I ended the previous post in this series reflecting on Empire with a quote from Paul’s letter to the Romans. No exploration of how the New Testament related to the Roman Empire would be complete without a look this letter, written into the very heart of the Empire itself. But of course, not all Romans were created equal; and so we need to think about its audience before looking at its content. After all, if you were writing a letter to the Church in Washington today, your message would depend a lot on whether you were addressing it to Members of Congress or to their nannies and house cleaners.
Like pretty much everything about this letter, there’s a lot of debate about who the early Roman Christians were. The best we can probably say is that it was a mixed congregation, made up of citizens, freedmen, and slaves. An old tradition — and indeed some thematic elements in the letter — suggests that slaves made up a larger proportion of the Roman church than elsewhere. This further suggests that there was a significant element of cultural diversity among Paul’s correspondents, since slaves were primarily obtained through Rome’s distant military conquests, people from exotic and strange places like England, France and Germany, the Balkans, and the Middle East. Added to this, the Roman church contained both Jews and non-Jews, and these groups were having a hard time being together. And so, the Church in Rome was by all accounts a mixed bag of rich and poor, alien and local, and Jewish and Gentile.
But perhaps a better question in the Roman context to ask than “Who were they?” is “Whose were they?”
Roman society was built on a complicated system of patronage known as clientela, wherein the life of any one person was directly tied to those with more power. Ideally clientela was a set of mutual obligations, where the client received financial support, influence, and protection from the patron, while giving over to the patron his obedience, service, and certain legal rights. This is most obvious with slavery, where the master had total legal authority over his slaves, but stretched far beyond it too: to husbands and wives, fathers and sons, citizens and their freed slaves, generals and their soldiers, what we might call ‘investors’ to merchants and businessmen, and the Emperor to the Empire itself. How far did this system go? There are stories of a high ranking general returning from a great victory only to be killed for disobeying his father, or of powerful senators having to sit by while the Emperor had his way with his wife. Or as this pithy (and to our ears shocking) line from Seneca the Elder tells us, “Sexual service is a crime for the freeborn, a necessity for a slave, and a duty for the freedman” (Controversiae 4.10).
The point is, in Roman culture, no one was their ‘own man’ or woman. Everyone owed their allegiance to someone. This would have been true of the church there too. From the lowliest slave among the Roman Christians to the highest ranking official who hosted the church’s gatherings, they were all — by forces beyond their control — caught up in and compromised by a web of power, allegiance, and authority. And this is no small point. As we’ll see more in the next post in the series, Paul begins his letter to the Roman Christians in a rather shocking way. He takes himself off the board of this system of clientela, identifying himself as a slave belonging to an executed criminal. Though he is a citizen, he adopts the identity of the lowest of the low. He is Christ’s, full stop.
The idea of clientela may be very foreign to our twenty-first century Western ears. And yet, it manifests an important truth for us today. We may not be legally tied to wealthy patrons, but we also aren’t as free as we’d like to think.
Who — or what — do we serve? Our employers? (Our employees?) Our families? Our country? Our communities? What about our political convictions? Our comfort? Our bank accounts? Our egos? Our stomachs? Our libidos? Are we Keeping up with the Joneses? Are we caught up in the Fear of Missing Out?
No matter how we answer that question, Paul’s letter to the Romans is going to challenge us to question those bonds and our allegiances.
And so as different as our culture may be to the one into which Paul was writing, there are a lot of similarities. Our churches and communities are, like the Roman church, diverse: filled with people from all over the world and different social classes, and religious backgrounds. (Conversely, if they don’t have this sort of diversity, it’s important to ask why that is and do something about it.) And, like the Romans, we are all bound by invisible ties, some legitimate, some sacred, but many questionable.
So as much as Paul is speaking to a specific group of people in a far-away time and place, much of what he has to say speaks to us too.
Questions for Reflection
- Who are you? What are the things that mark your identity?
- Who are the people in your community — your neighbourhood or church? How much diversity do you see every day? Does that reflect the diversity of your city or region at large? Why? Why not?
- Whose are you? To whom or what do you belong?
- What would it look like to ‘belong’ to Christ?