Who are these people and what are they doing?

Who are these people and what are they doing?

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UDTS students at Four Mounds Park, Dubuque, IA, August 2017; photo by Nicky Story

Such questions about group identity construction might be asked by an anthropologist or sociologist, or even a tourist in an unknown land. These questions were also asked by first-century persons when they encountered adherents to the new Jewish-based religion that came to be called Christianity. They are also questions that need to be answered by any school devoted to theological education.

My scholarly work has centered on researching some of the earliest Christian groups—the communities founded by the apostle Paul in cities of the Roman Imperial world. I’m fascinated by the social relationships represented in the New Testament letters, and I’m curious about the ways believers navigated these urban realities, economic contingencies, gender ideals, and family structures.

From the very beginning, both insiders and outsiders looked for ways to describe the groups of Christ-believers. These small communities shared similar practices and organization with several different groups in Greco-Roman society. At times they looked like:

  • Jewish synagogues because they gathered for prayer and readings from the Jewish scriptures;
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First century synagogue, Magdala, Israel; photo by Jordan Ryan

  • Families and households because they often met in homes and apartments for worship and meals, and also emphasized the sibling relationships of brothers and sisters;
  • Trade associations because some Christian assemblies were formed from folks who shared a trade, like tent-making, and they held meetings in rented spaces near the docks or in commercial neighborhoods;
  • Philosophical schools because the Christians held virtuous ethical living in high regard and also centered their lives around texts; and
  • Some pagan religious cults because of the rituals of baptism, Lord’s Supper, songs and spiritual prayers.

If you as a Roman citizen knew nothing about the gospel of Jesus Christ, and happened to walk by a meeting of an early Christian group, how would you have characterized it? How would it look the same as and also different from other gatherings in your experience? What aspects would seem crucial to its identity?

Now, let’s bring these questions into the context of theological education in the 21st century.

If you knew nothing about seminaries, and happened to walk into a UDTS classroom, how would you characterize it? Would pastoral care remind you of psychology classes? Does “Christianity and World Religions” resemble a sociology course? Would a Bible class operate like an English lit class?

What makes our Christian seminary courses distinctive when compared with other teaching and learning settings? Look for some of my answers in next month’s blog.

Many thanks to my colleagues who contributed ideas, assistance, and advice on this blog post: Susan Forshey, Chris James, Jennifer Pattee, Jordan Ryan, Matt Schlimm, and Nicky Story.

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