Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Church at Rome

First century Rome was similar in some important ways to major cities today. By looking at those similarities, and contemplating the letter that Paul wrote to those Christians, we can better understand what the church ought to be like in the modern world.

It is not known when the church was established in Rome. On the day of Pentecost there were visitors from Rome (Acts 2:10) in the crowd at Jerusalem when Peter preached and 3000 were baptized. It is quite likely that some of these Jews eventually returned to Rome (perhaps after the stoning of Stephen) and began to build the Roman church. At least, we know that Andronicus and Junias (Rom 16:7) were converted before Paul, quite possibly before the dispersion in Acts 8.

Sometime during the reign of Claudius (41-54 AD), the emperor ordered all the Jews to leave Rome (Acts 18:2, Priscilla and Aquilla). By this time there must have been a substantial congregation of Gentile Christians, who were left to fend for themselves when their Jewish brothers and sisters were evicted.

During the intervening years while the Jews were banished, the Gentile church continued to grow, and new leaders must have stepped forward out of necessity. Without the influence of the Jews who had started the church, their worship undoubtedly drifted farther and farther from the style of the Jews. These became Gentile congregations, in every sense. This is important to remember when trying to understand Romans.

After the death of Claudius in AD 54, the edict became void, and the Jews returned to Rome. So by the time Romans was written (maybe AD 57), Priscilla and Aquilla had returned to Rome, and a congregation was meeting in their home. This may well have been primarily a Jewish congregation. At least it was being led by Aquilla and Priscilla, who were Jews.

By the time of Paul's letter, there were numerous congregations meeting in different places in Rome, each with its own leadership. Paul greets several distinct groups in chapter 16:
  • the church meeting in Priscilla and Aquilla's house (Rom 16:5)
  • Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers with them (Rom 16:14)
  • Philologus, Julia, Nereus, and his sister, and Olympas and all the saints with them (Rom 16:15)
Those named were probably the leaders in different house churches. The others whom Paul greeted individually may also have been part of separate congregations (since Paul chose to group them separately from the other congregations in the greeting).

By the time the Jews returned, there must have been multiple established Gentile congregations in Rome. And the Jews who returned may well have "flocked together" as mainly Jewish congregations.

This is the environment Paul addressed in the Roman letter. There were growing cultural differences between Jewish and Gentile congregations in Rome, and these were leading to conflict. Paul explained that the Jews and Gentiles were in the same condition, with no hope other than Jesus. He pointed out that they shared the same baptism. They were part of the same olive tree. He warned the Jew that he could be cut out of the olive tree, and he warned the Gentile that he could also be cut out after having been grafted in. Paul opened up his heart as he shared his concern for the salvation of Israel. And then he turned to practicals.

Remember the situation in the Roman church as you consider chapters 12-15. There were multiple congregations, with striking differences between Jews and Gentiles. Paul called all of them to be living sacrifices; not to think of themselves too highly; and to respect the differences among them. He instructed them to be devoted to one another in brotherly love. (devoted = Gk philostorgoi, the mutual love between parent and child). They were to treat one another as family--not only the fellow Jews but also the Gentiles; not only those in their own congregation, but also those in other congregations. They were to treat one another as family, despite all the differences and despite their being in different congregations.

Chapters 14 and 15 address differing doctrinal understandings between Jews and Gentiles (things like eating meat, drinking wine, and observing special days). Once again the message is clear: they were to accept one another despite these differences.

Jews and Gentiles alike were all sinners. They were all baptized into Christ, and thus united in His death and in his resurrection. They were all united, in Christ. The differences among them did not prevent them from being united in Christ.

How about us? As descendents of the Restoration Movement, what should we learn from Romans?

Like first century Rome, many of our cities have multiple congregations of baptized believers. These congregations have different cultures and even some different doctrinal understandings. But the differences among our congregations pale in significance when contrasted to the differences between Jews and Gentiles in the first century church. The message of Romans to our churches today is to accept one another despite our differences. If we have been united with Christ, we are united with one another. And we should reflect that in how we treat one another.