Romans: A House Church Manifesto? 3 (Drake)
The present thesis is an attempt to examine Romans as a letter primarily concerned with ecclesiology by demonstrating that Paul's purpose was to call the clustered house churches that suffered varying degrees of dysfunction into a proper understanding of the one family of God. This would not only solve the problem of disharmony, which has been identified as the chief area of concern, but it would also prepare them to deal with subsequent ethical issues as well.
Robert Friedmann's comparison of various approaches to how the church relates to God, reproduced in Figure 2, may be helpful in visualizing the concept of the believers' church that Paul so strongly reinforces in Chapters 12-15 by contrasting it with other expressions common in Christianity today.
|Figure 2. Three Approaches to Ecclesiology.|
That Romans offers no support for the ecclesiology of Catholicism is evident in the fact that Paul makes no plea for the clusters of Roman churches to unite into a single congregation, or to submit themselves to a single bishop, but simply addresses his comments to the clustered assemblies in their present context. His only mention of leadership (Rom. 12:8) is to include it last among six enumerated gifts. The ecclesiology denoted as "Protestantism" in the figure removes the hierarchy of the Catholic model, but fails to recognize any methodology for actualizing the Rule of Christ over the believers. Both of these models are further complicated by the fact, not shown in the figure but true over the long history of the magisterial church, that distributed among the "believers" are great numbers of unregenerate people. Furthermore, as one examines the record of church history, these non-believers are very often distributed throughout the power structures of the church-state complex. The greatest expression of this may have been Constantine himself, not baptized until years later, presiding over the proceedings of the Council of Nicaea.
Without denying the possibility that the triune God can and does allow humanity to relate appropriately with him as individuals, the normative relationship between God and humanity--the machinery that puts believers under the kingship of Christ in working through the agenda of God as co-laborers in redemptive ministry--is through the community of believers. The fact that Paul devotes nearly three chapters to the ethics of this community of faith shows that a church is not merely something that results when two or three believers are gathered in an upper room. The church--that special assembly of believers that has the power to bind and loose and which has the keys of heaven--must be the two or three believers gathered in Christ's name. This requires the very special relationship that Paul makes such an effort to present to the believers located in the capital of the Empire. They are, in other words, to regard themselves as members of the one family of God; they are to shape themselves in a rightly constituted house church.
The material in Rom. 12:3-15:6, designated as the ethics of the one family of God and identified as element D' in Figure 1, needs to be examined with a certain degree of caution. Just as we lack one half of the Corinthian correspondence--the letters that prompted the replies known as 1st and 2nd Corinthians--we lack half of the Roman Correspondence. We can only speculate on the manner that the situation in Rome had come to the Paul's attention. Some have said that the problems may have been reported by Priscilla and Aquila upon their return to Rome, but it is also possible that Paul might have heard from a variety of sources as people had traveled between the church at Corinth and the capital city in the months preceding his winter layover in that city. The theme statement of Rom. 15:7 strongly indicates that the fundamental problem was one of disunity. As the main message of Chapters 9-11 suggests, the particular problem was the failure of Gentiles to see their Jewish brothers and sisters as an essential remnant in God's agenda and the Gentile attitude toward people with Jewish roots as being an obstruction to that agenda.
A number of other particular problems are articulated in the letter as well, however. Some of these are specific to the Jewish/Gentile differences, such as the dietary practices and preferences for holding certain days holy. But this ethical material suggest a number of specifics that Paul may have understood as issues in the Roman churches that were less directly related to Gentile-Jewish tension. Paul may have been aware of arrogance with regard to gifting (Rom. 12:3), misunderstandings in the six specific gifts mentioned in Rom. 12:6-8 (prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhorting, giving, leadership), instances of open hostility toward the state (Rom. 13:1-7) similar to those that caused Claudius to eject the Jews from Rome earlier, and various other problems. Even if Paul did not have a list of secondary issues that he intended to deliberately weave into the letter, his experiences with the churches "from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum" (Rom. 15:19) had given him a catalog of problems that tend to be chronic stumbling blocks.
But Romans is not organized as a list of problems and solutions. Instead, it is a carefully crafted document that has a specific literary form that focuses on the idea of the one family of God, emphasizing that theme through the climactic centrality of the chiasmic form, encapsulating it in a call for obedience, enclosing it within a clear statement of theme and recapitulation, packaging it in a layer of doctrinal foundation and ethics, and finally encircling it in an epistolary frame that not only meets the standards of the first century letter, but which also includes the passages of thanksgiving and benediction that Paul used in his other letters. Where Paul turned to subsidiary matters, whether he may have been deliberately responding to known issues or not, those matters were treated within that literary structure. That he did this is greatly significant, because it suggests that Paul's broader purpose went beyond the idea of one family of God as an intellectual ideal upon which their ministries should be based, but rather that the one family of God mandated an ecclesiology. Each Roman house church, in other words, needed to understand itself not as a mere assembly of believers who became members of the one family of God through a rite of baptism, but as a part of God's kingdom that could only function correctly if it operated as a true unity that subsequent generations would call a "believers'," or "house" church.
