Up to this point, we have focused almost exclusively on the two institutions of the household and the state. Roman mythology suggests Rome was founded and ruled by kings in the 8th Century B.C.E., but the aristocrats unseated the king and formed a Republic in the late 6th Century. That republic prevailed until the mid-first century B.C.E., when the Republic became unstable. Julius Caesar was made Emperor for life in 44 B.C., for uniting the empire, but was murdered shortly thereafter. His son Augustus Caesar rose to power and solidified the role of Emperor. His challenge was to draw people away from the notion of Republic to a hierarchical model with the Emperor at the top of the power structure. The model he chose was the decidedly non-republican institution of the household married to patronage. Instead of a union of relatively autonomous city-states unified in a republic, the idea became one of a large Roman household under the paterfamilias Caesar. The distinction between household and state was effectively blurred and Rome effectively became a more totalitarian society.
There were other social institutions. Most scholars refer to these as voluntary associations. The Romans authorities were not fond of having groups of the populace meeting together in assemblies on a routine basis. James Jeffers quotes Pliny the Younger:
If people assemble for a common purpose, whatever name we give them and for whatever reason, they soon turn into a political club. (71)
The Romans attempted to control this problem by authorizing voluntary associations of which there were four generic varieties.
Household – The associations meet to deal with matters related to the functioning of a particular household. It could include all the families and slaves that lived under a particular roof, but it might also include people who had a strong patronage or business relationship to the household.
Religious – These associations met to conduct religious ceremonies to honor the slate of Roman approved Gods. The unique relationship the Jews had with the Empire (through the benevolence of Augustus) allowed them to build and worship synagogues throughout the Empire without much harassment from Roman authorities. Christians shared in this right as long as there were seen as a Jewish sect.
Professional – Here the objective was for people involved in a common trade to meet and discuss issues related to their trade.
Burial – A proper burial was important in Roman culture. Slaves and the poor desired a respectful burial but feared they could not afford one when their time came. By paying a small ongoing fee and participating in the burials of other members of the association, they could ensure that they would receive an appropriate burial.
Roman law prohibited political action by these groups. They were required to keep records of their meetings and maintain lists of those who were members of their association. Therefore, churches simply could not form in the way we think of church planting today. It appears that most of the early churches met as household associations. However, particularly among some lower status communities, it appears that churches may have operated as burial associations. (Jeffers, 76) An often controversial topic today is church membership. Concerning this Jeffers writes:
Associations admitted members by election or recommendation of an admissions committee. Officers elected from among the members performed a variety of tasks, including overseeing regular meetings. In all, the associations were microcosms of the community, and through their various offices and events provided members with the opportunity to gain status and recognition. In a similar way, Christians who felt alienated from the larger society looked to the church for a sense of belonging and esteem. The concept of membership also might have appealed to the early Christian congregations, which needed some mechanisms for determining who would join the group and would lead it. Those who advocate church membership today may see the New Testament-era voluntary association as a precedent, but they must remember that such membership was required by the legal stipulations of such societies, not necessarily by the theology of the early church. (77)
Jeffers goes on to point out the associations hosted regular banquets for members. A number of early church practices may have been influenced more by the Jesus movement’s adaptation to its particular culture context than by specific transcendent theological concerns.
One of the key functions these associations served for many was in terms of emotional support and as an alternative means for achieving a measure of status. It offered a measure of fraternity apart from the patronage system. However, these associations were no match for the hold the interlocking and competing pyramids of patronage had on their lives. Furthermore, each association was largely an entity unto itself. There was no regional or national structure for the operations of these associations. Such a structure would have been threatening to the Roman authorities.
When we realize this, it should point out something very distinctive about the Jesus movement. Paul seemed attracted to the metaphor of the church as the body of Christ. Note that this metaphor did not mean just the individuals at a given location were the body of Christ. All of the churches joined together were Christ’s body. There was a connectedness to it that was not known in other institutions. Caesar had turned to the imagery of “household” to unite all localities into one functioning unit. Paul did the same thing by writing of the “household of God” with God as the paterfamilias. But not only did “household of God” unite across regions it also untied across ethnicity, status, and other social boundaries, reflecting a far different vision than Caesars’s household. Concerning why the Romans found Christians so disturbing, James Jeffers writes:
…the Christians were a mysterious combination of Jews, Greeks, and Romans. They acted like a single people, even though they represented many nations. To the Romans, this clearly was unnatural. Even members of the mystery religions, who also came from various nations, did not claim this kind of unity. (108)
But I'm getting ahead of myself here. More on this later.