At the moment, in many Christian services of worship around the world, readings are being heard each week from the longest of Paul’s seven authentic letters: the letter to the Romans. We’ve already read sections from chapter 5 through to the start of chapter 8, and in coming weeks we will hear from later sections in chapter 8 through to chapter 14.
This letter contains a wealth of material from which later church doctrine has been developed. As Paul wrote to the believers in Rome, however, his eye was not primarily on doctrinal matters, but on the composition and conduct of the church in his time.
Paul is concerned to ensure that Jews and Gentiles each know that they have a place within the community of faith. Neither group is to assume that they have any prior claim to membership of the community, nor is either group to argue that they have exclusive rights to this membership.
As Paul addresses himself to the believers in Rome, he is most likely writing with some awareness of their situation. We can presume that this community began, as did so many other early Christian groups, as a community of Jewish believers, to whom Gentiles were attracted.
Indeed, some of the individuals whom Paul greets in chapter 16 were probably Jews: those whom Paul addresses as his “compatriots” (Andronicus and Junia, 16:7; Herodion, 16:11) as well as Rufus (16:13; he may possibly be the son who noted at Mark 15:21?).
We know from Roman sources that the emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from the imperial capital. Suetonius writes, “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he [the Emperor Claudius] expelled them from Rome” (in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, on Claudius 25). It is most likely that this was in the year 49CE.
As the Jewish members of the Christian community were forced to flee, they left the Gentile members to keep the faith community alive. (Most of the names of people identified in chapter 16 indicate Gentile origins.)
After some time, when Jews were permitted to return to Rome, the influx of Jewish members into the Roman faith community—now Gentile in orientation —would undoubtedly have cause tensions.
We may hypothesise: Did the Jewish members who had returned attempt to have the community ‘revert’ to its earlier practices and customs? Did the Gentile members who had begun to develop a new ethos resist these pressures and assert that their way was the new way forward?
It is easy to see that this situation may have formed the background, in Rome, of Paul’s letter to the Romans—after all, it moves to a climactic argument that Jews belong with Gentiles as the people of God (9:1–11:36), and later includes a clear injunction to seek unity with one another (15:1–13).
Such a situation reflected the same dynamic which Paul had encountered in other places—Philippi, Galatia and Corinth, as his own letters attest, as well as other locations, as the book of Acts reports. The dynamic involved pressure being placed on Gentile believers to adopt Jewish practices. This was often met by assertions that these Jewish demands were unreasonable and perhaps even opposed to the Gospel.
It is similarly easy to imagine that this dynamic, which had so imprinted itself of Paul’s way of being over the past decade or more, lies not far from the surface of Paul’s letter to the Romans. After all, Paul addresses a rather forceful section of his letter directly to his Jewish listeners (2:1–3:20), moving all the time towards the conclusion that Jews and Gentiles stand in the same relationship to God (3:9, 19–20).
Later in the same letter, Paul directly addresses “you Gentiles” (11:13), with an impassioned plea that they are to accept that they share an equally-valid place in the community of faith alongside the Jews. Significantly, Paul’s letter includes the claim that, as well as “the full number (Greek to pleroma) of the Gentiles” (11:25), this community has room for “the full inclusion (Greek to pleroma)” of Israel (11:12).
From all of this, we can see that Paul was very much a contextual theologian. What purpose did Paul have in mind as he dictated this, his longest letter? (His scribe, Tertius, introduced himself right at the end, in Rom 16:22). For me, this purpose was less about providing a summation of his doctrine (a view that had prominence from the Reformation through until the middle of the 20th century), and much more about responding to the issues of the people who would receive and hear this letter (and preserve it—so that we would be able to read 2000 years later).
And that offers us an important role model, in the 21st century: theology is best done in place, with specific people in their own situation, addressing their immediate concerns and shaping an understanding of the Gospel that engages the realities of that time and place. It’s a model we would do well to emulate.