Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Understanding the Early Development of the House Churches in Rome, part 1

One of the most significant works on this topic is Judaism and Christianity in First-Century Rome , Edited by Karl P. Donfried and Peter Richardson (Grand Rapids, MI, Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company ©1998). I’m going to cite from this work for the next several posts.

William L. Lane [Wesleyan University (B.A.), Gordon Divinity School (B.D.), Westminster Theological Seminary (M.Th.), and Harvard Divinity School (Th.D.), who has written a commentary on Mark for the New International Commentary on the New Testament series and a two-volume commentary on Hebrews in the Word Biblical Commentary series]; contributed a paper to this work, entitled “Social Perspectives on Roman Christianity during the Formative Years from Nero to Nerva: Romans, Hebrews, 1 Clement.

In this paper, he provides “a fresh evaluation of the evidence bearing on a Christian presence in Rome over the span of approximately 40 years, from the time of Paul’s letter to the Romans in 57 AD to the writing of 1 Clement. In his introduction, Donfried summarizes this work:
The continuities and discontinuities in Roman Christianity in the period from Nero to Nerva are among the central concerns in William L. Lane’s essay …. He maintains it is possible to speak of a trajectory since there is a continuum in the development of Christianity from Romans to Hebrews to 1 Clement.
Lane is writing in 1998, and is essentially following the same trajectory that was followed by Raymond Brown and John P. Meier in Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Catholic Christianity, New York, NY: Paulist Press, ©1983). Donfried continues:
Roman Christianity is anchored in Judaism, and it was successful in missionizing the Jewish Diaspora community in Rome, which was largely organized in the form of district synagogues. Romans is addressed to a troubled community in Rome, largely the result of Claudius’s expulsion of synagogue and church leaders [in 49 AD: see Acts 18:2-3] who had been responsible for the disruption of civil peace in the city, and the tensions resultant upon the return of these groups to a church that was now predominantly Gentile. The exegetical key to the letter is to be found in Romans 15:1-13; viz., that Roman Christians, comprised of Jews and Gentiles, are to welcome one another, just as they have been welcomed and accepted by Christ.

The household setting of Roman Christianity provides the social context for the development of leadership structures; many of these church hosts provided leadership, and there appears to be a close relationship between such patronage and developing leadership. While wealthy patrons contributed to the expansion of Christianity, those churches dependent on the households of wealthy patrons also showed signs of fragmentation and dissension. In this way, the theme of reconciliation, referred to by Lane earlier, takes on expanded importance: “One of the purposes of Romans was to urge reconciliation between alienated constituencies of Jews and Gentiles, and to reinforce unity in a fragmented church denied the privilege of common worship.” This latter emphasis is not unimportant, given Lane’s conviction that there is no evidence for a common meeting of the Christians in Rome, let alone a single church structure.

Hebrews provides independent testimony to Roman Christianity in the decade following Romans. In all likelihood it was directed to one of the several house churches in Rome, the roots of which lie in the life of a Hellenistic synagogue. The audience addressed in Hebrews is, however, distinguished from their leaders, from whom they appear to be alienated, thus the author of [Hebrews] has a decided interest in strengthening the respect and obedience for those in positions of leadership. Hebrews 13 reveals that the existence of this leadership relies on charismatic endowment and service to the congregation, not on patronage, as was observed in Romans. Since there is not yet any hierarchical structure in the community, this leadership is derived entirely from the authority of the word proclaimed.
Brown and Meier take the view that Hebrews was most probably written to the Jewish Christians in Rome. F.F. Bruce concurs that that is one of the more likely scenarios. If that’s the case, note that the author, writing to Roman Jewish Christians, to those who would be conscious of the supposed “eternal” nature of Rome, says, “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). He also says, “Obey your leaders [plural] and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17).

Continuing with Donfried’s introduction:
The social structure of this community reveals other tensions as well. The household setting continues to contribute to the fragmentation of the church and a “potential for strained relationships existed in the tension between the householder, who as host and patron held prerogatives of social authority, and those who had been recognized as leaders on the basis of charismatic endowment.” Given this type of situation, it becomes recognizable why 1 Clement, a generation after Paul’s death, gives evidence “of the institutionalizing forces at work.”

Although there are no specific references to house churches in I Clement, the continued household setting of Roman Christianity is alluded to in 1 Clement 1.2; 10.7; 11.1; 12.1-3, especially by the emphasis placed on the household virtue of hospitality, and this suggestion is further supported by evidence from Hermas.
Let’s check those references in 1 Clement:
1 Clement 1.2: For has anyone ever visited you who did not approve your most excellent and steadfast faith? … who did not proclaim the magnificent character of your hospitality?

1 Clement 10.7: And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Because of his faith and hospitality a son was given to him in his old age, and for the sake of obedience he offered him as a sacrifice to God on one of the mountains that he showed him.

1 Clement 11.1: Because of his hospitality and godliness Lot was saved from Sodom when the entire region was judged by fire and brimstone.

1 Clement 12.1-3: Because of her faith and hospitality Rahab the harlot was saved. For when the spies were sent to Jericho by Joshua the son of Nun, the king of the land realized that they had come to spy out their country, and so he sent out men to capture them, intending to put them to death as soon as they were caught. The hospitable Rahab, however, took them in and hid them in an upstairs room under some flax stalks.
Continuing with Donfried:
While Christian communities in Rome are able to act and express themselves as a whole, they still consist of a network of groups meeting in the home[s] of wealthy fellow believers. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the writer of this letter remarks that Rome is troubled by the same spirit of competition and strife that plagues Corinth (1 Clem 7:1 [“We (plural) write these things, dear friends, not only to admonish you but also to remind ourselves. For we are in the same arena, and the same contest awaits us”]. As a result, 1 Clement is valuable for the study of Roman Christianity because it reflects the social setting and the structures of leadership in that city.

“The household structure of the church in Rome and under the leadership of wealthy patrons,” urges Lane, “would tend to promote a spirit of independence reflected in a variety of Christian cells differing from one another in varying degrees.” This situation, coupled with the void left by death of the apostles and persecutions under Nero, not to mention more general societal pressures, all contributed to the development of more formal and centralized functions of leadership in Roman Christianity during the period of 1 Clement and Hermas. Quite different from the period of leadership marked by charismatic endowment, distinct groups known as “bishops,” “presbyters,” and “deacons” are now invested with authority through the consent of the wider church in Rome. This maturation is understood as a reflection of the creative will of God, in whom all formal structures of ecclesiology are grounded. Even though formal criteria for leadership are being developed, there is “no explicit evidence for a hierarchy of leadership in the Roman church” according to 1 Clement. Although 1 Clement breaks new ground and achieves a formal legitimation for certain ecclesiastical structures that were emerging at Rome (and in Corinth), Lane is insistent that there is a “basic continuity in the development of the church form Romans to 1 Clement.
Next time, Lord willing, I’ll actually get around to citing Lane.

No comments:

Post a Comment