Friday, 8 June 2012

LEARNING FROM THE APOSTOLIC CHURCHES: THE CHURCH IN ROME


By

S. ’Jide Komolafe


(Continued from “The Primitive Church in Jerusalem”)


I continue to emphasize the a priori developmental principle that one can understand what the Church should be today only when one has a thorough grasp of what the Church “has been” or “ought to be.” As we continue to explore a biblical understanding of the Church by looking at these apostolic churches with focus on the contextual challenges they had to contend with, and the theological responses to these challenges, it is my hope to draw normative clues for the contemporary church in its mission to becoming what it is already by faith, the Church of Jesus Christ.


The Church in Rome

The epistle to the Romans has undoubtedly received overwhelming attention in contemporary biblical scholarship, more than any of the other undisputed Pauline epistles. Although several reasons could be advanced for this massive attention, one important feature that cannot be overlooked is its substantive theological treatise that has had incalculable influence on the construction of Christian theology from primitive times to the present. Similarly, Paul’s authorship of Romans is not in serious question. How Christianity reached Rome, however, is problematic since neither Paul nor any of the other apostles founded the Roman church. This contention as to the origin of the Roman church, notwithstanding, it is proper to attempt an enquiry as can be seen in biblical scholarship.

The epistle to the Romans undoubtedly provides us with the earliest witness of the existence of a church in Rome, yet the question of determining the origin of this church is cloaked in historical obscurity. Several views that suggest a possible reconstruction of how Christianity reached the capital city of the Roman Empire have been advanced. The earliest view, held by the Roman Catholic, claims that the apostle Peter founded the church. This claim is seriously misleading when compared with the historical evidence that puts the arrival of Peter in Rome several years after the church has been founded. This is not merely a Protestant disputation as some Roman Catholic scholars are also beginning to give up this claim because of its inconsistency with history and internal evidence of the New Testament. J.J. Castelot, for example, writes that “an old tradition that he spent 25 years in Rome is quite unacceptable. All that can be said with certainty is that he went to Rome and was martyred there” (1967:173-176). A similar view is expressed by Alfred Wikenhauser who claims that “the Apostle Peter cannot have founded the community, for his arrival in Rome probably took place in the fifties at the earliest” (1963:399).

Another view attributes the origin of the Roman church to the efforts of the visiting Roman Jews and Proselytes who may have been converted on the day of Pentecost (Acts. 2:10). This view, however, lacks validity since there is no instance in the Scripture which shows that these Pentecostal converts returned to Rome to establish a Christian church. Moreover, these people would require more than what they brought away from Pentecost to lay the foundations of a Christian church.

Still others argue that several small groups of Christians including those families of Christians from Pauline churches in the East settled in Rome and gathered for worship, thus founding the Roman church. Since there is no allusion to an initial evangelization in Rome by any particular group of missionaries, it is reasonable to infer that the church in Rome came about through the activities of Christian laity who shared the gospel as they pursued their vocations or businesses. Priscilla and Aquila are a good example. Although the couple did not take the gospel to Rome, they, nevertheless, demonstrate how Christian laity shared the gospel wherever they went. As a couple, they seem to have taken the gospel from Rome to Corinth (Acts. 18: 2-3), and also to Ephesus (Acts. 18:26). This and other activities of the laity are general probabilities for the origin of the church at Rome.


The Context of the Church

The epistle to the Romans manifests an antithesis that has led to differing conclusions on the context of the Roman church. Here I refer to the inconsistencies and conjectures regarding the composition of the church in Rome. Was the church composed predominantly of Jewish Christians or was it a predominantly Gentile congregation or a mixture of both? The school of criticism is widely divided over the church’s composition. It is, however, important to place the issue in a proper perspective since our perceptions of this have direct ramifications for an overall understanding of the theological construct of the epistle.


Mainly Jewish Christians

Ever since Ferdinand Baur’s supposition that the Roman church was mainly a Jewish-Christian congregation, discussions on the composition of the Roman church have generated more debates than did the origin of Christianity in Rome. Baur arrives at this conclusion by emphasizing the centrality of the addresses in the epistle which he believed had been made to Jewish Christians who had emerged from the Jewish community in Rome (1873). Although this thesis has met with considerable opposition within and outside his Tübingen School, he continues to appeal to scholars who believe that the Roman church composed mainly of Jewish Christians or at least formed the majority.

