Christian Trade Guild
Next Previous Index Tellout Home

39. Christian Trade Guild

Dionysiac Artists

Dionysiac ArtistsThe appearance of a trade guild like the associations for performers, tradesmen, and artisans in the Roman Empire was quietly adopted as a format for Christian meetings. Co-fraternities of tradesmen and professional associations organized like trade unions, cartels or secret societies were especially important in Rome. Trade Guilds, otherwise known as "collegia" were mentioned for their organized opposition to the Christian Church. Saint Luke writes in Acts 19.23-25, "About that time there arose a great disturbance about 'the Way.' A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. He called them together, along with the workers in related trades." These were silversmiths who feared the loss of their trade in silver idols. Other guilds are also known to have existed for bankers, architects, bakers, linen manufacturers, doctors, workers in metal or stone, dyers, pastry cooks, barbers, and even embalmers! They often relied on permits or letters patent from a ruler or other authority to ensure the flow of trade to self-employed members and to keep ownership of the supply of materials and tools to themselves. They met and conducted their business from "guildhalls" which later became town halls and local law courts. Before the Roman Empire, they had been uncommon in the East, apart from special organizations like the "Dionysiac Artists," which was a guild of actors, scene painters, and others associated with the theatre. In this period, the associations of other artisans, merchants and trade guilds spread throughout Greek cities as well.

Purely Social Bodies

Icon of Early ChristiansAlthough it has become customary to call this kind of group a "Christian trade guild", their purpose is not to be confused with those of medieval guilds, much less with those of modern trade unions. Inscriptions indicate that the trade guilds seem to have been purely social bodies, unconcerned with the business activities of their members. Only in later times did the government sometimes intervene and manipulate the trade guilds in an attempt to regulate commerce.

Patchwork Rug Makers

ThessalonicaBuilders and carpenters, patchwork rug makers, porters and groups like the purple dyers of Eighteenth Street in Thessalonica met to hold banquets and to drink wine supplied by one member each week. A trade guild might also celebrate the birthday of their founder or patron or commemorated the feast of a local god such as the Greek and Olympian gods Poseidon, Hermes, Isis, and Silvanus. Some trade guilds drew up membership rules to provide a decent burial for their members when their time had come. Christian trade guilds must have appeared to the authorities to be just such trade guild meetings.✞

Christian Atrium House

Vitruvian ManVitruvius, (BC 81-15 AD) a civil engineer and architect, and the Roman author of "De Architectura" points out that everyone had the right to enter a Roman atrium house vestibule, the main room, and a colonnaded garden. Vitruvius, by the way, probably inspired the famous drawing of the human body by Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519 AD) called "Vitruvian Man" from a description in his writings. The only places reserved as private space for the family in a Roman home were the bedrooms, dining rooms, and baths! Saint Paul reinforces this point when he writes in 1 Corinthians 14.23, "therefore, the whole church comes together and outsiders or unbelievers enter the house uninvited."

Free Entry

Row of Modern HousesWe, who are twenty-first-century householders, might question how strangers could have ventured into our living room. But as far as the Corinthian atrium houses went, Paul felt no need to explain that anyone was free to enter and welcome to walk in and out through the central corridor into the atrium.✞

Through the Front Door

Woman Anoints JesusIn a similar situation, in Mark 14.3-9, a woman anointed Jesus with perfume made of pure nard while he was reclining in a dining room in an atrium or central room of a Roman house. Spikenard, also called "nard," "nardin," and "muskroot" was a class of aromatic amber-colored essential oils derived from a flowering plant that grows in the Himalayas of Nepal, China, and India. It was very precious in Jesus' day. The Gospel writer in Luke 7.37 commented only that "she knew he is reclining in the house." Commentators have wondered how she got into the colonnaded garden in the first place and the best answer seems to be that she walked in uninvited through an open front door!

Modern Concepts

Atrium House PlanThe English word "house" in North American and English post-industrial societies communicates a different notion to us because we experience public workspace as separate from our private homes, and our boundaries are secured by locked front doors. We must imagine ourselves back in a radically different social and cultural context to gain some perception of an early assembly in one of these atrium houses where the front door was always open during the day, people were free to enter and walk through. There was a shop at the front selling the wares produced by the family.

Christian Missions

Atrium HouseAn Atrium house offers great advantages, as well as some disadvantages, for the early Christian mission. One central function of the atrium house is crucial for understanding the Pauline mission in these settings. The Greek house is concerned with creating a world of privacy, of excluding the inquisitive person passing by but the Roman atrium house invites him or her in and puts its occupants on conspicuous show. There is always an opportunity for conversation about spiritual things there.

Early Church Club

Group of PeopleThe voluntary association is a very important form of social relationship in ancient Greek and Roman cities. A great variety of groups of friends, relatives, neighbors, or working associates, drew up a constitution, found a meeting place, and declared themselves the Association of "whatever!" An Early Church club as one of this group was usually not large but most often contained from a dozen to thirty or forty, rarely more than a hundred members.

