October 25, 2020

What Was It Like for Christians in Rome When Romans Was Written?

To read Romans 1-11 well, one must know the context, and that context is mostly portrayed in Romans 12-16.

Reading Romans Backwards, p. 57

• • •

In Scot McKnight’s new and wonderfully helpful book, Reading Romans Backwards, Scot contends that “Romans is too often read as if it were theoretical theology. It’s not. Romans is a pastoral theology front to back or, in our case, back to front, and its deepest concern is Peace, not Privilege, not Power” (p. 57).

The first section of his book is all about the context of that pastoral theology. What was it like for the Christian community in Rome at the time when Romans was written? What issues in the community was Paul addressing?

Scot McKnight calls this section, “A Community Needing Peace,” and today we’ll set forth a summary of the setting in life this epistle was written to confront.

  • The Christian churches in Rome were in the poorer sections of the city.
  • The original Christian converts were Jews from the Roman synagogues.
  • Emperor Claudius expelled many of them in AD49, seeing them as a threat to Roman traditions.
  • Many of them returned later, especially in the days of Nero.
  • When they returned they found that the social structure of the churches had changed: “A non-Torah observance culture had formed,” SM writes, noting that Gentiles of higher social status had reshaped the congregations in ways that were less than acceptable to the Jewish believers.
  • These are the “Strong” and the “Weak” in the churches that Paul addresses in Rom. 14:1-15:13. These groups were in tension and conflict with each other.
  • The Weak were predominantly Jewish believers who practiced Torah, may have still attended synagogue, and were judgmental toward Gentile ways and culture. They were upset that their Gentile brothers and sisters had begun introducing Torah-unfriendly ways into the churches.
  • The Strong were predominantly Gentile believers who believed in Jesus as Lord but who had no tradition of keeping Torah and did not feel it necessary in order to follow Jesus. They tended to look down on their Jewish brethren, who were of lower social status.

Thus it was that in Romans Paul was addressing churches trying to cope with problems of resentment, pride, and infighting. At the heart of it all was the “new thing” that God was doing in Christ — bringing disparate people together in one body, one family of faith, hope, and love.

Paul’s mission was to establish mission churches that expanded Israel’s privileged location in God’s redemptive plan by including gentiles. Tensions on top of tensions arose in the blending of diverse families in this new family of God. For Paul, Christoformity* was the only way Jewish and gentile believers could live in peace, love, and reconciliation. His dominant image for the churches — that is, Israel expanded — was family and sibling language: they were not just Jews and gentiles but brothers and sisters in Chrsit. Families are shaped by love for one another, so Paul’s major ethical vision for his mission churches is love (12:9; 13:10; 14:15; 15:30), the kind of love that would lead to peace in the heart of the empire. (p. 59)

• • •

* – “Christoformity” is Scot McKnight’s term for the “lived theology” that Paul was urging upon the Roman Christians. The word describes the process of becoming conformed to Christ: that is, to be a person who is “in Christ” — in union with Christ — and to live “the life of God-in-Christ for the redemption of others” (p. 28).


  1. Robert F says

    Families are shaped by love for one another….

    If only that were always so.

  2. senecagriggs says


    • Steve Newell says

      It that the latest theme at your local “mega church”?

      Why study St. Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome when you can experience being a Roman. But would they have a coliseum with lions to exercise what the Christians maryters would experience? That would be a downer if the church is selling Christianity as a way to be “better life” based on the American ideas.

    • senecagriggs says

      Is a church of 130 people now considered a “mega church? ”

      • anonymous says

        seems to me that where two or more are gathered in His Name, and He is Present with them, this makes the gathering a ‘Church’,
        so the SIZE of the number of people seems irrelevant if their intention in gathering is ‘in His Name’

        I guess it’s the $$$ large numbers of people bring in that makes a ‘mega’ ???????


  3. “in Romans Paul was addressing churches trying to cope with problems of resentment, pride, and infighting.”

    Wow. I’m so glad we don’t have to deal with that problem anymore. :-/

  4. Kinda off topic, but James McGrath just posted a links to a whole slew of old Internet Monk posts in his latest post. 🙂


  5. Adam Tauno Williams says

    “””The Weak were predominantly Jewish believers who practiced Torah, may …. The Strong were predominantly Gentile believers who believed in Jesus as Lord but who had no tradition of keeping Torah”””

    I remember the first time I blundered into this Reality. It was mind blowing. It completely flips the Evangelical reading of the text I had always heard. [ Weak = Weak In Faith = “New” Christians = Those who had not submitted-their-lifestyles & Strong = Season Christians = Dontrically Education = Strong in Faith ].

    This, more accurate reading, is much less condescending and far more human. It represents a dynamic that plays out over and over again in many spheres.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And all too often:

      [ Weak = Weak In Faith = “New” Christians = Those who had not submitted-their-lifestyles = YOU! & Strong = Season Christians = Doctrinally Education = Strong in Faith = MEEEEEEEEE! ].

      Whereas the more accurate is the Weak were those who were bringing in pre-existing traditions that no longer fully applied and the Strong were those who didn’t have that baggage and could come in fresh.

  6. If Romans is not Paul’s theology of ‘how to get saved’ but deals with something else (such as specific issues in the churches there), then, as Douglas Campbell argues, the whole ‘edifice’ of ‘justification theory’ (which is built on a particular, and probably faulty, reading of Romans 1-4) falls apart.

    • I’m anxious to get to Rom 1-11 now. I’ve just started the section on 9-11 (moving backwards).

    • anonymous says

      the whole
      ‘how to “get saved” thing’
      seems a bit strange coming from the people who claim that it’s Christ that does the saving

  7. What? Am I understanding you guys to say that this means the “Romans Road”? is not a good way to use Romans to explain the gospel?

    • There is no ‘Romans Road’ in Romans. It is simply a bunch of unrelated verses, taken out of context, to say something Paul never intended to say.

      For example, Rom. 3:23, the ‘all have sinned’ verse, refers to Christians. Paul is saying that both Jewish and Gentile Christians ‘sinned (aorist tense, not ‘have sinned’ – perfect tense), and God saved both out of his grace. Furthermore both groups continue to ‘fall short’ (present tense – continuing state). His argument is that the Jewish Christians, who claimed their continued adherence to Jewish law set them apart from their Gentile brethren, are really in the same boat. It has nothing to do with trying to prove that ‘all need Jesus’.