Among several reasons that have been advanced for this position, a more compelling one takes Romans 9-11 as its point of reference. The evidence is made here of the debate between the Pauline gospel, the Old Testament and rabbinic Judaism as dealing with issues that are more comprehensible and applicable to Jews than to Gentiles. This has been the strongest argument by the proponents in supporting the argument that the Roman church was predominantly Jewish Christians.

Nevertheless, there is no consensus among New Testament scholars. Some consider this argument to be “quite unjustified” on the premise that the “question of Israel was the question of God’s faithfulness to His promises, and as such was the concern of the Gentile Christian just as much as it was the concern of the Jews” (C.E.B. Cranfield, 1975:19).


Mainly Gentile Christians

Referring to indications supplied by the epistle itself, a second view argues that the church is either comprised primarily of Gentile Christians or that they are in the majority. There are inferences to Gentile elements that cannot be easily dismissed. For example, chapter 11:13-24 is a direct address to the Gentiles which, when compared with 11:28-31, provides strong indication of a Gentile Christian majority. Similarly, while in 1:5-7 the church at Rome is numbered “among all the Gentiles” who come under Paul’s apostleship, 1:13-15 considers the apostle as being under obligation to preach to them so that he “might have harvest” among them just as he has had “among the other Gentiles” (Werner Kümmel, 1984).


A Mixed Congregation

A third view, and perhaps the most probable, is that the Roman church was a mixed composition. The first evidence of this is the easy interchange of address by which the apostle addressed his audience, the Jews and the Gentiles alike. Apart from passages where Jews and Gentiles are mentioned together on the universal need of salvation (Rom. 1:14-16; 15:8-9), there are other references that pointedly suggest a mixed community. Romans 7:1 presumably addresses the Jews with its reference about those “who know the law,” and “to those who are under the law” (3:19). Romans 11:13, on the other hand, is pointedly addressed to the Gentiles with the apostle’s express declaration, “I speak to you Gentiles.”

Perhaps a more striking indication of the Roman church as a mixed congregation is found in the greetings in chapter 16. There we have a collection of names that point to a mixture of nationalities. We have examples of Jewish names such as Aquila, Mary (Miriam), and Apelles. Andronicus and Junias and Herodion are described as “kinsmen” (tribesmen) of the Apostle Paul. There are also Latin names as in the case of Urbanus, Ampliatus, Rufus and Julia. The remaining ten names are, without any doubt, Greek names.

One may not be able to determine with absolute certainty whether the majority of the Roman Christians were Jews or Gentiles. However, it is possible to conclude, as in the words of Cranfied, that “what is quite certain is that both the Jewish-Christian, and the Gentile-Christian, elements were considerable: it was clearly not a matter of an overwhelming majority and tiny minority” (1975:21).


Contextual Issues in the Roman Church

Again, there are many differing interpretations over the exact situation of the Roman church and the reason for the writing of Romans. There are scholars like T.W. Manson, Günther Bornkamm, and Robert J. Karris who view Romans as a theological treatise. On the other side of the divide are also scholars such as Jacob Jervell, Wolfgang Wiefel, and Karl Donfried who insist that Romans is a situational or circular letter that relates to an audience in a similar way as in other Pauline letters. To this extent, Karl Donfried has put together an insightful compilation in his work, The Romans Debate (1991).

Yet others such as John Polhill (1991), F. F. Bruce (1991), and A. J. M. Wedderburn (1988), argue for a combination of purposes in the writing of Romans. That is, Paul was writing to address problems within the Roman church as well as out of his own personal concerns. The concerns of raising the support of a unified Roman church for his proposed mission trip to Spain, and the concern of seeking the prayers of the Roman Christians with regards to his forthcoming trip to Jerusalem.

Despite the irreconcilable differences among scholars, most believe that Romans is best understood when interpreted as a letter written to Rome on account of responding to the tension and dissension between the Jewish and Gentile segments of the church. This tension was one of animosity and division between the liberal-minded Gentile Christian majority (the “strong” in faith) and their unwilling attitude to have a fellowship with the “weak” in faith, the conservative Jewish Christian minority.

James Dunn has helped to clarify the contrasting designations of the “strong” and the “weak.” The “weak” were considered “weak in faith” not because they were weaker Christians but, precisely because they were holding to the “fundamental elements of their traditional faith and practice.” On the contrary, the “strong” were so designated because like Abraham of old (Rom. 4:18-21), they trusted in God and Christ alone (1998:684).

