Healthy synovial tissue includes a lining layer of synovial fibroblasts and macrophages. The influx of leucocytes during active rheumatoid arthritis (RA) includes monocytes that differentiate locally into proinflammatory macrophages, and these produce pathogenic tumour necrosis factor. During sustained remission, the synovial tissue macrophage numbers recede to normal. The constitutive presence of tissue macrophages in the lining layer of the synovial membrane in healthy donors and in patients with RA during remission suggests that this macrophage population may have a role in maintaining and reinstating synovial tissue homeostasis respectively. Recent appreciation of the different origins and functions of tissue-resident compared with monocyte-derived macrophages has improved the understanding of their relative involvement in organ homeostasis in mouse models of disease. In this review, informed by mouse models and human data, we describe the presence of different functional subpopulations of human synovial tissue macrophages and discuss their distinct contribution to joint homeostasis and chronic inflammation in RA.