Not by the numbers: a dangerous potential for considering something beyond numbers of people as a church growth outcome—personhood.
Typically on Sundays I offer a "Dangerous Devotion." In its place this evening, I offer a dangerous potential for considering something beyond numbers of people as a sign of church growth. The following is the section of my paper on Church Growth and Paul's Letter to the Ephesians that looks to personhood as a potential outcome of church growth. An outcome is that which signifies that something (a goal, aka here, church growth) has indeed happened. I have argued in this paper thus far that numbers of people is not the only outcome of biblical church growth, in fact, numbers of people might not be church growth at all at times. I have been exegeting and analyzing the Ephesians 5 "filling in Spirit" (v. 18) and the following household code (5:22-6:9) for clues to how Paul understood "church growth." Granted, you might need the full paper to see this conclusion, but, still, it can stand on its own (for now). You can refer to other Not by the Numbers post here on the Wasted Blog.
Potential contextual church growth outcome: Personhood
“A person’s a person, no matter how small.” ~Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who!
It is difficult to speak of person or personhood in regards to the Bible, nor does it directly call a human being a person. Nonetheless, as David Bentley Hart points out, it would not even be possible for moderns to have the ability to speak of “persons” as we do without the impact of the Christian movement. The capacity to refer to someone as a person is a “consequence of the revolution in moral sensibility that Christianity brought about.” The concept of person had a much more limited function before the Christian church and presence (its form) had been let loose in the world. The Greek word prosōpon, as with the Latin persōna, was not used to indicate “a person” as we understand it in the modern sense. The etymological meaning is related to a mask or a false face such as those worn by actors in a Roman theater to portray a particular role or character.
The Roman court system picked up the nuance of persōna before the law, that is, a face recognized before the law. The “role” an individual played in society and among civil institutions became a significant legal referent. In the time of Jesus and Paul, it was more accurate to refer to one’s standing before the law than it was to refer to someone as a person. Certain individuals had no standing or face before the law—they were not recognized by the State (i.e., the Empire) as having standing before the court. Non habens personam (not having a face, persona) was the lot of most women, children, and, certainly, slaves. In modern terms, they were not recognized as persons. We assume such a category now about persons, but we would not have had such acuity in the Roman Empire at the time of the apostles. This all changed because of Christianity and the form the church had taken, for as the movement and the church spread (grew) further into the Gentile world, as the new temple-churches began to affect households and, thus, began to penetrate into the warp and woof of social mapping, eventually slaves, children, and women became known as persons.
There is a modern (progressive) social amnesia regarding just how deeply Christianity has revolutionized culture and social mapping. Max Turner points out that “Ephesians does not address the question of the nature of ‘personhood’ any more directly than other New Testament book,” yet, Paul in Ephesians contrasts two different ways to regard humanity: the alienated old humanity and a new humanity that is recognized through the prism of the household temple-church in Spirit. We need to hear the three socially related household pairs—wives-husbands, children-fathers, slaves-masters—within the context of the “then, but now” framing Paul has established. The priority of place given to the lesser members (who had no face, no persona) in the relationship-trio changes everything: wives, children, and slaves are recognized in and through the temple-church as persons in the Lord before God, the paterfamiliar of all the families in earth and heaven.
The source of Christianity’s molding power on how we recognize, acknowledge, or feel about other human beings as person with intrinsic value and worth originates, not only from the gospel’s message of love and hope, but also from the instruction and, specifically, the actual habit forming social mapping of the temple-church reflected in Paul’s reoriented household code. The death of Messiah (God’s output) brought about the reorienting of the value and worth of lesser individuals and the expansion of reciprocity among all social relationships (the outcome). The habits of the multihousehold gathering for fellowship, a meal, celebration, and apostolic instruction set in motion the redeeming and, thus, reforming of our alienated social mapping and idolatrous socially constructed reality: Wherever the lesser are recognized as persons and relationship reciprocity exists is the place (an outcome) where church growth happens.
Where “person” finds its way into a translation: e.g., Soul, nephesh, Gen 12:5; Exodus 1:5; 'adam, Isaiah 58:5; 'iysh, man Lev 15:4; or simply assumed.
Hart, Atheist Delusions, 167.
The etymological path of meaning for “person” possibly passed through the the Latin personare (to sound through) a voice through became the voice behind a mask an actor used to play a character.
Hart, Atheist Delusions, 167. Hart notes that even Jesus did not have “person” before Pilate. A close modern example is how blacks were not recognzied before the law as a person prior to emancipation and the US State’s radification of the Thirteenth Amendment (December 6, 1865). Even today, we see the idea of person is a vital legal aspect, i.e., how (some) minorities (still), undocumented immigrants, and the unborn are not recognized before the law.
 Ibid.,, 168: “those of the lowest stations, however—slaves, base-born, noncitizens and criminals, the utterly destitute, colonized peoples—legal personality did not really exist, or existed in the only most tenuous of forms.” Also, note some women had gained some standing before the law . . . mostly urban and affluent and mostly still only releated to protecting the wifes’patriach’s property and inheritance . . .
Max Turner, “Mission and Meaning in Terms of ‘Unity’ in Ephesians,” in Mission and Meaning: Essays Presented to Peter Cotterell (eds. Antony Billington, Tony Lane, and Max Turner: Carlisle: Paternoster, 1995), 138-66, here 338-39: “of being ‘man’ - one regarded as ‘false’, the other ‘true’ - and in so doing it elucidates what it means to be a person in the likeness of God.”
 Turner, “Mission and Meaning in Terms of ‘Unity’ in Ephesians.”
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.