Wolfang Wiefel seems to support the hypothesis of a Gentile majority. According to him, the Jewish Christians who had been expelled from Rome by Claudius in 49 CE, found upon their return during Nero’s reign, a flourished and dominant Gentile Christian community who has established a new church structure different from the old synagogue fellowship. He considers Paul’s letter a way of confronting the anti-Semitism present in the city, and to encourage a Jewish-Gentile fellowship (1991:85-101).


Jewish/Gentile Disunity as a Contextual Issue

Romans 14:1-15-13 provides us with evidence as to the contextual problem that was confronting the Roman church. The problem is one that has been rightly described as a “problem of the relation between faith and world view” (E. Käsemann, 1980:369). Although the problem divides the church along the contrasting titles of the “strong” and the “weak,” it could well refer to a general designation that brings out the difference between segments of the church that are fundamentally opposed both in principle and in practice. Not only are they fundamentally opposed in principle; their attitude is also described as judging and despising one another.


The “Weak” vis-à-vis the “Strong” in Faith

As I have already mentioned, the “weak” are the converted Jews “whose Christianity does not relieve them of doubts in the exercise of Christian liberty,” but rather on a dependence upon the Abrahamic covenant and on formal obedience to the Mosaic law. Consequently, their weakness in faith consisted in the fact that they subjected themselves to dietary restrictions that placed strict vegetarianism over any kind of meat. They were not convinced that their faith could be supported without this God-pleasing practice (14:2). Similarly, they were not strong enough to view all days of the week as being equal. Instead, they honored some days, presumably the Sabbath and the Jewish festival days, as being more sacred than other days (14:5).

The strong, on the other hand, stand in an antithetical position to the weak. They are the Gentile majority whose faith enabled them to exercise Christian liberty. They considered themselves strong in faith because of their freedom to eat anything without respect to dietary constraints (14:2, 14). Similarly, their religious freedom extended also to the calendar whereby all days are considered to be the same and equally sacred (14:5).


Disunity within the Church

The weak in faith constituted a problem to the unity of the church through their attitude of condemnation and accusation, while the strong added to it by abhorring the weak as incompatible with faith (14:4; 15:3). The result of these differing positions on the church, therefore, leaves little to the imagination. While the weak’s “demands of both consistency and legality prevented table-fellowship and common worship with the strong,” by scorning and despising the weak, the strong helps to stiffen the division thereby pushing the boundaries even further.


The Ministry of the Church

We continue to see in the New Testament evidence for a variety of forms of ministry in the first-century church. Although one cannot argue that the early Church’s ministry is necessarily normative in all instances, one can be sure that apostolic teachings certainly provided certain normative features that should appear in every expression of community life and ministry. The situation in the Roman church constitutes one of those instances where, although lacking the pattern of community life and ministry that is normative, yet is indicative of the meaning and pattern of church ministry. I will discuss the exhortation to the Roman church from two perspectives: sacrificial living as a mark of spiritual worship, and the complementarity of charismatic ministry.


Sacrificial Living as a Mark of Christian Ministry

Although the division within the Roman church makes a formidable pattern of ministry an elusive one, by his allusion to sacrificial living Paul intends to set a corrective course for the Roman congregation. The corrective is the sacrificial offering of the body in its totality and not just in individual parts (12:1). Through his use of the cultic language, “offer” and “sacrifice,” Paul wishes to contrast the Stoic and other philosophical polemics that intensify the “interiorizing of the ritual” with a fundamentally different understanding of true spiritual worship in which “bodily existence constitutively establishes worship” (E. Käsemann, 1980:328).

In other words, a true Christian worship is not one that is restricted to certain sacred practices or acts, but one that has been “transformed” as to agree with “God’s will to His praise in thought, will and act” (12:1-2). Consequently, Paul reduces the Christian ministry to a simple description of doing God’s will in the same pattern of Christ to his Father (Jn. 6:38). It is at this stage every Christian is simultaneously sacrifice and priest (1 Pet. 2:8).


Complementarity of Charismatic Ministry

There are many indications in the Pauline corpus that the concept of charisma is an important one to the apostle. This is demonstrated in the letters to his churches and in his address to the body of Christ. It is, therefore, not so surprising that he should exhort the Roman church on the significance of charisma in Christian ministry. Following his reference to the universal will of God for all believers expressed in the preceding two verses (12:1-2), Paul establishes further an identical universality of the priesthood of all believers and the divine authority for charismatic ministry (12:3-8).

