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October 6, 2008

Paul's mission to the Gentiles was a much smaller enterprise than a Billy Graham crusade, a Nova Scotia theologian told Scripturefest 2008.

But Margaret MacDonald said the small house churches Paul established in what are modern-day Turkey and Greece planted the seeds for the universal mission of the Church.

Some estimates place the number of people involved in those churches at the end of Paul's ministry at about 1,000, MacDonald said.

Yet with the establishment of those churches Paul saw his missionary work in that region as essentially complete, she said.


MacDonald, a Scripture professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., and self-described "Maritime gal," was the feature speaker at the 27th annual Scripturefest at St. Theresa Church. About 900 people attended the Sept. 26-27 event.

MacDonald said Paul's ministry was to set up local churches and to leave the task of expansion of those churches to others. As well, Paul also steered clear from building on the work of other apostles.

Nova Scotia theologian Margaret MacDonald describes how St Paul focused on Church unity.


Nova Scotia theologian Margaret MacDonald describes how St Paul focused on Church unity.

"His main driving concern is to win people for the Lord."

Paul's letters, MacDonald said, present "a skewed vision of what he was actually doing." They were directed to churches that had already been established while most of Paul's ministry lay in bringing people to conversion.

But while the apostle to the Gentiles set up local churches, he did not want them to be independent, she said. He increasingly focused on the unity of the Church and the potential for fragmentation was "one of his great anxieties."

"He took the Gospel and planted the seeds for universal mission."


Paul saw the collection taken by the Church in Corinth to help the poor in Jerusalem as symbolic of the Church's worldwide unity, she said. As well, he stressed the virtue of hospitality for visiting Christians. Not only was hospitality a sign of the Church's unity, it also helped the Church to spread.

Of all the early disciples, MacDonald said, Paul had the greatest influence in helping the Gospel take root in a multilingual, multicultural world.

The Pax Romana of the first century made possible the spread of the Gospel in a way that would have been more difficult in another era, she said.

Theologian Margaret MacDonald said Paul never sought payment for his teaching.


Theologian Margaret MacDonald said Paul never sought payment for his teaching.

Not only was there a relative absence of war, but the Romans had established an infrastructure of roads that made travel easier, she said.

Many people travelled for economic reasons and "the experience of immigration was part of the early Church."

MacDonald described Paul's "missionary strategies" that enabled him to successfully spread the Gospel.

His own celibacy gave him a measure of independence, as did his insistence that he not be paid for his preaching. Many travelling preachers in Paul's day sought to be paid for their preaching and that undermined their credibility, she said.

Paul's churches were house churches; they did not have separate buildings. That made Paul's work in spreading the Gospel dependent on people who owned houses, she said.

MacDonald pointed to the story of the conversion of Lydia in Acts 16 as one example of this. Lydia and her whole household were baptized and they prevailed on Paul, Silas and Timothy to stay at her home. This helped establish the Church in Philippi.

At Scripturefest, Archbishop Richard Smith introduced MacDonald, a former fellow student with him at St. Mary's University in Halifax.

Smith also described St. Paul as "a man fully transformed by his encounter with Jesus Christ." He was a powerful example of "authentic joyful Christian witness."