September 19, 2020

All Spirituality Is Local

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

* * *

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.


  1. Having just finished a group study of the Women of the Bible I learned that it was a woman who carried Paul’s letter to Rome! One theologian was quoted as having said, “Pheobe carried in the folds of her robe the entire future of Christian theology.”

    And I agree, just as the seemingly boring genealogies in the Scriptures come alive with meaning when you study each name so does Romans 16. It is a salute to those people who worked, prayed, sacrificed and suffered in order for the early church to thrive. I wonder if they are not present in the great cloud of witnesses.

  2. God really is awesome. How He uses ordinary people in ordinary ways for His extraordinary purposes.

  3. Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

    One of the biggest recent eye-openers for me was when I realized that Romans 8 with is neat eschatological overtones and it’s crazy-sounding election/predestination overtones was a preface to Paul’s discussion of Israel in chapters 9-11, especially in light of what one of my professors had said (YEARS ago) about how Jewish theology of the day wasn’t very sophisticated beyond a fully developed sense of election and eschatology.

  4. i like to imagine them gathering to hear paul’s letter read. the jews are sitting on one side of the room and the gentiles on the other. paul starts by railing against the gentiles, “you wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for us!” the jews are all elbowing each other.

    “not so fast, you jews,” paul’s words catch them up short. “you’re really no better than they are. in fact, everyone has sinned. everyone has fallen short, and it is only because God is gracious that we are safe.”

    this goes on for about 30 minutes (give or take). then he calls people by name — an almost equal mix of jewish and gentile names — and tells them, “now kiss and make up.”

    92 hours of graduate school summed up in three paragraphs.

  5. David Cornwell says

    Interpretation out of context is one of the great dangers into which the church and it’s spokespeople have lapsed again and again. Watch television preachers for extreme examples of this. Verses are yanked from here and there, in isolation for teaching or proof.

    I realize that Chaplain Mike isn’t discussing that kind of extremity. However when we fail to understand the “whole,” including the cultural, religious, and political context there is a danger of misunderstanding. So we need to know something of the “shopkeepers, tradespeople, slaves, farmers, and all manner of men, women, and children” if we are to understand what was written.

  6. You said: “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.”
    So when Paul says he is a prisoner of the law of sin at work in his members, and cries, “What a wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” – – then I as a Gentile can say to myself, “glad that’s not my problem – – the Law only applied to the nation of Israel”?

    • What law is Paul talking about here? This is really the crux of the matter when talking about Romans. I don’t believe in Romans 7, specifically the passage you’re quoting that Paul is talking about the Torah at all. I think he’s alluding to rabbinical commentary about the “law” given to Adam, which was said to have been “do not covet” (don’t covet the fruit of the tree of knowledge). That’s why he mentions this command in verse 7:

      For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of coveting. For apart from the law, sin was dead.

      Really, what Paul is doing here isn’t talking about himself. He’s talking about Adam. Actually, more to the point – he’s using a somewhat common rhetorical technique at the time of impersonating Adam. It was pretty common for these letters to be read aloud, so you can almost imagine the reader during this part of the letter reading in a different voice and changing his body language to communicate to the audience that he is now in character as Adam. Paul does this in various places throughout Romans, but this is probably one of the places where it is clearest and where it makes a huge difference in how we read the book.

      • Romans 2:14-15 (“they are a law for themselves”) seems to indicate Paul can extend his argument to a supra-cultural set of moral standards.
        In any case, I would agree with CM’s larger comment that Romans is not intended to be a mere theological treatise. I don’t think the greetings in Romans 16 are just a P.S. to the letter. Rather, I think they are the actual outcome of the theology of Romans: “accept one another, then just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” Rom. 15:7.
        The goal of our instruction is love.

        • I agree with you here. I think that’s a good summary. The point I didn’t draw out in my earlier comment is that the reason I think Paul is alluding to Adam so much is to point out that that it wasn’t that the Jews or the Gentiles who were more sinful than the other. It was that humanity itself has a sin problem, and we’re all in this together. So rather than questioning who belongs, let’s start acting as one unified people of God.

          • Agreed, and good comments about Adam. My larger point from Romans is that if humanity itself has a sin problem, then it’s because the Law is at work (in whatever form of its revelation, general or special) on all humanity, not just on Jews.
            I say this because I know of many evangelicals who who believe that freedom in Christ = free from the law, but only in the sense of the law being Jewish dietary restrictions, etc. They would never say “I’m free from the 10 commandments”, because they are afraid that is a license to sin… Which means that their idea of freedom in Christ is limited to a theological concept of minimum compliance with righteousness, rather than a grace-filled loving relationship with Jesus that fulfills the intent of the Law.

