Roman Social Clubs
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Burial Society 178

Tertullian Describes Activities

Icon of Tertullian of the 2nd Century ADE. Earl Ellis (1926-2010 AD) in "Pauline Theology - Ministry and Society," writes, "At the end of the second century, when Tertullian" (155-240 AD) who was a leader in the North African Church "asks why the churches should not have been classed among lawful clubs when it commits no actions commonly feared from unlawful ones. He implies that the churches in that area were already regarded as Roman social clubs. He then speaks of churches as clubs and to describe their activities, including a monthly contribution for the feeding and burial of the poor."

Unlicensed and Tolerated

Drawing of Tertullian of North Africa"When Tertullian's comments are taken as a whole, they clearly place churches in the status of unlicensed but ordinarily tolerated religious social clubs." This conclusion is valid not only for the church of Tertullian's day in 200 AD but very likely for the earlier Christian mission as well. Whether the development of the monarchical episcopate (or a single leader over a group of churches) owes anything to the necessity under law for certain kinds of Roman clubs to have a designated representative to act on its behalf is a question that may be left unexplored since it takes us in any case beyond the situation of Pauline Christianity.

A Place in Society

New England Green Burial SocietyIn general, the Pauline ecclesiastical organization and ministries arose from uniquely Christian experiences to meet the church's own needs, but it is clear that some elements in its order, terminology, and practice, and particularly its affinities with the synagogue, have resemblances to the social club. All these factors taken together create a strong probability that the church in the Roman Empire was perceived as a social entity and saw itself as a social club and that, as such, it found from the beginning a degree of toleration and a place within the Greco-Roman social order.

"Roman Social Clubs"
by Ron Meacock © 2017

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