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Economy of Grace: An Early Christian Take on Vulnerable Mission

Author: P. Kent Smith
Published: February 2013

MD 4.1

Article Type: Peer Reviewed Article

Contextualizing principles like those identified by Vulnerable Mission may be used to avoid creating unhealthy dependency. They may also be used to other ends, such as persuading a donor or gaining information to subdue an enemy. This highlights the importance of underlying narrative, the frame of meaning at work that largely determines the impact such principles have in a given situation. Beginning with Jesus, the early Christian movement penetrated the vast cultural mosaic of the Roman empire over several centuries without, on the whole, creating unhealthy dependencies. This essay explores a narrative at work that may help to explain this remarkable achievement and suggests an understanding of the role vulnerable principles played in that achievement.


Vulnerable Mission offers two specific proposals to avoid creating unhealthy dependencies and ultimately harming those who receive the attention of Christian workers:

  1. Working in indigenous languages—or more broadly, a firm commitment to understand people deeply, on their own terms, in their own context.
  2. A commitment to depend on local resources, avoiding outside resourcing in the conduct of local work.2

Cultural competence as demonstrated by language mastery and dependence on local resources can be potent tools in the service of God’s mission. At the same time, it cannot be the case that these qualities by themselves constitute the essence of Vulnerable Mission. It is possible, for example, that one could learn a language and culture in order to be more effective in exploiting that culture.3 Alternatively, people might enter a culture bearing no outside resources simply because they are poor or escaping oppressive circumstances.

In this essay I want to follow one stream of early Christian thought to describe how the commitments identified by Vulnerable Mission found expression among the early followers of Jesus. To be more specific, I will trace a certain continuity between the notion of an “economy of grace” as developed in the letter to the Ephesians and the actual missionary practice of the early Christian movement, beginning with Jesus and continuing through the early Christian centuries.

To begin I will examine several key but sometimes neglected themes in Ephesians. We will need to consider some familiar terms in somewhat unfamiliar ways as we enter the thought world of Ephesians.4 In the following section I will survey some implications of these themes as they played out in the mission of Jesus and in the early missionary movement, and conclude by suggesting how these insights might inform our understanding of Vulnerable Mission. As the study proceeds a useful question to explore will be, “If linguistic/cultural competence and dependence on local resources are important for the transmission of the gospel into new settings, then how do we find these principles embodied in the earliest Christian mission?

An Ancient Ecclesiology: Church as Economy of Grace

To begin I will explore two key themes and their relationship as developed in Ephesians: grace and economy.


The idea of grace in the Western, Protestant churches has been dominated by the Reformation emphasis on the unmerited gift we have received in Christ—the grace by which we are saved. A classic text underlying this focus states: “For it is by grace (charis) that you are saved through trust, and this not from yourselves, it is a gift of God—not by works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8–9).5

While this take on grace was an important corrective and pillar of the Reformation, it represents only one dimension of the meaning Paul and the early church invested in the word charis.6 Most notably for our study, it is only a subset of how charis is used in Ephesians.7 In the widest sense a grace (charis) is a gift, “that which pleases or brings delight (chara).”8 However, in the New Testament and Paul’s work in particular, more specialized understandings of the term come to bear in significant ways.

Charis is broadly understood in Paul’s writing to embrace all of God’s gracious, self-disclosing work in Christ. This widely encompassing notion of grace, especially emphasized in the Eastern church tradition, can be summarized, “Grace is God dispensed into us.”9 God’s greatest gift is the gift of God’s own self. Important in this broader understanding is that, while it includes God’s incarnational “dispensing” in Jesus Christ, this view of grace also helps us make sense of a major, often overlooked, dimension of that work, namely God’s self-investment into each of his people as individuals and in the community called the “body of Christ.”

