THE CHURCH AT ROME
At the time Paul wrote this letter to the Roman church, (ca., 58AD), the population of the capitol city was approximately 1 million souls. Therefore, the city spread over a large tract of land and there were many communities within the metropolitan area. Because of this the churches were “neighborhood” churches serving the needs of their particular district.
Paul probably had no part in founding the Roman church, which was probably accomplished by the “visitors from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism.” Ac.2:10,11, who were present on the Day of Pentecost, the “birthday” of the Church. It is quite likely that over the years teachers from other Gentile churches visited Rome before either Paul or Peter were there.
Also, Rome periodically persecuted Jews, who would then move to other areas of the empire until the situation changed. Aquilla and Priscilla are an example of this. Some of these people became Christians during these “exiles” and then returned to Rome seeking/starting fellowships. At any rate, it is evident from the text that the church at Rome was mostly Gentile, but with a sizeable Jewish element. It had a world-wide reputation. (1:8).
Paul had ambitions to go not only to Rome but also to Spain, 15:25. Many of the intellectual voices heard in Rome at that time were Spanish, such as Martial, master of the epigram (terse, witty satire); Lucan, the epic poet; Quintillian, master of Roman oratory; and, most of all, Seneca, who tutored Nero and was the Prime Minister of the Roman Empire.
Romans chapter 16 gives some indication of the nature of the Roman churches. They were house churches. Three of them are clearly marked out: the church that met in Priscilla and Aquilla’s house (v.5) and the groups in Vv. 14 and 15. In addition, many commentators suggest that the “households” mentioned in Vv. 10 and 11 were household churches. At any rate it is certain that there were no church buildings as we know them in our part of the world today. These were primitive, basic, people oriented disciples of our Lord meeting in very simple, intimate fellowships. That was no doubt true for other parts of the empire as well.
These were churches with open doors, open hearts and open helping hands. They were truly intimate fellowships.
Another interesting thing about the Roman Church is the number of women Paul recognizes; many in very endearing terms. Women filled a very important role in the churches. For instance Priscilla is mentioned before her husband. This would indicate either some distinction with regard to rank in society or importance in the church that met at their home. Phoebe, who carried the letter was a “help to many people” including Paul. Mary (v.6) was a hard worker as were Tryphena and Tryphosa (twin sisters?) and Persis. (Vv.12, 13). .Six of the 24 people named were women.
A legitimate question is: “Did Peter found the Roman Church? Or, did he ever visit Rome? This is important because the Roman Catholic Church builds their legitimacy on this. There is no empirical, hard evidence that Peter ever was in Rome. Sometimes the argument that he was is based on 1Pt.5:13 where Babylon is taken as a code word for Rome. Babylon could be the city on the Euphrates River that has that name. Or, it could refer to Rome. If it does refer to Rome, then the Roman Church has a problem with the clear identification of the prostitute church referred to in Rv.17.
There is an argument for Peter writing from Rome (Babylon) in that he mentions Mark being there. Paul does mention in Cl. 4:10 that Mark was in Rome during Paul’s first imprisonment (60-62 AD). It is believed that Peter wrote 1Peter in 64AD, some 2 to 4 years later. Mark could still be in Rome at that time.
It is generally accepted that Paul wrote his letter to the Roman church from Cenchrea (the eastern harbor of Corinth) in late winter or early spring of A.D. 57-58. Therefore the church was there long before 64.
Peter’s ministry was particularly to the Jews while Paul’s emphasis was toward the Gentiles. That is not to say that Peter had nothing to do with Gentiles nor Paul with Jews. Gl.2:6-10 clearly states that Peter’s ministry was to be toward the Jews while Paul’s was to be toward the Gentiles.
The question remains: Did Peter found the church at Rome? The answer quite clearly is that it was founded long before Peter got there (if he did). The best answer is that the Holy Spirit founded it through the witness of Jews and Gentiles who had become Christians either in Jerusalem at Pentecost or in other parts of the empire after that event.
Wm. Barclay says that “of the 24 names 13 occur in inscriptions or documents which have to do with the imperial household and Emperor’s palace in Rome. In Ph.4:22 Paul speaks of the saints “who belong to Caesar’s household.”