The secondary issues that Paul works through in element D' of Figure 1, become examples of how a church with right ecclesiology should approach those problems. Absolutely central to that process is what the present paper has called intra-church love, treated above, which showed the that individuals should subordinate their own wills to the corporate will of the body and understand that their own gifts are to serve that body (Rom. 12:3-5); they need to properly appreciate and respect the gifts of others (Rom. 12:6-8).
The "weak and strong" material that begins in Rom. 14:1 and continues through Rom. 15:4 provides other specific examples of how specific problems should be worked out through intra-church love. Paul generalizes the process in Rom. 14:13, "... make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way," and in Rom. 14:21, "It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall." These are not to be seen as mere principles for resolving ethical problems in the church--rather, they are to be understood as an essential aspect of how the mechanism of the rightly functioning church is to operate. The subordination of the will of the individual to the body is to consist of purging oneself of all individual wants, desires, opinions, and hidden agendas when the church meets. Only in this way can the members "please his neighbor for his good, to build him up" (Rom. 15:2), have a "spirit of unity" as they "follow Christ Jesus" (Rom. 15:5), and "with one heart and mouth ... glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 15:6). In these concluding words of the ethical section of the letter, immediately followed by the theme recapitulation of Rom. 15:7, Paul provides the essence the house church dynamic.
Paul says nothing about building the church in numbers, but Romans Rom. 15:2 does speak of building the body by cultivating the "good" of its believers. This requires sensitivity and encouragement, and results in the kind of growth that comes from concentrating on "building up" () its members. This process embraces the idea of construction, but also of edification, which indicates that the teaching function is not to end with catechism and baptism. Fitzmyer emphasizes the spiritual component, or "spiritual development." The house church, in other words, is to build itself from the inside-out, each member growing spiritually. Where this process manifests itself in witnessing skill, one might suppose that the growth of the fellowship itself may take place, but Paul remains silent on church growth as understood by the evangelical church.
Rom. 15:5 repeats the imperative of Rom. 12:16, where Paul calls the Romans to "live in harmony with one another...." The church is to model its unity in accord with Christ. It is significant that Paul prays to God for harmony, recognizing that their unity is not an act of will but a gift of God. The kind of unity that invokes the privilege of binding and loosing and the discernment of God's will that is associated with that privilege, is actualized in the dynamic of intra-church love--this special and spiritual unity is a gift of God. It is not possible without the presence of God's Holy Spirit.
While Paul certainly does not discourage the praising of God by individuals, in Rom. 15:6, he is clear that a full expression of praise is only possible when it emerges from the "one heart and mouth" (NIV) of the full fellowship. We are not to take this as the mere multiplication of numbers, but rather in the context of the "spirit of unity" that takes place when the community of faith gathers as members of the one family of God.
The present paper has pursued a number of threads: The text of Romans, the historical believers' church, and the writings of contemporary house church theologians. Its success in showing Romans to be a "House Church Manifesto" depends on how well those threads merge. A short list of topics are offered for comparison, below.
It has been argued here that Paul wrote to local churches as they were already constituted, making no recommendations that would cause members to change their church affiliation or to develop a single, large congregation. This is consistent with the historical believers church during the radical reformation, just as it was in the case of the persecuted Baptists of seventeenth century England and America. Over the succeeding centuries, believers churches have tended to build larger fellowships, but this has been accompanied by a shallowness of faith that has resulted in the many cries for reform that have spawned the modern church growth movement. Among such modern advocates as Lyle Schaller, the solution is to incorporate small groups into the church structure; believers' church writer Del Birkey goes even farther, suggesting that nothing less than a return to the first century house church model will do. One cannot prove that Paul would have rejected a larger church context in Rome, but from his elaborate section on the importance and nature of intra-church love, impossible in a large congregation, the argument that Paul visualized the house church context is not really an argument from silence. As Birkey has pointed out, all churches of Paul's day were house churches.