Simply put, this is the grace for which we are saved—to become the embodiment and revelation of God. A classic description of this dimension of grace follows closely on the text quoted above: “For we are God’s masterpiece, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared in advance for us to walk in” (Eph 2:10).10

This statement beginning with “for” seems jarring in light of what follows until we see the broader sense of grace in view. Works per se are not the antithesis of grace. Rather, it is human works—works of human initiative and strength in which we could boast—that have no place in the salvation of God. The works God has predesigned for us to do are precisely an expression of that grace—a theme that will continue to be developed through Ephesians.

This dimension of grace, the grace for which we are saved, is given specific shape in the next chapter where the unique calling of Paul is described as his grace: “Though I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given to me: to proclaim to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the economy of this mystery” (Eph 3:8–9).

This is Paul’s standard way of describing the work to which he has been uniquely called by God: “to me this grace has been given.”11 Paul routinely uses “grace” as a synonym for God’s calling on his life, his divinely appointed vocation. But in Paul’s thought such a grace belongs to every believer. As Ephesians continues, this dimension of grace as vocation moves to the center of the argument. “And yet, to each one of us a grace has been given according to the distributed gifting of Christ” (4:7).

The “and yet” that begins this statement marks the shift in chapter four between the unity that characterizes our calling—“one Lord, one Faith, one baptism”—and the diversity of that calling—“to each one a grace.” To “walk worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (4:1) entails an embrace of both the unity we share in Christ (the grace by which we have been saved) and the diversity of our respective gifting and assignments in the household of God (the grace for which we are saved).12

In this sense of vocation, then, grace is the measured dispensing of God’s purpose and power into every unique person of God’s family household. Although this understanding of grace has been somewhat muted in the Western church, it is clearly seen elsewhere in Paul, in Peter’s writing, and in the commentary of the church since the first century.13 And as we will see, it is developed more fully in the verses that follow.


Our second theme, economy, is based on the term oikonomia, which occurs three times in Ephesians.14 The term conveys a range of meanings: household rule, stewardship, order, plan.15 It is often used regarding the management of large estates in the ancient world. At times it conveys the notion of underlying structure. In more contemporary thought a useful translation might often be, “operating system.”

Especially prominent in Ephesians is the theme of the economy of God, his pre-ordained system for the summing up of all things into himself by way of Christ through the church. This theme is introduced in Eph 1:9–10: “making known to us the mystery of his will, in accordance with his good pleasure that he purposed in himself, leading to the economy of the fullness of times, to head up all things in Christ—the things in heaven and the things on the earth—in him.”

This economy is the object of God’s self-purposed pleasure, something revealed in the fullness of times, which has been a mystery but has now been made known. These ideas are taken up and developed more in 3:8–11:

To me, less than the least of all saints, was this grace given: to announce to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ and to enlighten all that they may see what the economy of the mystery is, which throughout the ages has been hidden in God, who created all things, so that now, to the rulers and authorities in the heavenlies the multifaceted wisdom of God might be made known through the church, according to the eternal purpose which God made in Christ Jesus our Lord.16

Here this finally-disclosed economy is revealed as no less than the church, God’s means of displaying his multifaceted wisdom to the heavenly powers.17 In chapter four, what this means for the church is stated even more explicitly in an extended description of the church as the body of Christ. The case is summarized thus: “From Christ the whole body is joined and held together . . . by means of the distributed divine energy of every single growing part of the body working to build up his body in love” (4:16).

God’s divine energy is distributed to each growing part of his body according to the distinct grace each one bears. As each one exercises that grace under the headship of Christ, the body of Christ, the church, is built up, and God’s multifaceted wisdom is fully revealed in that completed person, the bride of Christ.18

Economy of Grace in Ephesians

Having discussed grace and economy we can summarize the Ephesians presentation of church as an economy of grace. Six observations provide an overview:

