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Now, brothers and sisters, you know that members of the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints; I urge you to put yourselves at the service of such peoppeople, and of everyone who works and toils with them. --1 Corinthians 16:15-16
When we read the Corinthian correspondence, we tend to think of Paul as writing to one congregation. Most likely several house churches were established in Corinth. Taking into account these different communities and their make up can help us to understand some of the background for the conflicts they experienced.
Young Roman woman, first century, London, British Museum. Credit: Barbara McManus, 1986
The development of church polity can not be understood without understanding house churches. The house church, a training ground for the Christian leaders who were to build the church after the loss of apostolic guidance, both reflected the cultural context from which it emerged and challenged it.
Since Corinth was a Roman colony, the Corinthian house church culture was predominantly Roman, not Greek. The organization of their family households was Roman. The homes where they gathered were constructed in the Roman style.
In the early church communities, one or more households (families) formed a single house church, according to practicalities such as size of the household(s) and the home where they gathered. Congregations met in the homes of more affluent members because they owned larger houses. Everything in such a situation favored the emergence of the host as the most prominent and influential member of the group. Eventually the strong leader of one house church might assume leadership throughout a city or section.
Roman woman opening a perfume bottle, end 1st century BC.E. Original painting at Terme Museum
A Roman household could be quite large because it was not just a nuclear family. In addition to persons related by kinship, a household could include slaves, freed persons, hired workers, tenants, and crafts or tradespeople. Family was "defined not first by kinship but by the relationship of dependence and subordination."1 Usually the head of a Roman household was the paterfamilias (patriarch of the family). However some of the early Christian households were headed by women; at least one household by a couple, the artisans Prisca and Aquilla. Prisca and Aquila established good-sized households in three cities, Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus (See Acts 18:1-12, 1 Cor. 16:19) [standard link].
Some Christian women did not live out the roles that were expected in Roman culture. They headed households, ran businesses, were independently wealthy, and traveled with their own slaves and helpers. Within the congregations, women took on the same leadership roles as men. Not surprising, conflicts arose within the congregations in relation to women who did not conform to the usual subordinate role expected of a woman. An example of this was Paul's conflict with the Corinthian women prophets' practice of wearing their hair long and flowing during worship.
Roman slaves working in the kitchen, 50-75 C.E. Original art at Getty Museum
In Roman society, the assumption was that household members, especially more subordinate ones, would share the religion of the head of the household. This was true especially of smaller households. Not surprisingly then, Corinthian house churches had economically diverse membership. In imperial times, however, it apparently became more "common for different members of a household to go their own religious ways."2 The Corinthians were dealing with this issue:
To the rest I say—I and not the Lord—that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you. Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife. --1 Corinthians 7:12-16
That there were multiple congregations which were also diverse in their individual make up sheds light on tendency to factions and cliques in the early church communities. The threat of division among the congregations and within them was Paul's primary concern; not the specific theological tenets of a specific group.
Early Christian art of Peter and Paul (see original colors).
As he addresses issues that threaten to divide the Corinthians, Paul names four different groups: those following Paul, Apollos, Cephas, and Christ (1 Corinthians 1:1:10-17).
Of special significance is that Paul puts all four factions mentioned in 1 Corinthians 1, including those who were primarily loyal to him, on the same level. Paul treated his following on the same basis as the rest because they also posed the same threat to the unity of the church:
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose (1 Corinthians 1:10)
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, held similiar views to Paul. A number of his writings, including Catholic Spirit, address the issues of Christians allowing differences of "opinions" to distract them from Christ's greater purposes. He called upon Methodists to take each other's hands if their hearts were the same.
Next: Roman House and House Church Plans
Buildings Where Christians Gathered for Worship
Paul's Letters to the Corinthians
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Notes and Credits
1Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 30.
Filson, Floyd. "The Significance of the Early House Churches," Journal of Biblical Literature LVIII (1939), 109-12.
Malherbe, Abraham J. "House Churches and Their Problems," in Social Aspects of Early Christianity: Rockwell Lectures of 1975. (2nd ed.) Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1977, pp. 60-91.
The pictures are adapted (colorized) from photos taken by Barbara F. McManus, The College of New Rochelle, firstname.lastname@example.org. They are resources from the VRoma Project. Click on the picture and you will see one with the true colors.
All biblical quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission.
Disclaimer: Some links jump to outside sites for further information on Corinthians, the Bible, Paul, and other resources. Links do not constitute an endorsement by the Women's Division of the information on other web sites. External web sites offer us diverse perspectives; afford us an opportunity to compare them to United Methodist positions; and, encourage us to critically analyze the issues raised by the Corinthians web pages.