There’s something I like about group photos.
You know the sort of thing: a class of children sitting with their teacher, freshly scrubbed and on their best behavior; a bunch of people attending a conference; a crowd at a wedding, all dressed up to the nines.
There they all are, smiling cheesily into the camera. You can’t help but smile back.
Well, they didn’t have cameras in Paul’s day, but wouldn’t it be great to see a group photo of the early church in Rome? Can you imagine what it would have been like?
The nearest we get to it is the list of names Paul gives us in the last chapter of his letter to them (Romans 16:14-16). I’ve picked out just a few:
“Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the brothers with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the saints with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss.”
Please don’t worry if you don’t know how to pronounce them (neither do I), or if you can’t think of anything you know about them.
That’s the whole point—they are just very ordinary people, most of them otherwise completely unknown to history. Just like us, in fact.
Isn’t it good that after all the heavy-duty theology of Romans 1-15, we have this personal glimpse of the “army of ordinary people” who made up the church in the capital of the Roman Empire? It alerts us to several important things.
First, the church is people, not buildings.
At this point in history there was simply no such thing as a church building. In Romans 16:5, Paul mentions the church that meets at the house of Priscilla and Aquila.
That’s the way it was: In order to meet for worship and fellowship, the early Christians gathered in homes or hired halls.
I sometimes think that the church today would be a lot healthier if it had stayed that way.
Buildings can be a curse as well as a blessing. The vast amounts of time and money they gobble up. The superstitious reverence they attract. The wrong image they can give to the non-Christian world.
Second, if the people Paul mentions here make up, say, about a quarter of the whole church—meeting in four or five locations around the city—then the church was really quite small, consisting of about 100 people.
Again, much like many churches today. We must resist discouragement if our numbers are small. God can do massive things from truly tiny beginnings.
Third, the church was a community of workers.
Do you notice the number of times Paul refers to people “working hard”? Yes, serving Christ and his church is often a matter of sweat and toil, rolled-up sleeves and perseverance. The church isn’t a social gathering with religious trimmings.
Are you a worker in the church of Christ? Is it time you became one?
Fourth, there is a strong sense of affection, indeed, of love.
People have “risked their lives” for one another. They are “dear friends.” Rufus’ mother, it seems, “has been a mother” to Paul, too (Romans 16:13). They were in the practice of kissing one another in greeting.
This isn’t a group of relative strangers who shake hands on a Sunday morning, make a few minutes of polite conversation and head off home. Oh no, these are brothers and sisters, sharing their very lives with one another.
Fifth, they were a mixed group.
There are about 24 mentioned by name, of whom a little less than half were probably women.
And we can be sure that there were rich (some had homes big enough to host a meeting) and poor. Different talents, different aptitudes, different personalities.
Paul doesn’t mention it here, though he certainly does elsewhere, but no doubt there were tensions too, differences of opinion, even personality clashes. Let’s not imagine the early church was perfect, any more than yours is today.
Why not take a few minutes to read your way—slowly and imaginatively, picturing these people with your mind’s eye—right through Romans 16?
And keep in mind this thought: one of the greatest joys and privileges of being a Christian is that you are a member of the family of God, gathered together with others in a local congregation.
Value the church. Value your church, whatever its faults may be.
Love one another. Be a worker. Give of yourself and what you have cheerfully and gladly. Above all, remember that you are a saint.
Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister living in northwest London. He is also a freelance journalist who has written for several United Kingdom papers and various Christian publications. His writings can be found on his blog, Sedgonline.blogspot.co.uk. A version of this article first appeared in The Baptist Times, the online newspaper of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, and is used with permission.