The canonised writings of the apostle Paul take the form of (traditionally) thirteen epistles. Nine were written to churches with which he had various relations. For example, Galatians (the earliest 49-52AD) was written to a church of Pauline converts he visited twice
During the time of Paul’s mission, as apostle to the Gentiles (Rom. 11:13; Stambaugh & Balch, 1986, p. 54), the people of Mediterranean basin were undergoing change. Greco-Roman culture was progressively influential
A common language and well established trade routes coupled with personal mobility, both physical and social, facilitated the expansion of Christianity during its first 120 years
By modern standards the cities were small but overcrowded. Cities would contain sizeable ethnic communities
Households were large inclusive communities consisting of extended family, slaves, friends, tenants, partners and clients involved in common commercial or agricultural enterprise. Housing would be shared by the extended kin often with individual rooms shared by nuclear groups
Status within community was shaped by ‘achieved status’/‘acquired honour’ (wealth, education, occupation) and ‘accredited status’/‘ascribed honour’ (race, gender, birth, legal status)
Roman society was pluralistic and polytheistic
The Christian ‘religion’ started with political friction. New religions required political licence
The house churches were groups of Christians that would gather together in private homes (Acts 2:46; 5:42; 12:12). These meetings were typically small, limited by the physical size of the premise
Several households are mentioned in scripture: Nympha in Laodicea (Col 4:15), Philemon in Colossae (Philemon 2) and Lydia in Philippi (Acts 16) hosted gatherings of early Christians in their homes
In many ways these gatherings reflect contemporary Christian ‘services’. They would meet for fellowship (Hebrews 10:25), music (Ephesians 5:19), prayer and public reading of scripture (1 Timothy 4:13), teaching (Colossians 3:16) and conflict resolution (1 Corinthian 5).
The pattern of modern churches being based around a central public building is a clear point of distinction. Designated buildings owned collectively by the church for the purpose of worship were not seen until the middle of the third century
Another distinction is the social dynamic within the church. The church began as a community that ‘held all things in common’ (Acts 2:44). However private property continued to exist (private homes) and unloving class distinctions persisted (1 Corinthian 10). Early churches formed as communitas of anti-hierarchical brotherhoods with loose structure and strong sense of belonging
To accurate read and interpret Paul’s writings we must appreciate that he lived in and preached to a world very different from our own. Failure to recognise differences leads to the ethnocentric tendency to regard our own experiences
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