  1. Ephesians claims to disclose a great mystery. This mystery has been hidden in God in the past but now, in the fullness of time, has been made known to us (1:9; 3:9–10).
  2. Furthermore, this mystery is revealed in an economy (oikonomia), that is to say, a household rule, or operating system that has its origin and its ultimate fulfillment in God through Jesus Christ by way of the church (1:23; 3:9).
  3. This economy, or household rule, is a divinely designed system for the dispensing of God’s multifaceted wisdom and for the display of that wisdom to powers and principalities in the heavenly realms (3:10). Simply put, this self-disclosure of God is the church.
  4. God’s multifaceted wisdom is revealed, in fact, as an economy of grace (3:2).19 What makes this economy a display of the many, many forms of God’s wisdom is that God’s power (energeia) is distributed (metron) uniquely as a grace (charis) to each part of the household body (4:7, 16).20
  5. The body is built up (oikodomeo) to its mature, healthy expression when every single part is doing its particular, divinely graced and empowered work (4:14–16).
  6. The church, as the operating system for the grace of God, therefore, functions to fulfill God’s delight in reconciling all things to himself through Christ (1:9–11).

Economy of Grace in the Mission of Jesus and the Early Church

The letter to the Ephesians, by identifying the church as God’s economy of grace affirms and clarifies core themes of the Hebrew/Christian narrative that underpinned the early Christian movement. In broad strokes, those themes included:

  1. From the beginning men and women were designed to display—in their collective diversity—the image of God.21
  2. Although people have been broken and estranged from God by sin, God nevertheless has chosen through Abraham to bless all the families of the earth.
  3. Through Jesus Christ, Abraham’s descendant, the power of sin has been broken and by the Spirit of Christ, God’s design in people is again being revealed.
  4. People from all the families of earth are now being gathered in a divine family that displays God’s multifaceted wisdom—an economy of grace.

This framing narrative came to deeply shape the thought and action of the early followers of Jesus.

In view of this vision of church as God’s economy of grace, I want to reflect briefly on three themes illustrated by the earliest Christian mission that I believe bear directly on the nature and practice of vulnerable mission. These include the locus of initiative, the nature of leadership, and the context of mission.

The Locus of Initiative in the Economy of Grace

The initiator in the economy of grace can be none other than the economy designer and grace-dispenser, God. If God has chosen to display God’s multifaceted wisdom in this economy, then those who would follow the Master’s lead must learn to pay attention to God’s gracious initiatives in general, and to those initiatives in people.

Just this kind of deep attentiveness to God’s initiative characterizes the life and mission of Jesus.22 And as Jesus trains his disciples this theme features prominently. Jesus sends his disciples off in pairs to the surrounding villages with these instructions:23

Go! I am sending you out like lambs surrounded by wolves. Do not carry a money bag, a traveler’s bag, or sandals, and greet no one on the road. Whenever you enter a house, first say, “May peace be on this house!” And if a person of peace is there, your peace will remain on him, but if not, it will return to you. Stay in that same house, eating and drinking what they give you, for the worker deserves his pay. Do not move around from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and the people welcome you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in that town and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Luke 10:4–7)24

This instruction by Jesus is grounded in the conviction that those with whom God intends the disciples to work—the household of peace—will be ready to receive these vulnerable disciples, so the disciples are not to waste their time casting about for other options. Attentiveness to the Master’s prevenient work in people, here invoked by the image, “the Lord of the harvest,” becomes the means by which the disciples appropriately concentrate their work out of one household that will become a beachhead for the coming kingdom in that place.

This instruction to his disciples simply mirrors the approach they repeatedly witnessed Jesus himself taking. He is steadily on the watch for those ready to receive him and, on discovering such people, goes into their homes. This careful attention to God’s initiative does not end with the life and missionary training of Jesus. It continued naturally in the early apostolic teams and among those who formed the household-based churches of the first centuries, as we will see in what follows.25

The Nature of Leadership in the Economy of Grace

What does it mean to be a leader in a household economy—if you are not the owner/master? Throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, to have such a role meant to be a steward, a household manager, an oikonomos. Those given responsibility within an oikonomia, the household economy, were servants of the household under the master/father’s leadership.

