Beverly Gaventa discusses what we know about the earliest Christian communities.
The communities that we refer to as the Pauline churches – you know, these gatherings – probably took different forms in different places. Scholars have used a number of models: were they clubs, were they synagogue-like groups, were they family groups? That’s a place where there’s an awful lot of ferment, even around questions like where did they meet, did they actually meet in houses or did they even meet outdoors? Did they meet in assembly halls of various sorts?
We know that he uses familial language for them. He calls them brothers and sisters, he uses parental imagery – which suggests to me that he thinks of it as a new sort of family. Which was a radical thing in the ancient world because family, blood or even adoption, but family is really the base of the way you think about society. So to talk about a non-familial non-natural group in familial terms is quite startling.
It is pretty remarkable, I think, to see the different strata, different groupings of society that appear to come together here. You know, in First Corinthians he says “not many of you were well born” – and apparently some of them were. Now, again, this may have changed from one area to another, but from the names that we have in Romans 16 we know some of them at least are slaves, or they’re the children of slaves, former slaves. We know some of them apparently were fairly well-to-do. It’s hard to get too precise about exactly what kind of income distribution there is – or status distribution, which was not as closely tied to income as it is for us – but they’re quite variegated groups from what we can tell.