One manifestation of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a destructive inflammation of the joint, but many other organs can be targeted by this disease, classifying it as a truly systemic disorder. Accordingly, pathogenic models have to account for the multiorgan character of RA. This article proposes that the primary abnormalities in RA lie in the assembly of the T-cell pool and in the maintenance of T-cell homeostasis. Evidence has accumulated that the repertoire of CD4 T cells in RA patients is distinct and includes a high frequency of disease-relevant T cells. Emergence of T cells with self-aggressive potential could indicate a failure of negative selection in the thymus. Also, the turnover of mature T cells in the periphery is altered in RA patients with a sharp contraction in diversity. Loss of diversity results from the replacement of rare T-cell specificities by multiplying T-cell clones. Large clonal T-cell populations in RA patients acquire a distinct phenotype (CD4+CD28null) and functional profile (overproduction of inter-feron-γ, cytotoxicity), giving them the ability to function as proinflammatory cells. Optimal conditions for T-cell stimulation are encountered in the synovium, where ectopic lymphoid tissue with germinal centers is formed. Considering the systemic nature of RA, therapeutic strategies suppressing synovial inflammation while ignoring systemic abnormalities could lack the potential of a curative intervention.