The dominance of the household theme in the New Testament, and God’s role within that household as Master/Father helps to explain, not only Jesus’ prohibition of calling people “father,” but also explains the curious shortage of the word “leader” as applied to believers in the New Testament. Where the notion of leadership is in view, it is usually Jewish leaders opposing the coming kingdom, or Gentile leaders whose “lording” approach is explicitly prohibited.26 By contrast, positions of influence and responsibility in the church are routinely described in the language of servanthood and stewardship.27 The focus of that stewardship within an economy of grace can be given sharper definition by reclaiming the old English word, eduction, which means “the drawing forth of what is latent or potential in another.”

In Ephesians 4, this idea offers a most helpful and comprehensive way to understand the function of Christian stewardship. In God’s economy of grace, certain gifts are given to call forth the gifting of the whole: “It was [Christ] who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, some as pastors and teachers to equip the saints for works of service to build up (oikodomēn) the body of Christ” (4:11–12).

“To equip” in this context conveys more than simply teaching, modeling, directing, or exhorting. God’s intended purpose for the equipping/leadership gifts is to call forth the full expression of all the body parts according to God’s design. In a word, this is the work of eduction. If divine self-dispensing is grace, then eduction, the calling forth of the divine in others through self-dispensing attention is a means for grace multiplied.

To thus prioritize eduction entails a profound shift from common assumptions about the nature of Christian leadership: from leader as the source and sustainer of God’s work to leader as the attentive supporter and co-learner of God’s work as it is being revealed in the world, in people, and in the myriad ways God has of disclosing his purposes. Leaders function as stewards, not simply in name, but in practice under the conviction that the household wherein they work is not theirs, and the vision they are to enact is most reliably discovered together under the Master. To say it differently, the work of these leaders is a stewarding of stewards, each of whom may hear from the Master to the benefit of the family and its mission.28

So in an economy of grace, while various kinds of oversight are affirmed, it must be emphasized that eductive stewardship is not limited to any sub-group. Rather it is a core value that permeates the lifestyle and belongs to every member. As John Howard Yoder puts it:

Paul] . . . proclaims that in the midst of a fallen world the grace of God has apportioned to every one, without merit, a renewed potential for dignity in complementarity. This is not an anti-structural stance; it is the affirmation of a structure analogous to the human organism. God has done this not by making everyone the same, but by empowering each member differently although equally.29

The work of building up the body is owned by every family member on behalf of every other family member—in keeping with the development, capacity, and calling of each. Peter makes this explicit: “Each one should use whatever gift (charisma) he or she has received to serve others, as good stewards (oikonomoi) of the multiform grace (charis) of God” (1 Pet 4:10).

A steward, by definition, operates in the context of an economy. This thought is a natural extension of the household/kingdom teaching of Jesus and his call to faithful stewardship for each of his followers.

What, then is the primary function of good stewardship? To cultivate a household that in every respect is aligning with the Master’s intention. Paradoxically, the household itself, comprised as it is of the multifaceted graces of God, is both a primary means of discovery and the key to embody the Master’s intention in each case.30 The wisdom and dispensed power to do God’s will are already present in the church, however latent.

Economy of Grace as the Context of Mission

The earliest Christian mission deeply embraced a vision for life in God’s household economy of grace. This is well confirmed by the shape that the mission’s communities took over the following centuries. Joseph Hellerman concludes his substantial study of The Ancient Church as Family with this observation:

From first century Palestine to third century Carthage, the social matrix most central to early Christian conceptions of community was the surrogate kinship group of siblings who understood themselves to be the sons and daughters of God. For the early Christians, the church was family.31

The family Hellerman is describing, the “surrogate kinship group,” was an extended family typically based in the home of a nuclear family, but developing a more diverse membership over time.32 As Jesus anticipated, these groups were not merely a metaphorical family of brothers and sisters. Rather, they became the functional family replacement for those who had “lost father and mother, homes and lands” for the sake of Christ. That is to say, they saw themselves as a real family with God as their common Father, and they treated each other as real siblings.33 Unlike natural families, however, these groups were often remarkably non-homogeneous—a living demonstration of the multifaceted wisdom of God.34

