The Early Church at Rome

Learn about the church Paul risked everything to serve.

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The Roman Empire was the dominant political and military force during the early days of Christianity, with the city of Rome as its foundation. Therefore, it's helpful to gain a better understanding of the Christians and churches who lived and ministered in Rome during the first century A.D.

To get started, let's explore what was happening in Rome itself as the early church began to spread throughout the known world.

The City of Rome

Location: The city was originally built on the Tiber River in the west-central region of modern Italy, near the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Rome has remained relatively intact for thousands of years and still exists today as a major center of the modern world.

Population: At the time Paul wrote the Book of Romans, the total population of that city was around 1 million people. This made Rome one of the largest Mediterranean cities of the ancient world, along with Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria, and Corinth in Greece.

Politics: Rome was the hub of the Roman Empire, which made it the center of politics and government. Fittingly, the Roman Emperors lived in Rome, along with the Senate. All that to say, ancient Rome had a lot of similarities to modern-day Washington D.C.

Culture: Rome was a relatively wealthy city and included several economic classes -- including slaves, free individuals, official Roman citizens, and nobles of different kinds (political and military).

First-century Rome was known to be filled with all kinds of decadence and immorality, from the brutal practices of the arena to sexual immorality of all kinds.

Religion: During the first century, Rome was heavily influenced by Greek Mythology and the practice of Emperor worship (also known as the Imperial Cult).

Thus, most inhabitants of Rome were polytheistic -- they worshiped several different gods and demigods depending on their own situations and preferences. For this reason, Rome contained many temples, shrines, and places of worship without a centralized ritual or practice. Most forms of worship were tolerated.

Rome was also a home to "outsiders" of many different cultures, including Christians and Jews.

The Church in Rome

Nobody is certain of who founded the Christian movement in Rome and developed the earliest churches within the city. Many scholars believe the earliest Roman Christians were Jewish inhabitants of Rome who were exposed to Christianity while visiting Jerusalem -- perhaps even during the Day of Pentecost when the church was first established (see Acts 2:1-12).

What we do know is that Christianity had become a major presence in the city of Rome by the late 40s A.D. Like most Christians in the ancient world, the Roman Christians were not collected into a single congregation. Instead, small groups of Christ-followers gathered regularly in house churches to worship, fellowship, and study the Scriptures together.

As an example, Paul mentioned a specific house church that was led by married converts to Christ named Priscilla and Aquilla (see Romans 16:3-5).

In addition, there were as many as 50,000 Jews living in Rome during Paul's day. Many of these also became Christians and joined the church. Like Jewish converts from other cities, they likely met together in the synagogues throughout Rome alongside other Jews, in addition to gathering separately in houses.

Both of these were among the groups of Christians Paul addressed in the opening of his Epistle to the Romans:

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God .... To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
Romans 1:1,7

Persecution

I mentioned above that the people of Rome were tolerant of most religious expressions. However, that tolerance was largely limited to religions that were polytheistic -- meaning, the Roman authorities didn't care who you worshiped as long as you included the emperor and didn't create problems with other religious systems.

That was a problem for both Christians and Jews during the middle of the first century. That's because both Christians and Jews were fiercely monotheistic; they proclaimed the unpopular doctrine that there is only one God -- and by extension, they refused to worship the emperor or acknowledge him as any kind of deity.

For these reasons, Christians and Jews began to experience intense persecution. For example, the Roman Emperor Claudius banished all Jews from the city of Rome in 49 A.D. This decree lasted until Claudius's death 5 years later.

Christians began to experience greater persecution under the rule of Emperor Nero -- a brutal and perverted man who harbored an intense dislike for Christians. Indeed, it's known that near the end of his rule Nero enjoyed capturing Christians and setting them on fire to provide light for his gardens at night. The apostle Paul wrote the Book of Romans during the early reign of Nero, when Christian persecution was just beginning. Amazingly, the persecution only became worse near the end of the first century under Emperor Domitian. 

Conflict

In addition to persecution from outside sources, there is also ample evidence that specific groups of Christians within Rome experience conflict. Specifically, there were clashes between Christians of Jewish origin and Christians who were Gentiles.

As mentioned above, the earliest Christian converts in Rome were likely of Jewish origin. The early Roman churches were dominated and led by Jewish disciples of Jesus. When Claudius expelled all Jews from the city of Rome, however, only the Gentile Christians remained. Therefore, the church grew and expanded as a largely Gentile community from 49 - 54 A.D.

When Claudius perished and Jews were allowed back in Rome, the returning Jewish Christians came home to find a church that was much different from the one they had left. This resulted in disagreements about how to incorporate the Old Testament law into following Christ, including rituals such as circumcision.

For these reasons, much of Paul's letter to the Romans includes instructions for Jewish and Gentile Christians on how to live in harmony and properly worship God as a new culture -- a new church. For example, Romans 14 offers strong advice on settling disagreements between Jewish and Gentile Christians in connection with eating meat sacrificed to idols and observing the different holy days of the Old Testament law.

Moving Forward

Despite these many obstacles, the church at Rome experienced healthy growth throughout the first century. This explains why the apostle Paul was so eager to visit the Christians in Rome and provide additional leadership during their struggles:

11 I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— 12 that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. 13 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles.

14 I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. 15 That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are in Rome.
Romans 1:11-15

In fact, Paul was so desperate to see the Christians in Rome that he used his rights as a Roman citizen to appeal to Caesar after being arrested by Roman officials in Jerusalem (see Acts 25:8-12). Paul was sent to Rome and spent several years in a house prison -- years he used to train church leaders and Christians within the city.

We know from church history that Paul was eventually released. However, he was arrested again for preaching the gospel under renewed persecution from Nero. Church tradition holds that Paul was beheaded as a martyr in Rome -- a fitting place for his final act of service to the church and expression of worship to God.