Christian Burial Society
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40. Christian Burial Society

Secular Burial Society

TombstoneThe rules of a Christian and secular burial society according to 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 be fined 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 it was 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 be fined 20 sesterces." It was voted further that on the festive days of his term of office each "quinquennalis" is to conduct worship with incense and wine and is to perform his other functions clothed in white, and that on the birthdays of Diana and Antinous (which were Roman gods) he is to provide 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 in at least some respects a Christian burial society would look familiar to outsiders. Like the pagan burial societies, members of the Christians burial society meet regularly (weekly rather than monthly) eat food and drink wine together, honor one another by election to office, address the problem of causes of disturbance in the meetings and join together in activities of worship. 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 a common life larger than the household but smaller than the city-state. The Christian burial society is distinctive, however, in the mixed social composition of their groups, the exclusiveness of their focus on devotion to Christ crucified and risen and the seriousness of their commitment to holiness.✞

Roman Social Club

Icon of TertullianTertullian describes how the activities of the church are also like a Roman social club as well as a Christian burial society. This 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) who was a leader in the North African Church asks the authorities why the churches should not be classed among lawful clubs when it committed no actions commonly feared from unlawful ones, he implies that the church in that area is already regarded as a Roman social club. He speaks of churches as clubs and describes their activities, including the monthly contribution for the feeding and burial of the poor.

Unlicensed and Tolerated

Tertullian of North Africa"When Tertullian's comments are taken 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 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 the 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 era of Pauline Christianity.✞

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, and particularly its affinities with the synagogue, have a resemblance to the burial society or social club. All these factors if taken together 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 from the beginning a degree of toleration and a place within the Greco-Roman social order.✞

Paul's Christian Synagogues

ancient synagoguePaul's Christian synagogues are also compared and contrasted 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 in some measure the practice of the synagogue. In Saint Paul's view, the reading of Scripture stands in continuity with synagogue practice. Saint Paul, therefore, exhorts Timothy to give attention to the reading of the Scriptures. More importantly, he underlines the contrast drawn between the use of "the Old Covenant" in the synagogue and its reading when "the veil is taken away." That is, reading not only in the light of Christ but also of Paul's epistles since few individuals would possess scrolls of the Scriptures. E. Earl Ellis (1926-2010) states that the reading of the Old Testament 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 writings in their worship since the prior use of the Old Testament would provide the logical background and setting for introducing it. In urging the house churches at Corinth and Thessalonica to exercise discipline over the membership, Paul implicitly claims for them a prerogative granted to the synagogues and other clubs, and his warnings against an argumentative spirit and the abuse of wine at the Supper may be occasioned in part because some are following a pattern known to characterize the secular clubs and burial societies.

A Common treasury

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

Religious Clubhouse

Agrippa in SenateSaint Paul discusses the religious clubhouse and its organization under Emperor Trajan. They are other important models in the growth of the Christian Church. A religious clubhouse meets at the house of a member, benefactor or patron of the church. The same appears to be true of synagogue associations. In Rome, the "Synagogue of the Augustinians" and the "Synagogue of the Agrippesians" are either under the direct patronage of Augustus and Agrippa or possibly made up of freedmen and slaves of these ruling families who are 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." The status of a church as a religious clubhouse probably best explains how their meetings and their common meals are understood by believers, by their pagan neighbors, and by the local authorities. The perceived status of the church as a clubhouse seems to account for the relative freedom from official interference that its growing mission enjoys as well as 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 being laid against Christians.

Pliny the Younger

Emperor TrajanThe house church as a religious clubhouse is supported 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 along the lines of a religious clubhouse. Pliny writes that after the edict of Trajan which forbids political associations in the province, the Christians give up their Agape meal meetings. He says, "For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms." By this, he indicates either that they consider that the church is under the category of a religious club or that they know it is regarded so by the authorities.

"Christian Burial Society"
by Ron Meacock © 2019

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