The freedom of association–the freedom to form groups with common bonds of practice, belief, and affiliation, and to exclude those from the group who do not share these bonds–is thought to be one of the key justifications for some of our cherished civil rights. Far from being an exclusively liberal idea, the importance of associations may be traced at least to Paul, who speaks at length about the nature and obligations of Christian communities.

Here is a new book that explores some of these matters: Christ’s Associations: Connecting and Belonging in the Ancient City (Yale University Press), by John S. Kloppenborg.

“As an urban movement, the early groups of Christ followers came into contact with the many small groups in Greek and Roman antiquity. Organized around the workplace, a deity, a diasporic identity, or a neighborhood, these associations gathered in small face-to-face meetings and provided the principal context for cultic and social interactions for their members. Unlike most other groups, however, about which we have data on their rules of membership, financial management, and organizational hierarchy, we have very little information about early Christ groups.

Drawing on data about associative practices throughout the ancient world, this innovative study offers new insight into the structure and mission of the early Christ groups. John S. Kloppenborg situates the Christ associations within the broader historical context of the ancient Mediterranean and reveals that they were probably smaller than previously believed and did not have a uniform system of governance, and that the attraction of Christ groups was based more on practice than theological belief.”

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