Private Clubs Thrived

Shoe MakerBefore the evolution of Early Church clubs, private clubs of various sorts thrive unregulated in the West and the East. While information about them is relatively sparse and mainly confined to inscriptions, it provides a reasonably intelligible if only a general picture. The clubs were formed for various purposes and from various groups, trades including bakers and shoemakers, professions with musicians and actors, civic functions of firemen, veterans or sportsmen, and were directed more to the social and religious than to the professional or economic interest of their members.

Monthly Subscriptions

Ancient Burial SiteThe clubs hold regular meetings, usually with religious ceremonies, elect officers and sometimes a patron, and exercise a certain discipline over their members. They also hold property. For a monthly subscription to a common treasury, they provide their membership with banquets, other festive and leisure activities and, in the end, an honorable burial. The associations that are classified as clubs for the poor include both males and females, slaves and freedmen. They emphasize dining and funeral benefits, and by underwriting the necessary burial proprieties they serve a public interest as well.

Roman Open House

Atrium GardenThe contrast between space for visitors and space for the family in the Roman open house in the Roman Empire indicates a welcome for uninvited visitors. There is no clear contrast between work and leisure. The Romans lack our distinctions of a place of work whether office or factory from a place of leisure in one's home. Their business was regularly conducted through an open door at home, whether it was by an emperor receiving the reports of his secretaries and procurators, by a republican noble giving his legal advice, or by a merchant, craftsman, or shopkeeper operating from his workshop or selling goods he had produced in his shop as part of his home.

Visual Axis

AtriumWhen a passerby looked through the open door of a Roman open house, he or she could see right through! Often a visual axis ran from the open door through the main room, then through "the living room office" where the owner is displayed as if upon a stage, with the floor actually built a few inches higher than the other rooms, and then into the colonnaded garden. There are many examples, among them the "Casa dell' Atrio a Mosaico" in Herculaneum, where the vista from the open door passes through the center of the atrium into the living room office, with a garden opening off to the right of this vista. The "Casa del Mobilio Carbonizzato", also in Herculaneum had a view from the door framed by the openings of the living room office, then focused on the shrine in the garden wall beyond.

Secret Meetings

Casa Wall ArtIt was possible but not likely that in the case of Christian meetings held in a Roman house, the neighbors may not have known what was taking place. But certainly, where meetings were held in an apartment complex, there could have been no question of secrecy, for everyone in the building probably knew everyone else's business. Outsiders were regularly invited or perhaps even wandered into Christian meetings. It would be a mistake, therefore, to envision every Christian gathering at this time in a spacious private house, or even operating with full privacy. Paul wrote as in 1 Corinthians 14.23, "So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all."

Religious Church Club

Roman Historian SuetoniusReligious church clubs didn't suffer a blanket prohibition on their activities in this Early Church period. Even unlicensed religious clubs appear to have been dissolved only when they caused problems for the State. They then usually received only minor penalties. E. Earl Ellis (1926-2010) in "Pauline Theology - Ministry and Society" asserts that the Roman historian Suetonius (c69-c122 AD) wrote that certain religious clubs were exempt from the bans including "those of ancient foundation" or "the old and legitimate ones."


Ancient Paved Stone RoadSimilar terminology was common to both Christian congregations and private religious clubs. The names "assembly" and "synagogue" and the terms "overseer," "elder," "leader" and "patron" were occasionally used to designate a club leader and club officers. It has been suggested that the same terms were borrowed by the church from the clubs themselves.

The Way

Ancient Synagogue CapernaumThe church was spoken of by believers in Acts 24.14 as "the Way." This term was also used by some religious clubs, and it was tagged by its detractors as "a sect," and employed for subgroups within a club. Such similarities were not sufficient to show that the church viewed itself as a club or derived its vocabulary from them, but neither do differences in terminology prove that the church did not so regard itself. It goes beyond the evidence to say either that the church avoided club terminology or that it imitated such terminology.✞


Church CongregationCertain Pauline congregations favored constructing the constitution of their churches along the lines of a religious club. Some elements reflected practices of the synagogue, which had the status of a religious church club and from which the churches were originally drawn. They included particularly a church order like that of a synagogue and an organization of congregations in the homes of members or patrons that corresponded to the usage of some synagogues and other religious clubs.

Christian Trade Association

Emperor Julius CaesarWayne A. Meeks writes in "The First Urban Christians - The Social World of the Apostle Paul" that "the house church like the group that gathered with the tentmakers Prisca, Aquila, and Paul in Corinth and Ephesus might well have seemed to their neighbors as a Christian trade association or a club of some kind." During the closing days of the Roman republic, the trade associations in Rome were to become a cover for political demonstrations including criminal acts and were successively banned, restored, and banned again. For similar reasons, the Christian trade association was dissolved on earlier occasions by Julius Caesar in BC 144 and Emperor Augustus between BC 31 and 14 AD. A recognized association including a Christian one was required to follow special licensing procedures.

Political Disturbances

E. Earl Ellis writes in "Pauline Theology - Ministry and Society" that "From time to time, various associations and clubs continued to get involved in riots and political disturbances, for which the silversmiths at Ephesus in Acts 19.23-41 and the sports clubs at Pompeii provide well-known examples, and sometimes they were dissolved for a season. But it probably went too far to characterize such disturbances as 'genuine attempts at social revolution.'"

"Christian Trade Guild"
by Ron Meacock © 2019

^Top Page Next Previous