Paul wrote the epistle that we call Romans “to all who are in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints” (Romans 1:7). This greeting is similar to the greetings of Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians: none of these letters were addressed specifically to the “church” of a particular city. On the other hand, Paul addressed 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, and 2 Thessalonians specifically to the “church” of the respective city. Meanwhile, Galatians appears to be unique because that letter was specifically addressed to “churches” (plural) of a region.
Perhaps even more interesting are the addressees for the letter to Philemon: “To Philemon our beloved friend and fellow laborer, to the beloved Apphia, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house” (Philemon 1:1-2). (Note: in the phrase “your house”, the word “your” is singular.) Here, Paul identifies a group as a “church,” and yet it is apparently not the entire group of believers in a city. Otherwise, we would expect Paul to address the letter to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the church of God in Colossae, for example.
But, what about the church[es] of Rome. The opening does not mention a specific “church” of Rome. This does not necessarily mean that Paul does not recognize one “church” in Rome. Paul does not recognize a “church” in Ephesus in his epistle to the Ephesians, but Luke clearly recognizes one “church” in Ephesus in Acts: “From Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called for the elders of the church” (Acts 20:17). So, Paul could have recognized a single “church” within the environs of the city of Rome, even though he did not address his letter specifically to the “church in Rome.”
Now, notice the greetings at the end of the Roman letter in Romans chapter 16. The following groups of believers are recognized (and one is even called a “church”):
- The church that meets in the house of Prisca and Aquila (vv. 3-5)
- Those believers associated with Aristobulus (v. 10)
- Those believers (“who are in the Lord”) associated with Narcissus (v. 11)
- Those believers (“brethren”) associated with Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermas, Patrobas, and Hermes (v. 14)
- Those believers (“saints”) associated Philologus, Julia, Nereus, his sister, and Olympas (v. 15)
Paul greets others in Romans chapter 16, but these are specifically listed as being associated with a group of believers. How did Paul understand these various groups? Would he consider each of them a “church”? (Apparently he considered at least one of those group a “church”.) If each of these groups are a “church,” how are there multiple “churches” in a city when the biblical writers (including Paul) use the singular “church” for all the believers in a city?
As I understand Paul’s use of “church” (ekklesia), each of these groups can be considered a “church”. At the same time, all the believers (and therefore all the “churches”) of a city can also be considered a single “church”. Why? Because of their intimate interaction, interrelatedness, and interdependence. Each group recognized that they were the body of Christ, and at the same time, each group recognized they were a part of a larger group which was also the body of Christ. Each group was not independent on the other groups, but instead they were interdependent.
Why would the groups in a region larger than a city not be considered a “church” (singular) but instead be addressed as “churches” (plural)? Because of the lack of interaction and interdependence. However, notice that there was still some interaction between groups that were farther away from one another – not in the same city (i.e. Paul’s reference to the church in Cenchrea in Romans 16:1, the churches of the Gentiles in Romans 16:4, and the church of Laodicea in Colossian 4:15). So, while there was not close interaction between churches of different regions, there was still an understanding of their relationship (thus, the church at Corinth was instructed to consider the practices of all other churches).
I will return to this topic as I continue to study the various churches in the greetings of Paul’s epistles.