NT Wright observes ( Paul and the Faithfulness of God , 385 ), “It it still common to find ‘the church’ and related topics tucked away towards the back of studies of Paul, the assumption being that what mattered was sin and salvation and that questions about church life were essentially secondary or even tertiary.” In a footnote, he refers to Dunn, Schreiner, Schnelle, and Wolter as adherents to this “essentially western and protestant assumption.”
Foregrounding the church in Paul is not a capitulation to “‘early Catholicism’ or to some more recent variety of that hypothetical movement. No: we are simply asking the question: what were the main symbols, and symbols-in-action, of Paul’s new envisaged and constructed world?” When that question is posed, Wright says, it emerges that “the primary answer is the ekklesia : its unity, holiness, and witness .”
He is not yet talking about the theology of the church, though he will, since a central thesis of his large new book is that theology “comes to have a different, much larger and more important place in [Paul’s] worldview, and thereafter in the Christian church, than ever it had either in Judaism or paganism” (403). For the present, he is talking about the church as symbol, and by that he means the following:
“the gospel message of Jesus the Messiah created a new world with new inhabitants, no longer defined by the specifics of Jewish law, but not seeking as a replacement any of the standard symbols of pagan identity . . . . this new community could sometimes be thought of as the new temple, sometimes as a human body, in both cases not simply drawing on obvious and available metaphors but making powerful symbolic statements . . . . this new community was to learn to live as a family . . . . we might suppose this new community, being itself such a powerful symbol of a radically new worldview, might be regarded as a considerable threat to existing power structures . . . . this new symbol was rooted in a monotheism which, while having the recognizable shape of Jewish rather than pagan styles of monotheism, had come to fresh expression through Jesus the Messiah . . . . this new community was formed and characterized at every point by its conformity to the Messiah himself, specifically in his crucifixion and resurrection” (402).
As a bonus, the symbolic dimensions of the ekklesia are neatly summarizes in Ephesians 2:11-3:21, one of those dreaded post-Pauline excursions into “early Catholicism.” Wright shows, on the contrary, that “Ephesians, long sidelined in western protestant Pauline discussions, turns out to articulate rather precisely the very points which have emerged, on the basis of the ‘main’ letters, from a detailed worldview-study of Paul’s central symbol” (402).