Karl Sandnes, in A New Family, writes extensively of the vital role these families played in making it possible for people in the ancient world to consider a new life as Christians and, having become converts to Christian faith, to survive and thrive in that new life. He concludes: “The family vocabulary was not only a matter of language; it was put into practice. The Christians considered themselves brothers and sisters, and lived accordingly.”35

The degree to which these surrogate families functioned as powerful witnesses to the “multifaceted wisdom of God” and the in-breaking of God’s kingdom is often attested to in antiquity by the off-handed observations of their detractors. For example, in AD 360 the last pagan Roman emperor, Julian, laments to a pagan high-priest:

Why do we not observe that it is their [the Christians] benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done the most to increase atheism? . . . When . . . the impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.36

Perhaps the most compelling evidence for the witnessing power of these household communities is the relentless pace at which Christianity permeated the Roman empire, despite an array of opposition.37 As Sandnes noted: “An individual who sought for and really needed a family-like fellowship had good reason to expect that he/she would find a sheltering home here. . . . This might furnish a partial explanation for why Christianity grew so rapidly in its earliest history.”38

The concrete expression of the household economy of grace was a day-by-day family experience of sharing in every significant dimension of life. Such tangible philadelphia, “brotherly love,” in the early church produced a durable and inviting affirmation of its divine source. As J. H. Elliott observes, “Households thus constituted the focus, locus and nucleus of the ministry and mission of the Christian movement.”39


In this study we have explored the idea developed in Ephesians of the church as God’s economy of grace, designed, in the fullness of time, to disclose God’s multifaceted wisdom. By thus establishing God’s household rule among people, the divine desire is being fulfilled to bring all things together in Jesus Christ.

This idea, taken seriously, has profound worldview implications that frame our understanding of the missionary enterprise. In concluding I want to reflect briefly on those implications as they intersect with Vulnerable Mission.

First, if we take seriously that God is the one forming the family of God, at both the universal and local level, then we would expect to find certain capacities in people who have the specific stewardship of bringing the news of the kingdom to new pockets of people. These stewards are the “sent ones,” designated in English as apostles and missionaries, depending on our preference for the Greek or Latin root.

At this point especially the commitments of Vulnerable Mission play a vital role. These cross-cultural workers must have the capacity to discern those “people of peace” in the local culture who are ready to receive their message. Having discovered such people, the missionaries must be prepared to receive the hospitality of those people, entering their context with the vulnerable gifts of dependency and some degree of linguistic/cultural competence.

Secondly, as the persons of peace understand and receive the gospel, they have, as a matter of course, the stewardship of sharing the good news and calling forth the graces of those within their own extended circle of influence. A new family of Jesus forms. In this phase, concerns for linguistic and cultural competence are diminished, since this competence within the household may normally be safely assumed. Similarly, questions of economic disparity are mitigated by first-hand knowledge of the parties involved and the growing philadelphia of the forming family.

Thirdly, as this nascent economy of grace begins to demonstrate the fruit of divine life within their household, the news naturally spreads among their extended relational networks. Here again, because the economy of grace has formed within the local culture with local servant leadership, the message is inherently well contextualized.

While this outline is clearly an idealized description, it nevertheless recapitulates a message and process that can be traced from the mission of Jesus through the pre-Easter mission of the apostles and on through the expanding mission of the church in its early centuries.

