People arrived in Rome for a variety of reasons; commercial purposes, immigration, and some involuntarily as slaves. Some early Christians among them, they resided in areas where other foreigners were concentrated, including Jews. Jews and Christians would have had some things in common as they assembled in the synagogue and celebrated the feasts. However, the words and actions of the Christians likely sparked tension as things like observing the law and the inclusion of the Gentiles would have created some controversy. Eventually, this escalated to the point where Claudius evicted all Jews in AD 49.
The letter to the Romans is written with this knowledge in mind. Also, the knowledge that after Claudius had died the Jews who had been banished were permitted to return. Upon their return, it appears that all Jews were at a disadvantage in Rome and that Jewish Christians were at a disadvantage in the church. Paul writes the church at Rome in order to present a Christian perspective about the relationships between Jews and Gentiles, inside and outside of the church.
A young emperor Nero was not yet antagonistic toward Christians at the time of writing. Still it was important to discuss how the church should live in this environment. While we do not find a theology of how to respond to the state, Romans does describe the state as a servant. Government is a gift from God to minister justice and peace. The church should not take justice in its own hands and should live as civil civilians.
There are some things about this relationship that remain blurry, other things become quite clear. Romans does not give the state divine permission to do as it pleases. The state does not mirror the will of God. There is no indication that the state rules now and the Lord will take over that role in the afterlife. Jesus is not, as Brian Zahnd said in a recent conference, “the secretary of after-life affairs.” He is Lord now. Jesus could not endorse the politics of Rome any more than He can endorse politics in America. He already brings His own politics. This would have been a significant downer for an emperor who promoted his own divinity and the emperor cult. He would not have been pleased to hear that he was servant to a God he did not know. Christians then, could not worship Nero but they could pay taxes.
Paul the letter writer desires to deal with questions that concern the people of God. Namely, how to live in community with one another and peacefully in a pagan environment. At a risk of oversimplification, the letter deals with the status of Gentiles who are not Christian (chapter 1). It deals with the condition of the Jews, then the condition of Christians (2-8). Discussion then focuses on non-Christian Jews (9-11). The letter concludes with a sermonic application of how all Christians should learn to live together in the non-Christian world (12-15).
Romans 12-15 works as a sermon from a distance that emphasizes that Christians live in community with one another and peacefully in a pagan environment. That is why we find there a sampling of gifts that are relevant to the Roman situation in the late 50’s. That is why we find Paul bringing up the theme of holiness or sanctification. When Paul talks about this subject he is not talking about ritual or theology. He is talking about behavior. “Present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God.” The emphasis is not on the language one knows or uses but the behavior one exhibits. For Paul, as Romans makes clear, this is the behavior that must be demonstrated in the world.
Paul’s letters, including Romans, are theology in progress. Paul is not repeating doctrine that has already been articulated. As Ben Witherington suggests, he is theologizing as he writes. And his aim is always to shape the behavior of his churches. Theology is not theory for Paul, but a tool for creating community. The same could be said for preaching, then and now. Preaching is a tool to shape behavior and create community in a non-Christian world.