What to Do with a Plain Old Church

You may have noticed that the people in your fellowship are about as exciting as the credits at the end of a movie.     

Everyone knows what to do when the credits start rolling.  You get up, collect your empty popcorn box, and leave.  A thousand or more names will scroll on your way out, and they’ll still be scrolling by the time you get in the car.  Nobody cares who was “Key Grip” or “Assistant Wardrobe Supervisor,” except maybe that person’s mom.  The rest of us amble zombie-like to the exit.  It was a long movie.

Romans is a long book.  Some of the chapters are difficult to understand.   Maybe a few of them inspired you, like chapter 3 on being justified, or chapter 6 about sanctification or chapter 8 about all things working together for good.  But when chapter 16 finally came along and the credits started rolling—a list of names long and difficult to pronounce—our first instinct was to skip it.

This suggests a deeper problem related to our overall estimation of the church.  Real names are often in danger of being utterly demoted, lost on a sea of models, structures, approaches, and strategies.

For instance, contemporary church culture tends to depend on full-buffet programming. Unfortunately, the “names” involved with it easily become consumers.  Of course old school wasn’t any better—when steeples and choirs and one hour moralistic sermons reigned supreme.  In that scenario “names” existed to maintain the fading pulse of the past.

Meanwhile, the recovery/restoration models, sincerely trying to rekindle first century practice, deem whatever they don’t like in the others as pagan and unbiblical.  The “names” within it end up vulnerable to elitism.  Then there’s the anti-church crowd who brands everything even slightly ecclesiastical as foolish.  Connected “names” aren’t connected, because they’ve been told that real spirituality means belonging only to something invisible and self-prescribed.

Regrettably our “inconsequential” list of names from Romans 16, has, especially in our time, found itself often borrowed for something more important than itself.

So what happens when you’ve got a bunch of names that aren’t attached to any ideological agendas?  They’re terribly plain.  Can such a church be fixed?

Maybe it’s not broken.

Romans 16 demonstrates ‘Church’ as people who jointly hold the Gospel of God—the same as mentioned in Romans chapter 1 and that unfurls throughout the subsequent 15 chapters—of sin and blood and grace, of sanctification, newness of life, freedom, and glory, of sacrifice, service, and love in Christ.  The fellowship of these folks provide the very setting of the gospel’s operation.

As Paul lists them, he reveals not only his relationship with them, but their relationship with one another.   They have different stories, like Epaenetus, who was the first person in all of Asia to believe in Christ (v. 5).  This veteran of the faith could probably have given quite some testimonies about guiding others who came along after him.  Ampliatus, and Stachys are “beloved,” maybe due to some endearing anecdotes known by the apostle Paul, but unspecified here in the text (v. 8, 9).  Apelles is “approved,” presumably after suffering grave hardships for his faith (v. 10).  Rufus is “chosen,” (v. 13), not an especially unique characteristic among Christians (for we have all been chosen), but perhaps still a significant feature if he was one who had for a while fiercely lived against the gospel, only to be saved.  It might explain why his mother was mentioned along with him, for who is more involved in restoring a prodigal than his Christian mother?

These names have different services, like Priscilla and Aquila who graciously hosted the church in their home (v. 5).  Mary, Andronicus and Junia, Urbanus, Tryphana, Tryphosa, and Persis had all worked on behalf of Christ and His church (v. 6, 7, 9, 12).  We don’t know the details, but we trust they were many, and were difficult.

Finally there were those who simply “belonged” (vv. 10-11), and were “with” others (vv.14-15).

What should we do with all these plain folk?

Don’t ask the church growth gurus who think there aren’t enough names to bother with, or the contemporary crowd who thinks they need more gadgets.  Don’t ask the traditionalists who want to congratulate them on their non-use of electric guitars.  For sure don’t ask the anti-church crowd, who feels we should dispose of them.

These names and their stories and their works are the result of the eternal wisdom of God, the hard work of Christ, the gospel. They aren’t to be used for a goal.  They are the goal.

What should we do with them?

Ask Paul.

He said to kiss them (v. 16).


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