Against this backdrop, Vulnerable Mission clearly has an important, even vital role in the ongoing task of bringing the gospel to unreached peoples. At the same time that role must be seen as one dimension of the broader mission enterprise, which for the earliest Christians was the outworking of the multifaceted wisdom of God in and through the church. Apart from a clear self-understanding by the missionaries of their role as stewards in the story of divine initiative, the graces of Vulnerable Mission may well lose their value in service of the kingdom. Missionaries come in vulnerability and in strength; in human weakness and divine power. In other words, the practices of Vulnerable Mission find their great usefulness in the service of God’s in-breaking economy of grace, in the formation of vibrant families of Jesus that display the multifaceted wisdom of God.

When that economy of grace is released in a new pocket of people through the faithful stewardship of missionaries, we draw closer to God’s ultimate purpose in Jesus Christ. That process, the early Christians believed, will see the consummation of God’s delight when those of “every kinship, tongue, tribe, and people” gather for celebration with the eternal family.

Dr. Kent Smith has taught in the Graduate School of Theology at Abilene Christian University since 1991. His teaching and research focus has been in the area of spiritual nurture systems, especially as they relate to new expressions of church. He directs ACU’s graduate internship in missional leadership and the Missionary Residency for North America (MRNA) and has been a trainer for international mission teams over 20 years with ACU’s Halbert Institute for Missons. Kent can be contacted at


Bauer, Walter, Frederick W. Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, eds. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Duffy, Stephen. The Dynamics of Grace: Perspectives in Theological Anthropology. New Theology Studies 3. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993.

Elliott, J. H. A Home for the Homeless: A Sociological Exegesis of 1 Peter, Its Situation and Strategy. Philadelphia, Fortress, 1981.

Gehring, Roger. House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early Christianity. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004.

Hellerman, Joseph H. The Ancient Church as Family. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2001.

Hutson, Christopher. “Enough for What? Playacting Isaiah 53 in Luke 22:35–38.” Restoration Quarterly 55, no.1 (January 2013): 35–51.

Jeremias, Joachim. New Testament Theology. New York: Scribners, 1971.

Kenneson, Philip. “Visible Grace: The Church as God’s Embodied Presence.” In Grace Upon Grace: Essays in Honor of Thomas A. Langford, ed. Robert K. Johnston, L. Gregory Jones, and Jonathan R. Wilson, 169–79. Nashville: Abingdon, 1999.

Lohfink, Gerhard. Jesus and Community: The Social Dimension of Christian Faith. Translated by John P. Galvin Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob, ed. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. 5 vols. Nash- ville: Abingdon, 2006–2009.

Sandnes, Karl Olav. A New Family: Conversion and Ecclesiology in the Early Church with Cross-Cultural Comparisons. Studien zur interkulturellen Geschichte des Christentums 91. Bern: Peter Lang, 1994.

Snodgrass, Klyne. Ephesians. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Stark, Rodney. Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006.

Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church: A Clear, Detailed Introduction to the Orthodox Church Written for the Non-Orthodox as Well as for Orthodox Chrisitans Who Wish to Know More about Their Own Tradition. New York: Penguin, 1993.

Yoder, John Howard. Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World. Nashville: Discipleship Resource, 1992.

1 This essay is an adaptation of a lecture presented at the Abilene Christian University “Global Conference on Vulnerable Mission,” March 7–10, 2012.

2 See, e.g., “The use of local languages in ministry combined with ‘missionary poverty’ (the two key principles of AVM) enforces humility and operation on a ‘level playing field’ with local people,” on

3 Students of rhetoric, marketing, or warfare will find no difficulty illustrating this.

4 As Klyne Snodgrass puts it, these ideas “may well call for wholesale reconstruction from our end.” Ephesians, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 165.

5 Biblical translations are the author’s unless noted otherwise.

6 The Pauline corpus alone includes 101 uses of charis. Stephen Duffy, The Dynamics of Grace: Perspectives in Theological Anthropology, New Theology Studies 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993), 30.

7 I take it that Paul authored Ephesians, but do not consider this essential to my argument—in any event the Pauline thought in Ephesians has shaped subsequent understanding of the subject.

