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Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Discover & explore: The Early Church in Rome

Discover & explore: The Early Church in Rome at St Stephen Walbrook with the Choral Scholars of St Martin-in-the-Fields began in the round. The music sung by ‪the wonderful Choral Scholars of St Martin in the Fields included Cantate Domino by Monteverdi & a Te Deum by Scarlatti. We also heard an extract from a book by George Edmundson, painting a picture of Rome in the 1st century.

‪Next Monday at 1.10pm "Discover & Explore" St Alban as the #Londinium series continues -‬.

In my reflection I said:

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 know something of the Roman Empire at that time in order to gain a better understanding of the Christians and churches who lived and ministered in Rome during the first century A.D.

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. Rome was the hub of the Roman Empire, which made it the centre of politics and government. It 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 filled with all kinds of decadence, from the brutal practices of the arena to sexual immorality of all kinds.

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

Nobody is certain 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). Priscilla and Aquila first appear in Acts of the Apostles when Paul arrives in Corinth during his second missionary journey (18:1-2). Tentmakers by trade, this Jewish-Christian couple had recently left Rome after Emperor Claudius expelled Jews from the city. Settling in Corinth, they allowed Paul, a fellow tentmaker, to stay at their home and assisted in his ministry. When Paul went to Ephesus, this holy couple accompanied him. When Paul decided to move on again, Priscilla and Aquilla remained in Ephesus and let their home be used as a church (1 Corinthians 16:19). Paul’s Letter to the Romans indicates that Priscilla and Aquilla later returned to that city and established yet another house church there. (

The story of Priscilla and Aquilla demonstrates ease of movement throughout the Roman Empire. Roads were the lifeblood of Ancient Rome. Over the course of 700 years, the Romans built more than 55,000 miles of paved highways throughout Europe—enough to encircle the globe. These engineering marvels ensured the swift movement of goods, soldiers and information across the Empire, including the ability for the Gospel of Christ to spread rapidly and widely.

From Paul’s greetings in Romans 16, we can discern the existence of several other gatherings of Christians in the city. As well as the house church of Priscilla and Aquilla, two more groupings of Christians surface in verses 14 and 15. So, the evidence points to the existence of at least three house churches, with the possibility of even more ( According to Yale University archaeologists, “The first Christian congregations worshipped in private houses, meeting at the homes of wealthier members on a rotating basis . . . Worship was generally conducted in the atrium, or central courtyard of the house.” ( From the New Testament, we learn that house church gatherings included the singing of Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, teaching (including the telling of stories about Jesus) and sharing in the Lord’s Supper.

While the people of Rome were tolerant of most religious expressions, 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 as both were fiercely monotheistic; proclaiming the unpopular doctrine that there is only one God and refusing to worship the emperor or acknowledge him as any kind of deity.

For these reasons, Christians and Jews began to experience intense persecution. The 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. Paul wrote the Book of Romans during the early reign of Nero, when Christian persecution was just beginning. Persecution became worse near the end of the first century under Emperor Domitian.

The earliest Christian converts in Rome were of Jewish origin and 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. Despite these many obstacles, the church at Rome experienced healthy growth throughout the first century which explains why Paul was so eager to visit the Christians in Rome and provide additional leadership during their struggles.

Paul, as we heard in our first service in this series, 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). He was sent to Rome and spent several years in a house prison - years he used to train church leaders and Christians within the city. Although eventually released, 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. (

So, to sum up, non-apostolic Jewish Christians brought the faith of Christ to Rome in the early decades of the church. After generating both interest and controversy within the synagogues, Christianity was forced to reorganize in the wake of Claudius’s edict against the Jews. The resulting Gentile-dominated church that received Paul’s letter in the late 50’s met in small groups around the city of Rome but maintained communication and held onto a common identity and mission. Paul and Peter left their mark on these believers, though they merely strengthened the work that had already begun to flourish in the capital city. (


O Educator, be gracious to thy children, O Educator, Father, Guide of Israel, Son and Father, both one, Lord. Give to us, who follow thy command, to fulfill the likeness of thy image, and to see, according to our strength, the God who is both a good God and a Judge who is not harsh. Do thou thyself bestow all things on us who dwell in thy peace, who have been placed in thy city, who sail the sea of sin unruffled, that we may be made tranquil and supported by the Holy Spirit, the unutterable Wisdom, by night and day, unto the perfect day, to sing eternal thanksgiving to the one only Father and Son, Son and Father, Educator and Teacher with the Holy Spirit. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

—Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215)

We ask you, Master, be our helper and defender. Rescue those of our number in distress; raise up the fallen; assist the needy; heal the sick; turn back those of your people who stray; feed the hungry; release our captives; revive the weak; encourage those who lose heart. Let all the nations realize that you are the only God, that Jesus Christ is your Child, and that we are your people and the sheep of your pasture. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

—1 Clement (c. 96)

O Lord God, your Son Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In his resurrection he restores life and peace in all creation. Comfort, we pray, all victims of intolerance and those oppressed by their fellow humans. Remember in your kingdom those who have died. Lead the oppressors towards compassion and give hope to the suffering. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.


Bless your servants, whose trust is all in you; bless all Christian souls, the sick, those tormented by evil spirits, and those who have asked us to pray for them. Show yourself as merciful as you are rich in grace; save and preserve us; enable us to obtain those good things to come which will never know an end. And the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always. Amen.

—A Syriac Christmas liturgy (late third or early fourth century)


Domenico Scarlatti - Te Deum.

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