• Reading Romans Backwards, p. 57
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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)
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* – “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).