Reading Romans (2)
All Spirituality Is Local
“I’m longing to see you! I want to share with you some spiritual blessing to give you strength; that is, I want to encourage you, and be encouraged by you, in the faith you and I share.”
- Romans 1:11-12, Kingdom NT
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For years, I never thought of Romans as a letter.
Oh, I knew in my mind that Paul had written it as an epistle to the church in Rome, but every time I read it or heard a sermon or study on it, I could have sworn Romans was a theological tome written by a teacher to instruct Christians in systematic theology. That’s how it was presented to me, and I came to think of it pretty much exclusively in those terms.
It wasn’t until I was in seminary and heard some teaching on Romans 16 that I began to appreciate the personal side of Romans. As I was exposed to more extensive teaching on the background and life setting of the New Testament and learned about the real life issues that were being addressed in the faith communities to which the apostles wrote, I realized that letters like Romans weren’t about “doctrine,” they were about how the story of Jesus is meant to transform the story of our lives as God’s people together.
The arguments Paul makes in Romans are not meant to fill books for the library shelves in a seminary, to be studied and debated in academic forums or encapsulated in doctrinal statements. They were written to shopkeepers, tradespeople, slaves, farmers, and all manner of men, women, and children in house congregations in and around Rome to help them know and love God and their neighbors better.
It’s important that, all the way through, we hold in our minds a historical picture of the Romans’ church and its questions, rather than imagining that it was a church just like one of ours.
- Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part One
In particular, there was an issue in Rome that is so foreign to today’s church that most of us don’t give much attention to it when reading Romans or other NT texts.
Jewish religion was not highly regarded in Roman society. In fact, six or eight years before Paul wrote Romans, the emperor Claudius had expelled the Jewish community from Rome, including many Jewish Christians (see Acts 18:2). Later, when Nero came to the throne, he allowed the Jews to return. For several years then, the Roman congregations were composed entirely of non-Jews. They became a wholly Gentile church with little or no background or connection to the Law and Jewish traditions. When the Jews returned, one can well imagine that conflicts arose between believers from the two cultures and the ways they understood and practiced their faith in Jesus.
…it is likely that the return of a significant number of Jewish Christians caused at least some friction between Gentile and Jew within (and among) the Christian house churches. The relatively greater vulnerability of the returning Jews would at least partially explain why Paul felt it necessary to warn his gentile readers against any feelings of superiority over their Jewish fellows (11:17-21). And the growing self-confidence of the gentile Christians in their sense of increasing independence from the synagogue and over against the returning Jewish Christians makes perfect sense as the background and context for Paul’s counsel in 14:1 and in the following paragraphs (14:1-15:6).
- J.D.G. Dunn, Romans (WBC)
If this is an important part of the life setting of the Roman congregations that received Paul’s epistle, then we are forced to look at this letter somewhat differently. For example:
- No longer are such sections such as Romans 9-11, where the question of Israel’s place in God’s plan is discussed, subsidiary to the “main” sections of “salvation” doctrine.
- Questions about “the Law” that arise throughout Paul’s arguments are not about some supra-cultural set of moral standards but about covenantal requirements God gave to a specific nation.
- The more “practical” parts of the letter, such as chapters 14-15, are not general exhortations about Christian living based on sound doctrine, but specific instructions to a community dealing with ethnic and cultural conflicts. Paul is helping Jews and Gentiles work out their understanding of what a Jewish Messiah that came in a context of patriarchal promises and a covenant history now requires from a community of both Jews and Gentiles.
This is not the place to do a full analysis of this issue (and others) in the life setting of Rome and in Paul’s ministry that led him to write as he did in Romans. I simply want to make a point today.
Doctrine is not just doctrine in the New Testament. There are life settings that Paul and the other apostles were addressing. The letters themselves often contain numerous clues to help us understand those circumstances.
I have gotten over my early habits in Bible study where I concentrated on the “meat” (the doctrinal parts) and considered sections like the opening and closing greetings and some of the exhortation sections as “secondary.” These are the very sections that often open our eyes to why these letters were written as they were. They are like windows into the doctrines. Good background studies assist us even further.
Even in the Bible, it always starts with people and a community and pastoral leaders who care for them.
All spirituality is local.