Christian Burial Society
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40. Christian Burial Society

Secular Burial Society

TombstoneThe rules of a Christian and secular burial society in the "Dictionary of New Testament Background" by editors Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter state, "Any member who speaks abusively of another or causes an uproar shall pay a fine of 12 Sesterces." A "Sesterce" is the cost of two loaves of bread in Roman times. It is also a small silver coin issued during the Roman Republic in BC 211 and a large brass coin when revalued later in the Roman Empire. The rules of a Christian burial society continue, "any member who uses any abusive or insolent language to a leader (called a "quinquennalis") at a banquet shall pay a fine of 20 sesterces." A "quinquennalis" is possibly an official voted in for five years. Furthermore, on the festive days of his office term, each leading official conducts worship with incense and wine and performs his other functions clothed in white. On the birthdays of Diana and Antinous (which were Roman gods), he provides oil for the society in the public bath before they banquet. Instead of worshipping Diana or Antinous, the Christians worship Christ in their Christian burial societies and possibly use the public bath for baptisms. The Communion also would appear to outsiders to be a kind of feast with bread and wine.

Familiar to Outsiders

Cemetery TombstonesAgainst this background, it is fair to say that a Christian burial society would look familiar to outsiders in at least some respects. Like the pagan burial societies, members of the Christian burial society meet regularly (weekly rather than monthly), eat food, and drink wine together. They honor one another by election to office, address the causes of disturbance in the meetings, and join together for worship activities. Christian burial societies, like the house churches in Corinth and elsewhere, provide a social context for people from primarily the non-elite trades and crafts of the social scale to participate in everyday life more substantial than the household but smaller than the city-state. However, The Christian burial society is distinctive in the mixed social composition of their groups. They are exclusively focused on devotion to Christ crucified and risen, and serious in their commitment to holiness.✞

Roman Social Clubs

Icon of TertullianTertullian describes how the church's activities are like a Roman social club and a Christian burial society. This fact legitimizes the Early Church. E Earl Ellis (1926-2010) in "Pauline Theology - Ministry and Society," writes that at the end of the second century, when Tertullian (155-240 AD) asks the authorities why the churches should not be classed among lawful clubs when it committed no actions feared from unlawful ones. He implies that the church already acts like a Roman social club. He speaks of churches as clubs and describes their activities, including the monthly contribution for the poor feeding and burial.

Unlicensed and Tolerated

Tertullian of North Africa"Taking Tertullian's comments as a whole, they 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 also for the earlier Christian mission. Perhaps monarchical episcopate development, or a single leader over a group of churches, owes something to the requirement under the law for some Roman clubs to have a designated representative act for it.

Place in Society

Green Burial SocietyIn general, Paul's ecclesiastical organization and ministries arise from uniquely Christian experiences to meet the church's own needs. But it is clear that some elements in its order, terminology, and practice, notably its affinities with the synagogue, resemble the burial society or social club. If taken together, all these factors create a strong probability that the church in the Roman Empire is perceived as a social entity and sees itself as a social club. As such, it finds a degree of toleration and a place within the Greco-Roman social order.✞

Paul's Christian Synagogues

ancient synagogueWe may also compare and contrast Paul's Christian synagogues to households of faith, Christian burial societies, and church clubs in the Early Church. In the light of the Jewish framework within which Saint Paul carries out his missionary activities, one might expect that his congregations would reflect at least some measure the synagogue's practice. In Saint Paul's view, the reading of Scripture stands in continuity with synagogue practice. Saint Paul, therefore, urges Timothy to give attention to the interpretation of the Scriptures. More importantly, he underlines the contrast drawn between the use of "the Old Covenant" in the synagogue and its reading after "the removal of the veil." That is, reading not only in the light of Christ but also of Paul's epistles since few individuals would possess copies of the Scriptures. E Earl Ellis states that the Old Testament reading may lie behind Paul's references to the Old Testament prefaced by the query, "Do you not know this?" It may be presupposed in the Apostle's instruction to read the "new covenant" writings, specifically the letters and other Christian prophetic books in their worship. The prior use of the Old Testament would provide the logical background and setting to introduce it. Paul implicitly claims that the synagogues and other clubs have a prerogative in urging the house churches at Corinth and Thessalonica to exercise discipline over the membership. His warnings against an argumentative spirit and the abuse of wine at the Supper may be because some follow a pattern known to characterize the secular clubs and burial societies.

Common Treasury

Ancient CorinthSaint Paul also presupposes that the church at Corinth exercises a club's privileges when he directs them to collect money and put it in a common treasury. Paul's version of the Christian synagogue shows an affinity with the clubs related to and mediated by their closeness to the Roman Empire's synagogues. A third club-like characteristic of his synagogues is their organization of house churches.✞

Religious Clubhouses

Agrippa in SenateSaint Paul discusses the religious clubhouse meeting at the house of a member, benefactor or patron of the church, and its organization under Emperor Trajan. Religious clubhouses are other essential models in the growth of the Christian Church. The same appears to be true of synagogue associations. In Rome, the "Synagogues of the Augustinians and the Agrippesians" are either under Augustus and Agrippa's patronage or made up of freedmen and slaves from these ruling families. The latter is permitted to meet on their premises. If so, they have arrangements that are probably similar to those of Christian religious clubs "who belong to Caesar's house." Philippians 4.22 reads, "All God's people here send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar's house." A church's status as a religious clubhouse probably best explains how their meetings and shared meals are understood by believers, by their pagan neighbors, and by the local authorities. The church's perceived status as a clubhouse seems to account for the relative freedom from official interference that its growing mission enjoys and the arbitrary sanctions, penalties, and dissolution that could be imposed at will upon it as upon other unlicensed clubs. This status also offers no protection against more serious charges brought against Christians.

Pliny the Younger

Emperor TrajanAs a religious clubhouse, the house church gains support in the correspondence of Emperor Trajan (53-117 AD) and Pliny the Younger (61-113 AD), governor of Bithynia in c110 AD. The theologian Tertullian (160-220 AD) also describes the church as a religious clubhouse. Pliny writes that after Trajan's edict, which forbids political associations in the province, the Christians give up their Agape meal meetings. He says, "The contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but to the villages and farms." He indicates that the church is under the category of a religious club or that the authorities believe it to be.

"Christian Burial Society"
by Ron Meacock © 2021

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