While the charisma is a divinely given distinction for the individual, it is to be taken into the service of Christ and to facilitate the building up of his church. In other words, the capacities for charismatic service are not native to those who exercise them but are bestowed by the Spirit for the common energy of the Church as the Body of Christ. As Dunn has put it:

Each is a member of the body only in so far as the Spirit knits him into the corporate unity by the manifestation of grace through him. At no time did Paul conceive of two kinds of Christians—those who have the Spirit and those who do not. To be Christian in Paul’s view was to be charismatic. One cannot be a member of the body without being a vehicle of the Spirit’s ministry to the body (1990:110).

Consequently, the exercise of charismatic ministry must be mutual, devoid of arrogance, and reflecting soberness and satisfaction (12:3, 7-8).


The Theology of the Church: Apostolic Response to Contextual Issues

The main contextual issue that I have pointed out as a problem of the relation between faith and world view is less a matter of ethnic strife than it is of differing theological positions. The consequence of these differing nuances for the Roman church was one of great division and one that required the apostle Paul to appeal precisely to the unity of God and His impartiality as the dynamics of a coherent Christian relationship. Many scholars agree that Paul was not driven to write the Romans by the need to support any of the warring factions. On the contrary, his guiding principle is theological, and bothers on the unity of the church.

In responding to the division that was already ripping the Roman church apart, three issues deserve attention in our consideration of the apostolic construction of the dynamics of a coherent Christian relationship. These dynamics fall under the rubric of the obligation of love, the call to worship, and the convergence in Christ.


The Obligation of Love

In his description of a functioning church, Paul sets the whole sequence of a coherent Christian relationship under the rubric of mutual forbearance in love. In his exhortation to the divided church, Paul first addresses the “strong” with regard to hospitality for the “weak” in faith. The strong, on one hand, are not only obligated to love but are to conduct themselves in a self-denying manner that does not cause hurtful feelings to their fellow weak Christian counterparts (14:3-4, 14-15, 21; 15:1-3). The weak, on the other hand, are obligated not to judge the strong for not sharing their scruples but to regard such practices as optional matters between the individual and God rather than as authoritative divine commands (14:3-4, 10-12).


The Call to Worship

The injunction to “accept the one who is weak in faith” (14:1) is a call to the Roman church and an attempt by Paul to redefine what it means to be the people of God. To be the people of God is to be able to embrace divergent views and practices where there is no disposition to pass judgment on disputable matters. Instead, what the assembly needs is the “spirit of unity” so that in one accord (“with one heart and mouth”) they may “glorify” God (15:5-6). Consequently, Paul echoes his earlier call for acceptance (14:1). But this time it takes on the form of an exhortation to both groups for a mutual acceptance of all “in accordance with Christ Jesus” as the one in and through whom fulfillment of covenant promise and Gentile incoming have been made possible (15:7-13).


Christ: The Point of Convergence

Paul’s overarching emphasis on unity for the divided church climaxes with his allusion to Christ. Two things are worthy of consideration in the reference to Jesus Christ. First, through his teaching and example, Jesus provided a model of self-denial and true acceptance of others (15:1-7). Thus, the exemplary life of Jesus becomes the basic hermeneutic for Christian worship and behavior and a focal point of unity within the church. Secondly, the plea for mutual acceptance and tolerance finds relevance in the universal dimension of Jesus’ ministry. Although Christ was a Jew by natural descent, his death and resurrection have a universal dimension that confirms God’s faithfulness both to the Jews and also to the Gentiles. In other words, both the Jews and the Gentiles have now been brought into God’s overall plan of salvation through His grace and by faith in Jesus Christ (15:7-13).

This exploration in a biblical understanding of the Church is to remind us that the path of Christian discipleship calls us continually to press on toward the frontier but to do so in full awareness of the path the church has taken thus far. It is precisely for this purpose, to distinguish to a degree between historical events and theological interpretations, that this series has gone back in time to the primitive Christianity of Apostolic times. The problems and struggles of the past call for the present fledging Nigerian (African) church to be flexible and responsive. Failure to develop an articulate and renewed vision of the nature, purpose, and characteristics of the Church of the future should be as worrisome and challenging as the paralysis that attended the dominating ecclesiastical forces of previous centuries. This is what this exercise is about. It is geared towards providing guidelines that must be put in the foreground as an essential key toward the future.



(Next series: The Church in Corinth)

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