[This following is the second part of the series of posts about the community Paul envisioned. The last post can be found here.]
The make-up of house churches in Rome
But I find hope and comfort in Romans 12:9-16. In this passage Paul shows us his vision for the house churches in ancient Rome. To understand this passage we need to first take a look at what life was like for the Christians there. The Roman society was strongly hierarchical. People’s social status determined their identity, place in the society, and their prospect of life. Within such a social system, economic exploitation and social oppression were common. The vast majority of Rome’s inhabitants were non-elites. Slaves consisted of around one third of the population. Children of slaves and female slaves were often subject to sexual abuse. Many residents were war-captives or their descendants.
Homeless people were not uncommon in Rome, and many others lived in crowded apartment blocks or even slums. Bruce Longenecker estimates that roughly 65% of Christians in Paul’s churches lived at or below subsistence level. [b] Just under half of them would be struggling significantly because they are the unskilled day labourers, widows, orphans or people with a disability. About 25% of Christians would have “some minimal economic resources,” but they “would clearly have been conscious of their economic vulnerability and their proximity to poverty.” People like Priscilla and Aquila would probably belong to this group. It does not, however, mean that the followers of Jesus in Rome were all destitute. Longenecker estimates that about 10% in the Christ-community would have “moderate surplus”, although not without economic risk.
In a separate study Peter Oakes provides us with an informative analysis of the social make-up in Rome. Using the archaeological findings in Pompeii, Oakes carefully constructs a hypothetical social description of a house church. [c] It might have about 30 people. There might be a craftworker who rents a fairly large workshop, with accommodation for his wife, children, a small number of slaves and perhaps one dependent relative. There would be other householders who could afford to rent, but with less space for their families, slaves and dependents. In the same house church there would be a couple of slaves from other households, a few free or freed people, and a couple of homeless people. It is remarkable how this social make-up fits into Longenecker’s economic profile. The craftworker and other householders would have moderate surplus. Not a few others, especially the householders, would have reasonable resources to make ends meet. Others, including skilled and unskilled workers, widows and beggars, would be living at or below subsistence level, with various degrees of vulnerability.
Paul’s vision for the Christ-Community
It is to Christians in house churches like this that Paul outlines his vision for them in Romans 12:9-16, which says,
Let love be sincere. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be heartfelt in your love to one another, like members of your family. In honour, go ahead of one another. In zeal, do not be lazy. Be set on fire by the Spirit. Serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope. Bear up under tribulation. Be devoted to prayer. Participate in meeting the needs of the saints. Pursue hospitality. Bless those who persecute you. Bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep. Think the same thing toward one another. Do not think highly of yourself, but associate with the lowly. Do not become proud in your own estimation. [d]
This passage speaks of some amazing characteristics of a Jesus-community. It is a love-filled fellowship where people share life together. They love without pretence (12:9). They rejoice and cry together (12:15). There is profound healing power when a community shares their joy and sorrow in sincere love. They welcome strangers into their homes (12:13; CEB), which is immensely life-giving for a city with lonely people needing shelter and love.
It is also a life-transforming community, where people are honoured regardless of their social standing. They show honour to one another (12:10). They consider everyone as equal, and associate with people who have no status (12:16; CEB). One can imagine that in this community the relatively well-to-do craft-worker embraces the slaves and homeless. Generosity is a by-product of genuine affection for one’s siblings in Christ, rather than simply an act of goodwill. People can be a leader or minister by virtue of their God-given gifts, regardless of their social or economic positions (cf. 12:3-8). This community is most countercultural – and at the same time life-giving – in an intensely hierarchical society where slaves are not honoured and unskilled workers are despised. Thus Paul envisages a community that practises status-reversal and hence redefines people’s identity according to their intrinsic value in Christ.
[b] References for the following discussion can be found in Bruce Longenecker, Remember the Poor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), pp. 57, 246-9, 295.
[c] Peter Oakes, Reading Romans in Pompeii (London: SPCK, 2009), p. 96.
[d] This follows the translation by Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 796-70, with some changes to the punctuations. I have also changed the first half of Rom 12:10 from “In brotherly love, be heartfelt in your love to one another” to “Be heartfelt in your love to one another, like members of your family”.
[To be continued here.]