Romans: A House Church Manifesto?
by Herbert Drake

This publication was originally a Th. M. Thesis presented to the faculty of Golden Gate Seminary in May, 1996, under the title "The Book of Romans: A Believers‘ Church Manifesto?" In keeping with the usage of the term "house church theology" in place of "believers‘ church theology" on the HCC site, and in order to take full advantage of the linking capability of electronic media, some editing has been done.

You may freely reproduce and distribute this work provided that that no changes are made, no revenues are collected beyond the nominal cost of media, and credit is given to the author and to Golden Gate Seminary. Any other use requires the written permission of the author. Citing this material on other Internet sites is encouraged, but is to be done only by providing a hypertext reference to this file on this server.

Note: A video version of this thesis, Romans from the Inside Out, is now available on the Videos page.

Table of Contents

  1. The Shaping of the Letter.
    1. The Historical Situation.
      1. The Roman Churches.
      2. Paul‘s Situation.
      3. Conclusion.
    2. The Form of the Letter.
      1. Paul and Chiasmus.
      2. Romans in Chiasmic Form.
  2. The One Family of God.
    1. The Theological Groundwork.
    2. The One Family of God in Shaping Convictions.
      1. Convictions Shaped by Baptism.
      2. Convictions Shaped by Commitment.
      3. Convictions Shaped by Love.
      4. Excursus on Love: The Church and State.
    3. The One Family of God Equipped for Ministry.
      1. Equipping through Gifting.
      2. Equipping through Inaugurate Eschatology.
  3. Conclusions.
    1. House Church Ecclesiology in Romans.
    2. House Church Behavior.
    3. Romans and the House Church: A Synthesis.
    4. The Importance of Romans for Today and Tomorrow.
  4. Works Consulted.
    1. Studies on Chiasmus.
    2. Studies in Romans.
    3. Studies in House Church Theology.
    4. Other Sources.


There have been a number of fine studies that have attempted to deal with various aspects of the theology of Paul, but there has been relatively little discussion of his ecclesiology. This may be due to the assumption that "church," the way it has been understood over its long history, had simply not developed during Paul's time. But such writers as Del Birkey, in his book The House Church, have challenged that assumption, suggesting that the path to renewal may lead to a rediscovery of the expression of church that was active in Paul's day. The present paper attempts explore that idea in the particular case of Romans, blending the disciplines of Pauline theology, historical theology, and doctrinal theology in an attempt to demonstrate that Romans is a book that has ecclesiology at its very heart--that it is, in fact, a "manifesto" of theology, expressing all the earmarks of the branch of modern ecclesiology that is called "believers' church" (that is, "House Church Theology," here.)

The advent of New Testament textual criticism during the past two centuries gradually led to a great number of opinions regarding the real destination and purpose of the book of Romans--frequently leading scholars to the conclusion that some of its material was not part of the original composition. Some had deemed the bulk of Chapter 16 to be a postscript that accompanied a copy of the letter sent separately to Ephesus. Others dismissed the block we identify as Chapters 9-11 as a later insertion, the real letter having the text of Rom. 8:39 flowing immediately into Rom. 12:1. Recent scholarship, however, has virtually brought the understanding of Romans full circle--right back to the traditional and historical positions that uphold the letter's unity and its Roman destination Likewise, there is a growing consensus that the letter was written to address a particular problem in Rome, reversing a tendency that began in late medieval times to view Romans as a caput et summa universae doctrinae christianae.

For the interpreter who accepts the unity of Romans, the material in Rom. 16 flows naturally from Rom. 1:7 and becomes a valuable resource for an understanding of the situation in Rome. Likewise, the role of Rom. 9-11 must be assigned an importance that warrants their placement in the core of the document and as the background for what many, including the present writer, regard as the ultimate theme of the book--Rom. 15:7-12. Rom. 9-11, in fact, are regarded in this paper as the central message of the letter.

Rom. 16 shows that the addressees, the "saints" (1:7) of Rome, were "clustered" into what Birkey regards as "house churches" even though only the group associated with Priscilla and Aquila is actually called a "church" in the letter.

Paul had a strong message he felt these churches needed to hear, and it is likely that the letter was carried from church to church and read. Some, and perhaps all, of the churches were not behaving properly; they were not understanding the dynamic nature of the fellowship that God expected of his adopted children. In short, they were not behaving as members of God's family--a family that will be referred to here has the "one family of God"--because they were discriminating among each other on the basis of their ethnic backgrounds. They were, in other words, a cluster of broken fellowships --eyeing each other with suspicion.

That the central message of the letter is located in Chapters 9-11 is the starting point of the present paper. This is the position of a growing number of modern writers, beginning with Bruce Corley, who regarded these chapters as the climax of an exhortation on Gentile missions, continuing with Joseph Fitzmyer, who sees them as the "climax of the doctrinal section," J. Christopher Beker, who sees them as the "climax of the theme of the letter," and most resently by N. T. Wright, who sees them as setting the stage for "climas" of the whole book which he places in Rom. 15:7-13. It will be argued that disharmony between Jewish and Gentile believers is the problem that Paul wishes to correct. It will be shown that this resonates with the theme of the book, the conditions in Rome, Paul's own circumstances at the time the problem came to his attention, and in the form that Paul selected when composing the epistle.

The purpose of the thesis, however, is of greater scope than to simply draw historical conclusions about a church division in first century Rome. Rather, the author intends to demonstrate that the theology applied by the Apostle was consistent with some modern house church theologians --even that Paul was challenging the local churches of Rome to actually implement house church ecclesiology. In other words, Paul's was saying that the local church must be understood as the one family of God centered on Christ and lived out in witness and mission. When understood in this way, the book of Romans is transcends being a letter, or even an epistle, but becomes a manifesto. It lays down a foundation for all living believers with regard to fellowship, goals, and action--a foundation that is flexible enough to endure millennia of change in cultural surroundings, just as it can remain sensitive and responsive to the ongoing agenda of God.

The following methodology will be used in this paper. The writer will first attempt to demonstrate that Paul was calling the house churches of Rome to conform to house church ecclesiology. With that as a hermeneutic, an attempt will be made to show that the arguments Paul used in addressing these churches in their first century Roman context were consistent with the approaches taken by a practitioners of house church theology today.

The author has a strong interest in house church theology, having chosen studies in that field as academic electives, serving as a grader for a Professor of Theology, and editing the published class notes for the Believers' Church survey course. He has also studied Pauline theology and the exegesis of Romans in graduate level classes.

Presuppositions of the author include the unity of Romans and that Romans was written to a particular group of house churches with a particular problem in the city of Rome. Karl P. Donfried regards modern scholarship on Romans to have achieved substantial consensus on these points. There is less of a consensus as to the purpose of the letter, or even if there was a single purpose. The present writer's presupposition is that there was one major problem in the Roman house churches and that that problem was a disunity between Gentile and Jewish Christians that took place after the Jews began to return to Rome from their expulsion by Claudius (Acts 18:2). The writer assumes the testimony of Acts is accurate in documenting the movements of Paul and other historical figures.