A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 16:3-16. b). The unity of the church.
Alongside the Roman church’s diversity in race, rank and sex, it experienced a profound unity which transcended its differences. For ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Gal.3:28). Moreover the list of greetings contains several indications of this fundamental unity of the people of God. Four times Paul describes his friends as being *in Christ* (3, 7, 9, 10) and five times as *in the Lord* (8, 11, twice in 12, 13). Twice he uses the family language of ‘sister’ and ‘brother’ (1,14). In addition, he is not inhibited from calling people ‘beloved’ or ‘my beloved’ (5, 8, 9, 12). He also mentions two experiences which strengthen Christian unity, namely being fellow workers (3,9) and fellow sufferers (4,7).
How then in practice was the Roman church’s unity in diversity displayed? We know that they met in houses or household churches, for Paul probably refers to such six times (5, 10, 11, 14, 15; cf. 23) (cf. Acts 12:12; 1 Cor.16:19; Col.4:15; Phm. 2). How was the membership of these determined? We cannot suppose that they met according to sex or rank, so that there were different house churches for men and women, for slaves and free. What about race, however? It would be understandable if Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, and especially the weak and the strong, wanted to meet with their own people, because culture and customs are a strong cement to fellowship. But did they? I think not. The toleration of ethnic division in the Roman house churches would be entirely incompatible with Paul’s sustained argument in chapters 14-15, and with its climax. How could the church members ‘accept one another’, and how ‘with one heart and mouth…glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (15:6f.) if they worshipped in different, ethnically segregated house churches? Such an arrangement would contradict the churches unity in diversity.
The same is true today. It is of course a fact that people like to worship with their own kith and kin, and with their own kind, as experts in church growth remind us; and it may be necessary to acquiesce in different congregations according to language, which is the most formidable barrier of all. But heterogeneity is of the essence of the church, since it is the one and only community in the world in which Christ has broken down all dividing walls. The vision we have been given of the church triumphant is of a company drawn from ‘every nation, tribe, people and language’, who are all singing God’s praises in unison (Rev.7:9ff.). So we must declare that a homogeneous church is a defective church, which must work penitently and perseveringly towards heterogeneity.
Paul concludes his list of individual greetings with two universals. The first is that, although only a few of them have been greeted by name, they must all *greet one another with a holy kiss* (16a). The apostles Paul and Peter both insisted on this (1 Cor.16:20; 2 Cor.13:12; 1 Thess.5:26; 1 Pet.5:14), and the Church Fathers took it up. Justin Martyr wrote that ‘on finishing the prayers we greet each other with a kiss’. and Tertullian seems to have been the first to call it a ‘kiss of peace’. The logic is that our verbal greeting needs to be confirmed by a visible and tangible gesture, although what form the ‘kiss’ should take will vary according to culture. For those of us who live in the West, J.B.Phillips paraphrases: ‘Give one another a hearty handshake all round for my sake’.
Paul’s second universal follows: *all the churches of Christ send greetings* (16b). But how can he speak for all the churches? Is this mere rhetoric? No, he is probably writing representatively. Since he is about to set sail for Jerusalem, we know that those appointed by the churches to carry and deliver the offering have just assembled in Corinth. Luke tells us that they included delegates from Berea, Thessalonica, Derbe, Lystra and Ephesus (Acts 20:4) Perhaps he has asked them if he may send their churches’ greetings to Rome.
Tomorrow: Romans 16:17-27 Paul’s warnings, messages and doxology.