Sunday School Notes: Romans 16:3-5a
3 Greet Prisca and Aquila, my co-laborers in Christ Jesus, 4 who laid down [or risked] their neck on behalf of my life, to whom not only I myself give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles; 5 also [greet] the church at their house.
These “greetings” passages, much like the genealogies in the Old Testament and the Gospels, are often considered “fluff” passages–perhaps of passing historical interest, but not of any theological substance. We must guard against the two extremes of ignoring them, as if they are totally devoid of spiritual application, and of importing more theological meaning into them that was ever intended by the Spirit of God when He inspired them. The primary way to guard against these extremes is to remember the original context. These people are real people that Paul knew, and he is addressing the Roman church, asking that they pass on his greetings to them, and giving–for the most part–reasons why these people are dear to Paul’s heart and deserving of being singled out. Paul is not intending to teach any deep, spiritual truths. But that doesn’t mean that the Spirit isn’t using Paul to communicate important principles to us, by making us aware of the kind of people in the Roman church, and the way Paul regards them.
The 19 names that Paul mentions in verses 3-16 are a cross-section of Roman society. From the names themselves, we can determine that some were slaves, or free-men, some male, some female, some Jewish, and some Gentile. We have already discussed Phoebe, and how she might have been a woman of means; but not everyone in the Roman church was financially well-off. This tells us that despite the Jewish-Gentile squabbling, the church was not socially elitist. From the earliest days, the gospel message cut across social boundaries, as God called people to Himself from every strata of life; and the same is true today.
Why these 19 people? It’s possible that these were the only people in Rome that Paul knew, and by mentioning them, he’s indicating to the Romans that his interest in them is real and personal. While he didn’t plant the church, and has never visited, he knows people there, some of them very well. These people can vouch for Paul, should he need the testimony of others. While this is possible, I don’t think there can be any doubt that Paul has a genuine affection for the people he names, and the communication of greetings to them is sincere and heartfelt.
Today we only got as far as Prisca (or Priscilla, as Luke calls her) and Aquila, certainly the most significant names on Paul’s list, not only in terms of how much Paul says about them, but also in terms of their prominence in the New Testament. Thanks to Luke, we know more about them than we do any of the other names on the list. According to Acts 18, Priscilla and Aquila were Jews from Pontus who left Italy as a result of Claudius’s decree expelling Jews from Rome. They established themselves in Corinth, where they took up tent-making. They shared this skill with Paul, with whom they soon became co-laborers for the gospel. In fact, it’s probably not too far off the mark to think Paul mentored and discipled them. Luke tells us Paul took them with him to Ephesus and left them there, where they were used of the Lord to disciple Apollos (Acts 18:26). Paul later rejoined them in Ephesus, and stayed with them a while (1 Corinthians 16:9). Clearly, they are now back in Rome. After Claudius died, his edict died with him, and the Jews could return. It’s only natural that Prisca and Aquila would want to go back home, so it’s not surprising to find them there. Neither is it surprising that they top Paul’s greeting list, and he devotes as much time as he does to greeting them. Of all the 19 people on the list, he knows them best, and wants to be sure the Roman church appreciates how much they mean to him.
We can’t know for certain what Paul means when he says that Prisca and Aquila “laid down their necks on behalf my life.” Does he mean this literally–i.e., at some point, Prisca and Aquila were facing execution for Paul’s sake? Perhaps he’s using an idiom, similar to our phrase “to stick your neck out” in the sense of putting yourself out, even to the point of putting your life in danger for someone else’s benefit? Since Paul doesn’t give us any other information (when this happened, or where), it’s hard to be certain which way to take these words. This phrase is not known in the rest of the New Testament, but there is precedent in Greek literature for the metaphorical use. It could be a reference to the Ephesian riots mentioned in Acts 19:23 ff., where Paul’s life was in danger as a result of the preaching of the gospel. Perhaps Prisca and Aquila put themselves in harm’s way to protect Paul? I’m not convinced the phrase is to be taken literally simply because there is nothing on record to state that Prisca and Aquila were ever formally tried and faced execution. However, there are occasions (like the Ephesian riot) where they might have endangered themselves for Paul. Again, there’s so little to go on, we’re simply taking best guesses at what Paul means, and I could be wrong.
