dieter Roth considers missionary ethics in Q and Ernest van Eck takes up a postcolonial and social scientific reading of Mark highlighting patronage as a means of showing compassion to “outsiders.” Andreies van Aarde offers an essay on “Righteousness: Paul and Matthew,” yet focuses primarily on Paul’s notion of righteousness in Romans as indicative of God’s intervention on behalf of the poor. Heike Omerzu explores the changing relationship between mission and ethics in Luke-Acts concluding, with the aid of SIT, that in Luke, social boundaries mark believers off from others by means of in-group bias and stereotyping. Andreas Köstenberger, arguing against the notion that Johannine literature generally takes a sectarian stance toward outsiders, demonstrates the connection between mission and ethics in John’s Gospel and Letters where the focus “on love, unity, sacrificial service, and mission, grounded in the love ethic” is brought to a climax in the life and death of Jesus Christ (p. 184).

Turing to Paul, Bert-Jan Lietaert Peerbolte and the co-authored essay by Tobias Nicklas and Herbert Schlögel both take up the construction of Christian identity in the context of Pauline ethics, while Andrie du Toit considers the issue of sensitivity toward others as demonstrated in early Christian paraenetic literature of the NT in general. Abraham Malherbe considers the connection between the newly proclaimed gospel at Thessalonica and its ethical implications for how these new believers treated their neighbors. Jeremy Punt and John Dunne both focus on Galatians as a window onto mission, ethics, and identity in Paul. Dunne argues that the missional identity to which the Galatians are called (Messianic suffering) serves to distinguish “insider” from “outsider.” First and Second Corinthians are taken in turn by Ruben Zimmermann and Volker Rabens. Rabens considers whether 2 Corinthians portrays the whole world as the “in-group” with no contrasting “out-groups” from which the reconciled community are separated. He concludes there is a tension-filled reality where reconciliation between God and the cosmos has already taken place, yet Paul invites individuals to enter a new group by accepting this reconciliation and thus creating a new group identity.

Rounding out this section, David Moffitt explores how the author of Hebrews constructs the identity of his audience in the context of eschatological expectation such that Hebrews highlights the internal concerns for perseverance and purity, while implicitly silent toward outsiders. Stephan Joubert demonstrates that even James, a text purported to be sectarian, takes up a concern for the church’s missionary identity through enduring trials and the church’s missionary action through hospitality toward strangers. Finally, Christopher Rowland considers how the book of Revelation problematizes notions of “insiders” and “outsiders” as the book “challenges . . . listeners to opt for the way and the values of the ultimate in preference to the penultimate, which pretends it is ultimate” (p. 401).

Part three (pp. 421–565), “Sensitivity towards Outsiders, Mission, and Ethics in Early Church,” consists of seven essays taking up 1–2 Clement, Didache, Diognetus, the writings of Ignatius, the Acts of the Martyrs, and John Chrysostom. And finally, in part four (pp. 569–635), three essays focus on contemporary implications, including mission to and provision for the poor (Christopher M. Hays), the notion of missional ecclesiology (Nelus Niemandt), and responsible global citizenship (Johann-Albrecht Meylahn).

The difficulty, as is common in such volumes, is the lack of cohesiveness among the essays. The collection identifies a clear and illuminating research question (see above); however, with such a variety of disciplines (OT, NT, Early Church, Missiology, Practical Theology, and Catholic Moral Theology) and methodologies (essays take up either SIT or DST, and, in some cases, neither) the overall work lacks coherence. Yet, in the end, this is not a problem as the aim of the work is “to illustrate and explore the plurality of early Christian voices and the dynamic relationship between mission and ethics (inclusivity, exclusivity, and sensitivity to outsiders or the lack thereof)” (p. 10). The juxtaposition of essays in the volume does demonstrate the “plurality of early Christian voices,” yet, to some degree, this plurality also illustrates the various concerns of modern scholarship. The introduction provides a helpful and nuanced primer on social identity and several of the essays exhibit careful exegetical sensibility in conjunction with nuanced social-scientific approaches. This collection will serve as a quality reference for interdisciplinary analysis of mission, ethics, and early Christian identity and will be especially useful to PhD students and researchers in these fields.

Darian Lockett

Darian Lockett
Biola University
La Mirada, California, USA

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