Certainly, the churches of Rome were composed of voluntary members; many, in fact, had suffered greatly, being exiled for a number of years. Paul's treatment of baptism and the need for catechism prior to baptism is completely consistent with the literature of the modern believers' church writers. This is also a factor that has been foundational in the historical believers' church, which underwent serious persecutions because this concept of voluntary membership in an outlawed church was seen as a repudiation of the magisterial church.
The treatment of baptism as an initiatory rite is the clear teaching of Romans, as is the symbolism of the rite articulated by Paul in Rom. 6:3-4. The believers' church of the Radical Reformation, likewise, regarded (re-)baptism as initiation, and actualized Paul's symbolism in the act of immersion that they soon adopted as the standard mode of Christian baptism. This understanding of baptism has been well documented by believers' church writers.
One finds interesting confirmation of this in the writings of Jesuit Joseph Fitzmyer, who agrees both with the initiatory nature of baptism and with its significance as acted out in immersion: "Paul's symbolism is sufficiently preserved if the baptized person is regarded as somehow under the water."
The fact that the Kingdom of God was not just something that Jesus proclaimed as an indefinite future event, but was something actually inaugurated by the death of Christ was an obvious feature of the early confessions of faith in the historical house church, even if inaugurated eschatology has only recently been worked out theologically. Paul was very consistent in this thinking in Romans, using "Kingdom" in the present tense and calling the churches to a very real obedience to a very present and active king.
N. T. Wright's study of Pauline theology was centered on Romans 9-11 and articulated the eschatological flavor of Paul's argument that the Church needed to be mindful of their part in God's agenda. He stopped short, however, of connecting that with inaugurated eschatology and therefore missed the link to the house church.
Fitzmyer lists ecclesiology first in his enumeration of the deficits of Romans as a complete doctrinal treatise. One must, of course, evaluate Fitzmyer's opinion in the light of his own Roman Catholic presuppositions, which, as has been noted, Romans surely does not share. But the present writer has found that approaching the book with the assumption that Romans is, above all else, a book on the doctrine of ecclesiology has yielded much fruit.
Fitzmyer is correct when he says that the word "church" is not mentioned until the last chapter, and there "only in the sense of a local or house church." The problem, of course, is obvious in the way he phrases that observation--revealing the blindness of many of the books' interpreters. When one seeks a hierarchical, magisterial church in Romans, one does not find it. When one dismisses the local churches in this way, one cannot see its ecclesiology. It therefore becomes impossible to see that Paul's main purpose was to show these house churches how to fully grasp their franchise under the ecclesiology established by God in Matthew 16 and 18--a church granted the very privilege of binding and loosing as it precedes through the many cultures and centuries between Pentecost and the Lord's second coming.
Even though it has been shown that the names listed in Romans 16 do not give clues to Jewish ancestry, Birkey has shown that some of the non-Roman names demonstrates the presence of a "broad racial diversity" in the Roman churches. The message of Jewish-Gentile relations that occupies the heart of Romans is certainly compatible with this observation.
This is an area that is less clear in believers' church history, even though one can find many missionary outreaches to foreign cultures of the world among Anabaptists, Baptists, and other groups that share that ecclesiology. Similar missionary events have been made under the auspices of Roman Catholicism, however, especially in the era prior to the radical reformation, and the teaching of some Baptist theologians in the American south during the first half of the nineteenth century hardly match the multiethnic attitude of Paul as revealed in Romans.
It is easy, in the politically correct climate of this era, to criticize some of the believers' church practitioners in our history. This is an area that, for the present, requires judgments that are beyond the scope of the present paper, and it will be necessary to leave the congruence of the historical believers' church to the ideal of the truly integrated congregation as an open question. For Baptist churches, just as in many other denominations, America is never more segregated than it is at 11:00 on Sunday morning.
In Romans, Paul is attempting to unify diverse cultural elements within each local church. He seeks a unity along the lines of the one family of God; this is not a unity of the various individual churches, but rather it is a unity within each church that brings strength to each church, glory to God, and an furthering of God's agenda. The problems that divide Christians in local churches may be different today, and it is therefore significant that Romans is not simply a solution to specific problems that are now obsolete, but a vital and relevant work that imparts the biblical mechanism for finding solutions for all time--present and future. By following Paul's ground rules that Christians worship in relatively small but ethnically diverse fellowships made up of catechized, confessing believers, that they have a mutual respect for each others gifts, that they build each other up, that they understand the Kingdom and its King as their place of citizenship, and that they learn to put aside their own agendas and work toward the eschatological objectives of God--they may then be assured that they will have the perception needed to solve any ethical problem, just as they will have the authority to enforce that solution because it will be honored both on earth and in heaven. The church that does this is comprised of the one family of God. It is a house church.