8 Stephen Westerholm, “Grace,” in New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 2:656.

9 See, e.g., Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church: A Clear, Detailed Introduction to the Orthodox Church Written for the Non-Orthodox as Well as for Orthodox Chrisitans Who Wish to Know More about Their Own Tradition, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 1997), 68. C.f., Philip Kenneson, “Visible Grace: The Church as God’s Embodied Presence,” in Grace Upon Grace: Essays in Honor of Thomas A. Langford, ed. Robert K. Johnston, L. Gregory Jones, and Jonathan R. Wilson (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 170.

10 This theme of the works in which we should “walk,” runs through the letter and is developed as it pertains to our vocation (4:1) and conduct in God’s household, e.g., 2:3; 4:17; 5:2, 15.

11 Cf. Gal 1:15; 2:9; Rom 1:5;12:2; 15:15–16; 1 Cor 3:10; 15:10.

12 On this point it is helpful to notice the distinction Paul appears to draw between grace (charis) as vocation and gifts (charisma) as supporting or corollary equipment to a grace: “And we have different gifts (charisma) according to the grace (charis) given to us.” Rom 12:6; cf. 1 Cor 1:4–7.

13 Cf. Rom 12:3–8, 1 Pet 4:10. So, for example, Augustine: “Therefore in Him who is our head let there appear to be the very fountain of grace, whence, according to the measure of every man, He diffuses Himself through all His members.” A Treatise on the Predestination of the Saints, 31. In a similar vein, Duffy, 153, on Aquinas: “In elevating us, grace also heals us, for it corresponds to our nature’s deepest aspiration. God in giving us participation in the divine inner life gives us to ourselves and releases within us the authentic powers that make us who we are as humans. One is finally free to become one’s genuine self.”

14 Eph 1:10; 3:2, 9.

15 Walter Bauer, Frederick W. Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, eds., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., s. v. “oi˙konomi÷a.”

16 This understanding of the economy of God, so prominent in the argument of Ephesians, may well be present in New Testament and post-Apostolic writing more often than is commonly observed. Cf., e.g., 1 Cor 9:17; Col 1:25; 1 Tim 1:4.

17 “Multifaceted” translates polupoikilos, the “many, multiform” wisdom of God. Though this has sometimes been understood as the inclusion of two forms, Jew and Gentile, into the church, this does not seem to be the most natural reading of the text.

18 Descriptions of the church in chs. 1–4 are dominated by the cognates of oikos: God’s house, temple, and household, as well as his body. See, e.g., 2:19–22. In ch. 5 the mystery is further disclosed: this body is his bride (5:23–32).

19 Commentators differ in their understanding of how oikonomia tēs charitos is being used in 3:2. A case can be made that Paul’s own grace—to bring the gospel to the Gentiles—is in view. In this case the sense would be “you will have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace given to me for you.” On the other hand, if the broader use of oikonomia found in 1:10 and later in the chapter at 3:9 (“the economy of the mystery that has been kept hidden”) is in view, then the sense would be more, “of course, you have heard about the revelation I received for you about the economy of God’s grace, namely that by revelation the divine mystery was made known to me, as I mentioned earlier” (1:10). In support of this reading are the six times cognates of oikos are used in the preceeding four verses to describe the nature of the inclusion Gentiles now enjoy in the household of God:

Therefore no longer are you strangers and aliens (paroikoi) but you are fellow citizens of the saints and members of the household (oikeioi) of God, being built up together (epoikodomathentes) upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ himself the chief cornerstone. In him the whole house is joined together (oikodome) and rises into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built up together (sunoikodomeisthe) to become the dwelling (katoiketerion) of God by his Spirit (2:19–22).

While this latter understanding of the “economy of the grace of God” is consistent with the way the phrase is used in this essay, the conclusion drawn about the particular use in 3:2 is somewhat immaterial to the overall point. The whole constellation of thought in Ephesians points to the “economy of grace” under discussion.

20 Peter makes the connection explicit as well, though his allusion to the economy is indirect. See 1 Pet 4:10 and below.