Paul brings out the more important point next: he is grateful for their sacrificial ministry on his behalf, but it’s not just him that’s grateful. Indeed, all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful. By this, I believe Paul is underscoring the importance of Prisca and Aquila’s role in Paul’s ministry. If they hadn’t risked their own necks for Paul, his ministry to the Gentiles could have been curtailed. In God’s sovereignty, of course, this didn’t happen. But God used Prisca and Aquila, and their willingness to lay down their lives for Paul’s sake, as a means of progressing the gospel throughout the Gentile world. For this, the Gentiles should be eternally grateful to God, and to Prisca and Aquila.
The final part of Paul’s greeting is directed to “the church at their house.” We know that the early church met in houses. It’s possible they got together for corporate worship–where, it’s hard to be sure. The church in some places may have met in synagogues, but in some places, large gatherings of Christians may have caused problems (think of the trouble Paul aroused in Jerusalem). In any case, for both practical, and maybe political reasons (i.e., not wanting to cause trouble with either the religious or the secular authorities), the church would commonly meet in houses. Prisca and Aquila may have been leaders of such a church group, or they may have simply had a house big enough to accommodate such a gathering.
We spent some time first on the subject of house churches, and then on the subject of church government. I won’t go into all that we discussed, but if you have questions, feel free to leave comments. In brief, we noted that while these gatherings are referred to as “churches,” Paul doesn’t regard them as separate from the Roman church. In other words, these are not split-off church groups, or churches independent from the elders who ruled the church in Rome. Paul’s church planting pattern was to enter a city, establish a church, and call elders to rule that church. He didn’t establish the house churches–these, we presume, were organized by the church of that city. There would likely have been leaders of each house church, but they would have been answerable to the elders of the church of that city. I base this on passages such as Acts 20:17, where Paul goes to Ephesus and calls the elders of the church, indicating that the Ephesian church as a whole (including all the house churches) was led by elders. Indeed, he instructs Timothy, himself a leader (elder?) of the Ephesian church on the appointment of elders for the church (1 Tim 3), without regard for individual house churches.
With regard to the modern “house church” movement, we noted that the idea of churches meeting in homes clearly has biblical precedent, and indeed, many churches (including our own) started out as believers meeting in someone’s house. The definition of a true church has nothing to do with where that church meets; rather it is that body’s fidelity to God’s Word that makes it a true church of the Lord Jesus Christ. When a church, house church or otherwise, strays from God’s Word and follows after personalities or programs–especially when this leads to deviation from central Christian truth–it is no longer a true church.
This led to a discussion on church government, and the importance of accountability for leadership. We discussed both Baptist (particularly Reformed Baptist) and Presbyterian models of leadership, and while noting the significant differences, I think there are some points of agreement. Firstly, that no oversight or accountability structure is infallible. Whether it’s a Presbytery, or an association with like-minded brethren, as long as there are people involved, there will be error. As the PCA has seen with the PCUSA, if that error is serious, then it may be necessary to leave that accountability structure. But the basis upon which we evaluate any accountability, or advice, or guidance, is always God’s Word, and not what sounds good, or is politically expedient. Secondly, the form of church government is not a primary issue for the church. Undoubtedly, it is important, and churches need to have some kind of organization in order to function, and it is the responsibility of each church to determine from Scripture which model of leadership is the most appropriate, and adopt it. But no-one’s salvation is going to be determined on whether they are Presbyterian, Baptist, Episcopal, or Congregationalist.
Next time, we’ll consider more of the greetings in this section.