Paul and Church in Rome

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Paul, Paul


Paul states in Romans 15:20 that he tried to preach the gospel, "not where Christ was named, lest he should build upon another man's foundation." Paul did not found the church in Rome, so why did he intend to go there to preach, and why did he write them such a lengthy letter? Isn't this "building on another man's foundation?"


This is a good point. Some scholars see his statement in 15:20 as a fixed policy and also have trouble with his plans to preach at the church in Rome. There are others, however, who see some legitimate wiggle room in his statement.

For example, he probably wouldn't have wanted to establish a church where another had been working. But apparently the church in Rome didn't have an apostolic foundation, so he might have felt freer in preaching there. He does say that he wanted to impart some "spiritual gift" to the Romans and to have "some fruit" among them. It indicates that he felt he had something of value to share with them. He does add that they would be "mutually encouraged" (1:11-13). Scholars are hesitant to suggest that the Roman church might have lacked a particular element, given such pillars as Phoebe, Prisca, and Aquila in their presence – people who knew Paul and his teachings inside and out. But it helps to think of early Christianity as "messy." There really was a lot of diversity of ideas and opinions. Doctrine was still in its formative stage. People were creating it as they went along. The situation might have been similar to the preaching of Apollos. He had been very effective, but it states in Acts that even though "he taught about Jesus accurately, he knew only the baptism of John." So while he had some information, he didn't have it all. But what he lacked in knowledge, he made up for in enthusiasm. It says, "he spoke boldly in the synagogue, just as the disciples had done." Prisca and Aquila heard him there. They began talking, and they started asking him questions. Some things didn't sound quite right, so they thoroughly instructed him. And yet, they did not feel he needed to be baptized again; whatever knowledge he had was sufficient for that. Thereafter, Apollos continued preaching, albeit with better information. (See Acts 18:24-28) In a similar fashion, perhaps the church in Rome also needed some tweaking on various points.

While this sounds intriguing, many scholars think it reads too much into the text. Nor do they think Romans was written to allay factions within the church. Unlike I Corinthians, Paul barely mentions any warring factions and doesn't bring up the "strong/weak" issue until chapter 14. He began with that point in I Corinthians because it was a huge issue in that church. Nor does he indicate who the "strong/weak" really are. The positions held by those "strong or weak" could have been held by either Jew or Gentile.

Scholars do agree that Romans is a treatise on a variety of great themes, but in the absence of certain points (like communion), it hardly seems to be comprehensive. Nonetheless, it reflects a mature thought regarding Paul's message and theology, taking it beyond the specifics of any given church and raising it to the level of universality and eternality. Some have even suggested this was Paul's "last will and testament." But it still raises the issue of why he wrote this to Rome.

The answer, though elusive, might be quite straightforward. Paul was on his way to Jerusalem at this time. He had several months to prepare himself for that visit and plenty of time to think about his future. He had never been to Rome and had wanted to visit there many times, but had always "been hindered" from doing so. As he was working on this letter, he was also planning a mission to Spain. This was a golden opportunity to visit Rome on his way to Spain. The letter, then, can be seen as an important step in preparing for that visit. He wanted the support of this church, both for his encounter in Jerusalem as well as for that Spanish mission. Surely, this church knew a lot about Paul (remember Phoebe, Prisca, and Aquila), and that would have included a lot of the criticism that had been swirling around him over the years. He really wanted them to know him and what he preached. Hence, he set down on paper the essential message of Christianity to show them where he stood. The letter to the Romans remains as one of the most essential messages of Christianity to this day.

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