21 See, e.g., Gen 1:26–27.

22 See, e.g., John 5:19: “I do nothing of my own initiative.”

23 Roger Gehring, House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early Christianity (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), 42–61. Gehring considers this passage pivotal for understanding the subsequent expansion of Christianity.

24 The economy of grace is already on display as evidence of the arriving kingdom when a church of two or more arrive as a missionary team acting in the power of Jesus.

25 The saying of Jesus uniquely recorded in Luke 22:35–38 has sometimes been seen to represent a fundamental shift in the missionary approach the disciples are to take thereafter as they bring the gospel to the Gentiles. This position seems difficult to reconcile with the unambiguous teaching of Jesus elsewhere, the continuing narrative in Luke-Acts, and the subsequent experience of the earliest church. See Christopher Hutson, “Enough for What? Playacting Isaiah 53 in Luke 22:35–38,” Restoration Quarterly 55, no.1 (January 2013): 35–51.

26 “You are all brothers, and call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven” (Matt 23:8–9). Joachim Jeremias points out that, among all images for the community of salvation, Jesus prefers the eschatological family of God. “In the eschatological family, God is the father (Matt 23:9), Jesus is the master of the house, his followers the other occupants (Matt 10:25).” New Testament Theology (New York: Scribners, 1971), 169.

27 Even in the rare cases where leadership language is used of Christians, it is clearly in the context of service to the community, e.g., Heb 13:7 ff.; Rom 12:8.

28 Paul’s own practice aligned with this vision for leadership: “Paul made the ‘common work’ (ergon) the ‘core which guaranteed unity,’ not his own person. Paul himself was ‘coworker’ in this endeavor (1 Cor 3:9), and he treated other coworkers as mature and autonomous partners, not as his assistants.” Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus and Community: The Social Dimension of Christian Faith, trans. John P. Galvin (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 119. “We are not lords over your faith, but coworkers on your joy” (2 Cor 1:24).

29 John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1992), 55.

30 The call for mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21 ff.) can be read in very similar ways as the working out of church as economy of grace. In each case—wives and husbands, slaves and masters, children and parents—the reader is called to the way of profound love and respect for the other in light of a shared reality: both parties belong to the same Master’s household and bear the imprint of the Master’s grace.

31 Joseph Hellerman, The Ancient Church as Family (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 225.

32 “The conversion of the head of the household established a new social unit, basically identical with the family. It is perhaps more correct to say, not the creation of a new social unit, but the transforming of a family into a congregation—a household community.” Karl Sandnes, A New Family: Conversion and Ecclesiology in the Early Church with Cross-Cultural Comparisons, Studien zur interkulturellen Geschichte des Christentums 91 (Bern: Peter Lang, 1994), 182.

33 A vivid description of such a graced family appears at the outset of the post-Easter mission: “And great grace was on them all, for there was no one needy among them, because the owners of land and houses were selling them . . . and the proceeds were distributed to each as anyone had need” (Acts 4:33–35). This text illustrates the multidimensional and concrete way the early community understood grace to encompass all they had received from God—as concrete as lands and houses and money.

34 “The house church provides one very important explanation for how it was possible for Christianity to succeed in integrating individuals from such different social backgrounds into one cohesive unit.” Gehring, 293.

35 Sandnes, 181. This, of course, merely reflects the steady teaching of the early church, e.g., “Be devoted to one another with mutual affection (family love—philostorgia), outdoing each other in showing honor” (Rom 12:10).

36 Julian, Letter to Arsacius.

37 Relentless, but not especially quick. Rodney Stark, with others, places the growth rate of the early Christian movement between 2.5 and 3.4 percent annually from AD 40 to 350. Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006), 67–69.

38 Sandnes, 183.

39 J. H. Elliott, A Home for the Homeless: A Sociological Exegesis of 1 Peter, Its Situation and Strategy (Philadelphia, Fortress, 1981), 188.

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