OK, so on Monday I’m about to preach a sermon for a bunch of doctors. The theme of their conference is “reconciliation”, and I’ve managed to add in a bunch of a fairly standard (for me) missio dei references as mission motivation. But now I’m having second thoughts about an element of it.
One of my usual missio dei themes is that we get to be involved in what God is doing in the world. That’s supported by the references to us “God’s fellow workers”, (NIV) 1 Co 3:9 and 2 Co 6:1. However, now I do my exegesis (this is one reason I don’t really like thematic preaching, because I’m pulling stuff together from different passages rather than being able to sit down and do the whole exegesis in context stuff) I realise that those two verses don’t actually say what the NIV says at all. I am no longer convinced that the Bible does refer to us as God’s fellow workers, which for me puts the whole connection between missio dei and what we do in jeopardy.
First up, 2 Cor 6:1. Here’s da Greek:
Συνεργοῦντες δὲ καὶ παρακαλοῦμεν μὴ εἰς κενὸν τὴν χάριν τοῦ θεοῦ δέξασθαι ὑμᾶς·
Well, there is a Συνεργοῦντες and a θεοῦ but unfortunately they’re in completely different clauses; θεοῦ goes with τὴν χάριν τοῦ θεοῦ (the grace of God). The NIGTC, trying to work out precisely which orifice most Bible translations pull “God’s fellow workers” out of, says:
This verbal link between παρακαλοῦμεν in 6:1 and παρακαλοῦντος in 5:20, along with the explicit reference to θεοῦ in 5:21, makes it likely that the person with whom Paul was cooperating in ministry (συνεργοῦντες) was God, although, given 5:20 (“we are ambassadors for Christ … on Christ’s behalf, we make this entreaty”) and ἐν αὐτῷ at the end of 5:21, a case could be made for Christ as Paul’s fellow worker. But whether we supply (τῷ) θεῷor (τῷ Χριστῷ with συνεργοῦντες, Paul regarded his entitlement to issue this exhortation to the Corinthians as coming from his partnership with a divine figure. That is, the participle συνεργοῦντες may be circumstantial (“As God’s fellow workers,” NIV; “Sharing in God’s work,” NEB, REB) or causal (“Since we are at work with God,” Carrez 156).
So it’s a guess, and it could be God, or it could be Christ, but it’s not specified. The NET translates it without an object - “Now because we are fellow workers, we also urge you not to receive the grace of God in vain” - which reads nicely in English and has the inimitable advantage of not adding words in that aren’t actually there. So, jury out so far.
With that in mind, what do we now think about 1 Co 3:9? Here’s da Greek again:
θεοῦ γάρ ἐσμεν συνεργοί, θεοῦ γεώργιον, θεοῦ οἰκοδομή ἐστε.
Well, there’s θεοῦ and συνεργοί right there, but the NET Notes says:
Although 1 Cor 3:9 is frequently understood to mean, “we are coworkers with God,” such a view assumes that the genitive θεοῦ (theou) is associative because of its relationship to συνεργοί (sunergoi). However, not only is a genitive of association not required by the syntax (cf. ExSyn 130), but the context is decidedly against it: Paul and Apollos are insignificant compared to the God whom they serve (vv. 5–8).
Ouchie. And NIBC calls the NIV translation here “unfortunate.”
If this exegesis is right, and it’s looking like it, then to me a major part of preaching the missio dei goes away. God’s doing great stuff in the world, sure, but if we’re not doing it alongside Him then it looks a bit devoid of practical application.