This week I am beginning a sermon series at Watermark Church (where I serve as Pastor) on Pauls letter to the church in Rome. Romans is a letter that I am particularly passionate about as it was the main focus of my time at Northern Seminary where I studied the book from what has come to be called the “New Perspective on Paul” (see McKnights chapter in Preaching Romans: Four Perspectives, be Eerdmans publishing) as opposed to the traditional reformed understanding of the book. There are many distinct aspects surrounding the context of the letter that I will not have time to teach about on Sundays, so I’m starting a series here where I can add all of those details.
If questions rise up while you are reading, reach out. Perhaps I’ll have some time to answer them as we move along.
Let’s start by setting one thing down at the outset; Romans is not a book about “how to get saved,” though it is often portrayed as such. The people who received this letter and gathered to hear it read, performed, and taught, were already Christians. They were followers of Jesus who had put their allegiance in him as Lord and were attempting to live as citizens of his kingdom. The very idea of the evangelistic method that we call “The Romans Road” is, I believe, based upon a misreading of the text and should likely be abandoned and replaced by a fuller understanding of Jesus’ life and teachings.
I would say it like this: We go to Jesus and the Gospels for salvation and healing, we go to Paul and the Epistles for wisdom and discernment.
Pauls’s letter to the Romans is a proposal for how Christians ought to live in community in a way that radically displays the kingdom of God. N.T. Wright has argued that had the reformers five hundred years ago based their reformation movement upon another writing of Paul — Galatians, for instance — the movement would have looked and functioned very differently. Instead, the reformers centered their new theological outlook upon what many New Testament scholars believe to be a misreading of Paul in his letter to the Romans.
So in an attempt to make things right in our communities understanding of this book, we will practice what Dr. Scot McKnight calls “Reading Romans Backwards” so that we can first gain the context of the book before diving into its profound theology and swimming around in its ocean of insight for how the Christian is to live in the empires of the world.
Let’s start with the most straightforward possible understanding of Pauls’s letter. The book can be understood in two simple movements:
Romans 12-16 is lived theology.
When I say “lived theology,” I mean not just theology that we believe in but a theology that is lived out in public for others to see, interact with, and be disrupted by. It is quite literally a theology for living day to day. It is Pauls’s argument for how Christians should view those in the church with whom they have profound differences of opinion, including deeply held convictions that are being violated by others in the church. How do we overcome these obstacles? How do we address our differences without condemning and judging each other?
This is what Romans 12-16 sets out to accomplish, to offer a way forward that rejects the antagonism of the Roman Empire.
Romans 1-11 is written to prop up that lived theology.
It is a long and often winding argument carefully crafted to persuade the Roman church to live out what is presented in chapters 12-16. Pauls’s argument is complex, and it unwinds over several different movements, using literary devices intended to be performed as much as read out loud. It was designed to dismantle the ways that the church had been disciplined in the ways of the world that have thus far guided their interactions during conflict and disagreement.
When read well, Pauls’s letter to the Romans is precisely the kind of book that the church in America needs in our current moment. It can guide us through difficult times of division and discord, that is, if we can accept Pauls’s message for what it is instead of reading it as a manual for escaping the conflicts of this world and flying off to a disembodied, mostly gnostic, existence. This is a letter “about Privilege and Power in search of Peace in the Empire,” Pauls’s advice is substantive and powerful, so let’s commit to trying to understand and live it out together.
Paul’s Audience in Rome
So who were these Christians that Paul wrote such a long letter? Let’s start with the amount of people that were intended to read this letter.
How Big was Paul’s Audience?
Most modern readers rarely consider how many people Paul expected to read his letters. From where we stand now, it is a commonplace to believe that Paul wrote to all people everywhere; at this very moment, there are millions of people around the world who possess this book in their library and have read it at least once, and there are no doubt billions of people throughout church history that have either read it themselves or had it read to them. Therefore, we tend to ignore that Paul had specific people in mind when he wrote this letter.
According to New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, “If there are five groups mentioned here and each house-church had between, say, six and twenty members, the total number of Christians in Rome would be between 30 and 100 people.”
However, according to more current scholarship by Scholar Peter Oakes, a house-church can fit double that amount. So we could be looking at up to 200. Either way, they are roughly the size of most churches in America and not much different than Watermark Church in Tampa.
Where did they live?
The Earliest evidence of Christian living is in an area called the Trastevere, the site where the Vatican sits today, and across the river from the great forum. The Christians lived near the river at the bottom of the hill where the garbage from the city streets of Rome ended up. A great misery came from living in this particular part of the city as there were no waste management services that day. The garbage (including human refuse) was thrown into the streets and washed towards the Trastevere by the water from the running fountains throughout the city, which were constructed to keep the streets clean; the smell must have been quite terrible at the time.
Christians were also known to live in the Aventine and the Palatine, directly across the river. These two areas were later burnt to the ground by Nero’s men (it is presumed) at his instruction, and the arson likely had two purposes:
(1) to clear space for a proposed building project and (2) to turn the people against the Christians whom he was committed to exterminating. This would be accomplished by blaming the Christians for setting fire to Rome.
The earliest converts to Christianity were connected to synagogues in the Aventine and the Palatine until around 49 CE when Emperor Claudius gave the order to exile the Jews from Rome. That single event is the beginning of the troubles of the church in Rome, and it is what will eventually cause this letter to be written. At the time of the Diaspora (dispersion; scattering of the Jewish people during the Roman exiles), the Christian church in the City of Rome was one hundred percent Jewish. They observed the Jewish laws concerning dietary restrictions, celebrated the Sabbath, fasted weekly, and practiced the Jewish festivals. They generally had a healthy Christian community meeting in the Jewish Synagogues, as they were still considered a sect of Judaism.
When the Jewish Christians came back during the reign of Nero, however, things were very different. There was a major cultural shift that happened while the Jewish Christians were way; they have returned to find that the church is now made up of Gentile converts who do not abide the dietary restrictions, festivals, nor any distinctives of the Jewish Christian church. The problems that result from this cultural shift are at the root of Pauls letter to the church in Rome, and that is where we will spend some time next week.