    • Paul’s argument in Romans 1 indicates that the Gentiles sinned against nature, not against the Law.

      • IOW, natural law, a kind of supra-culture.
        Otherwise, you end up with the Gospel being Bad News, like Annie Dillard’s joke:

        Eskimo: “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?”
        Priest: “No, not if you did not know.”
        Eskimo: “Then why did you tell me?”

  7. Thank you for this post today, Chaplain Mike. I have been learning the importance of context in Scripture over and over from people like you, Scot McKnight, and Pete Enns. It has really changed the way I look at Scripture, and I am so thankful for it.

    I have a practical question that maybe some people could address. How do we incorporate this type of study in a small group setting? Most of the Bible study groups I’ve been a part of have simply read the passage for the day and then talked about what we think it means. I think this can be dangerous, relating back to what David Cornwell said above about the dangers of interpretation out of context. How can we be serious students of the Word in a group setting that meets once a week for an hour or so? Also, do you have any recommended resources for studying Romans in particular in this setting?

    • Perhaps before you move on to a new book of the Bible, you could spend a week or two on exploring the history and culture of the location and audience it was written to/about?

      • I would also mark some passages where the history and cultural come into play in a big way, and then when you get to that passage, you’ve already laid the groundwork (via Tokah’s suggestion) for everyone to have an “aha” moment.

    • This came up in a small group study I was in last week. We were studying a Gospel passage about the “kingdom.” I asked the group, what would the ordinary Jewish person have had in mind when he/she heard Jesus say, “the kingdom of God is at hand”? No one really knew. If you don’t know the story of the OT and the context of Jesus’ contemporaries, Jesus’ words and actions are mysterious and obscure. He might have been talking about King Arthur for all they knew.

      • N.T. Wright spent a good part of over 800 pages that take on what “the kingdom of God is at hand” meant for those who first heard it. While his Jesus and the Victory of God (1997) can be daunting, How God Became King (2012) is probably an easier read. Not that I would know, I’m almost done with the former but my wife still won’t let go of the latter — so I can only go on some brief glimpses I’ve gotten when no one was looking.

  8. Looking back at church history, it seems clear that the church did not follow Paul’s point of putting their love and unity in Christ before their racial and cultural backgrounds as Jews and Gentiles — evidenced by a distinction between predominantly Gentile and exclusively Jewish (or Ebionite) churches as early as the turn of the second century. Of course, all the head-butting and competition between the early church and emerging Rabbinical Judaism didn’t help matters much. Then again, maybe it was somewhat of a good thing that Gentile Christians were holding themselves aloof from Jewish communities by the time the Jews launched their second major revolt against Rome during Hadrian’s reign. Still, I think it’s unfortunate the way the relationship between Christianity and its parent religion has played out through the centuries.

    • The Ebionites rejected Paul of Tarsus, didn’t they?

      I think in time, the religions would have grown too far apart anyway regardless of whatever happened. Let’s face it, a people with a high regard for not having idols would not be particularly happy with part of their religious movement using crucifixes complete with the corpus on them. And the use of relics (especially bone frags) would also be somewhat antithetical to a people that would have considered it disrespectful to the dead. And the on the Christian side likely there would have erupted impatience with a group that rejected the Pauline epistles and waffled on the divinity and born natural son-ness of the Almighty nature of Christianity.

      And yet, the modern day Messianic Christian movement (such as Jews for Jesus et al) seems to be able to find a via medium of some sorts. Probably because it is not just a mixture of Greek & Hebrew elements but has a strong dose of Enlightenment values as well. Something that would not have been available in the 100s CE.

      • Good points. You’re probably right that the two would have grown apart regardless — but it’s fun to imagine the “what ifs” of history.
        But like Aslan once told Lucy, we never get to know what might have happened.

  9. I just finished reading Romans through for the first time in a long time (too long) specifically for this reason: to experience it as a real letter, and not a collection of proof texts or a theological treatise. The effect was pretty eye-opening. It was as if I were reading it for the first time — including the parts that I realize after over 30 years of Bible study are still a cipher to me (what the author of Peter must have been thinking of when writing “there are some things in them [Paul’s letters] hard to understand”). While others picture the “performing” of the letter to its recipients (something I’ll need to do my next time through), in my own mind I imagined Paul himself deliberately pacing back and forth as he dictated to Tertius with his characteristic intensity.

  10. Mike –

    Have you heard or or interacted with Andrew Perriman’s book on Romans – The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom?

    It takes the new perspective of a Wright or Dunn and others even further down the historical narrative hermeneutic. Quite an interesting read.