Romans: To Whom Did Paul Write?
At first, the intended recipients of Paul’s letter to the Romans might seem rather obvious - Romans, right? Well, yes and no.
To Whom Did Paul Write?
Like many Christian churches of antiquity, the church at Rome was fairly diverse. It included ethnic Jewish converts to the Christian faith (those receiving Jesus of Nazareth as their long-promised messiah) as well as Gentile (that is, non-Jewish) believers from the various nations and ethnicities represented throughout the Roman Empire (cf. 1:13; 11:13; 15:15-16; 16:7, 11). No doubt among these, both Jew and Gentile, were the educated and uneducated; free and enslaved; wealthy and poor; and so on.
However, due to its home in the imperial capital, the Roman church faced unique political challenges. Many scholars believe that one of these temporarily affected the composition and development of the church at Rome, and might explain some of Paul’s approach in writing this epistle (Greek, letter).
In the late AD 40s, the Roman Emperor, Claudius, issued a decree. This, according to the ancient Roman historian, Suetonius, involved “expel[ling] Jews from Rome because of their constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus” (1). It’s noteworthy that Luke corroborates this event, referring to it in Acts 18:2.
Theologian Guy Waters suggests that, “Suetonius’s explanation for the riots (‘at the instigation of Chrestus’) may be his garbled accounting of Jewish public disturbances occasioned by Christians’ proclamations of the gospel” (2). One can only imagine how this decree transformed the church at Rome overnight, from a church led by Jewish Christians into a church composed and led entirely by Gentile Christians.
It was only years later, in AD 54, that Claudius died and his edict along with him. His successor, Nero, allowed Jews, both non-Christian and Christian, to return to Rome (3). As such, in the years immediately preceding Paul’s letter, the church at Rome experienced a large infusion of returning Jewish Christians. It’s to this newly reunited congregation that Paul wrote.
Why did he write?
Scholars identify several motivations for Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. Let’s look at five of them.
First, Paul wrote to introduce himself to the Roman Christians, ahead of a long-delayed visit to Rome. He planned to visit previously, but was prevented (cf. 1:13; 15:22-23).
Second, Paul wrote to explain his gospel and theology in fuller detail, proactively addressing some common objections to his teaching ahead of his arrival. It seems that many within the early Christian movement took issue with Paul’s emphasis on the grace of God in salvation, implying that it undermined the proper place of God’s law and resulted in lives of licentiousness (cf. Acts 21:20-21; Rom. 3:8; 3:31; 6:1-2; 6:15). Regarding this, Waters is again helpful:
Paul fears that these slanders have reached the Roman Christians. In providing the Roman Christians a summary of the gospel, he is at the same time responding to objections that have been raised against that gospel over the course of his ministry (4).
Third, Paul recognized the need to move beyond areas already reached for the gospel, and set his eyes on the western empire - specifically, Spain. He wrote to seek the Roman Christians’ prayerful and financial assistance for a future missionary endeavor in that region.
Fourth, even as Paul sought to expand the horizons of missionary endeavor, he felt obligated to his brothers and sisters back in Jerusalem. As noted in 15:25, Paul sought Roman assistance in bringing “aid to the saints” experiencing a season of hardship in Jerusalem. This appeal was part of a larger appeal among many different churches, and a larger conceptual effort to show the unity of Gentile and Jewish Christians (cf. Rom. 15:26; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 8-9).
Finally, Paul wrote to address a pastoral issue in the Roman church. As the Roman and Jewish Christians came back together, they often presumably did so with various understandings of the role of God’s law in the life of believers. Some were “weak,” still striving to observe aspects of the Mosaic law (dietary customs, dress practices, special religious days, and so on) and others were “strong,” those understanding Christ’s fulfillment of these and their freedom in him. Stott describes the resulting tension:
The ‘weak in faith’, who scrupulously observed the ceremonial regulations like the food laws, condemned Paul for not doing so. They may also have regarded themselves as the sole beneficiaries of God’s promises, and were not at all in favor of Gentile evangelization unless the converts were prepared to be circumcised and observe the law in full. To them Paul was both a traitor to the covenant and an enemy of the law (that is, an ‘antinomian’). The ‘strong in faith’, on the other hand, who like Paul himself were champions of a ‘law-free’ gospel’, made the mistake of despising the weak for being still in unnecessary bondage to the law. Thus the Jewish Christians were proud of their favoured status, and the Gentile Christians of their freedom, so that Paul saw the need to humble them both (5).
Into this diversity, Paul spoke words of love, patience, and unity through mutual submission.
What does this mean for us?
As we continue to swim in the breadth and depth of Romans over the next several weeks, you’ll no doubt see how each of these issues, though different on the surface, arises from fundamental issues still with us today. For instance:
If we’re already forgiven by God, why should we obey?
What is our role in global missions?
How should we care for our sisters and brothers in Christ around the world, especially those experiencing hardship?
How can believers of various degrees of spiritual maturity exist peaceably together in one church?
How can those of different cultures and backgrounds come together in Christ? How can we be different yet undivided?
For this reason, our study of Romans is timely. Through it, God spoke to the church so many centuries ago, and still speaks to us today.
(1) Suetonius, Claudius 25.4, cited in Dunn, Romans 1-8, xlviii by Waters, “Romans,” A Biblical-theological Introduction to the New Testament: The Gospel Realized. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016. 172.
(4) Ibid., 173-174.
(5) Stott, John R. W. Romans: Gods Good News for the World. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994. 35.
In preparing this article, I am especially indebted to both Dr. Guy Waters and the late Dr. John Stott. Works consulted are listed above. Scripture references are adapted from these texts.