It’s a very good point that on first glance, the church of 2019 couldn’t be further removed from the church of 119 or 219 AD. These days evangelical churches can be thousands strong. Churches are found in many towns and cities in a countries all over the world. Parachurch movements can have hundreds of thousands of members, and in countries like the US, Christian groups can have huge political influence.
So why bother looking back to the small and frightened church of the first few centuries? Why bother looking at a tiny (less than 50 000 believers in 100 AD), illegal (until the fourth century) and historically alien church? We can be so tempted to think the church of history this long ago can have nothing to show us, being in a foreign time and a foreign world. Below are just three reasons why we can learn a lot from the Early Church. It’s my hope that these simple reasons encourage you to explore some of the posts on this blog.
1. The world the Church was in wasn’t so different from our own.
Thinking about the Roman world, the way it is so often mentioned in sermons or simply just when studied at school or in books, we can think it is the most alien culture possible. Men and women worshipping obscure gods and sacrificing at temples, watching gladiatorial contests and fighting wars all over the ancient Mediterranean. It’s easy to conjure up the caricature. But in reality, the ancient world really wasn’t that different to our own. Something I’ve always loved with studying Classics is that people don’t really change. People are at the heart of a culture and a period, and people are so often driven by love, hate, sex or money. And it’s as true for the Romans as it is for us now.
The Roman world worshipped incessantly. They had a god for every occasion, and divine portents to guide their ideas and their plans. The Roman world idolised sex, money and success. They quite literally turned these things into gods. In Aphrodite the goddess of love, in Plutus the god of wealth. Worship was at the heart of their culture, either manifested through their gods and goddesses, or focussed on the vices of the Roman world. Brothels on every street corner, huge fortunes hoarded across the empire, social climbers fighting one another for political success. Our world worships the same way. Sometimes people misdirect their worship to false ‘gods’ but more often it is focussed on the perfect relationship, on making the next pay grade, on being in with this or that crowd. Both the Roman world and the modern world are obsessed with worship, and in both, it’s so often misdirected.
2. Christians sticking out like a sore thumb: then and now.
The late scholar Larry Hurtado had this to say about worship in the ancient world.
“Practically everyone was presumed to honour the gods, and your own gods were supplied as part of your birthright.”
Hurtado, Destroyer of Gods, 2016, 78.
To become a Christian, to accept the one true God, is to turn your back on your whole prior understanding of yourself. Such a statement rings true today, but the stigma attached to this choice in Roman times was wide reaching. Religious belief defined every civic event, the Christian rejected that. Religious belief determined every legal and social process, the Christian rejected that. Religious belief shaped how the family interacted, the household gods (the Lares) , intimately personal to every household, were now in stark opposition to the new faith of the convert. And so the family religion, the makeup of how the very family unit defined itself? The Christian rejected that.
These early Christians stuck out because their worship was focussed on God, the real God. They’d turned their backs on the ways of the world around them, of even their own family! The Christian today has to do the same. Jesus doesn’t call us to live a halfhearted life in following him, he demands a radical realignment of the Christian’s priorities. Our friends may worship sex, money and popularity, we’re called to worship Him and Him alone. Christians have always stuck out, and as long as the world lives in rebellion to our God, they always will.
3. A real need for a life-changing Gospel.
The apostle Paul famously wrote that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). This is true today, and it was true then.
The greatest thing that ever happened to the Roman Empire was the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He came to save sinners. He came that we may have life to the full! He came to save Romans as much as he came to save Brits, Americans or anyone else. His Gospel is a universal call to repent and believe, it was true in the first few centuries, and it is true today. The Gospel does not change. Our need for the Gospel does not change. As long as there are broken people in a fallen world, the need for redemption found at the cross is unchanging.
The seismic impact of Jesus Christ on the story of the ancient world was incredible. His life, death and resurrection quite literally changed the course of history. It was the catalyst for a religious movement that swept across the Empire. Among the early converts we find slaves, soldiers, governors and even emperors. The first few centuries of Church History are explosive. They stand as testament to the truths of Scripture: that Christ will build His church, and the wonderful message at the heart of the Gospel: that Christ does that by coming to seek and to save the lost.
Take this blog as an invitation to explore the world of the Early Church, to explore what they wrote and believed in a pagan world that seemed so strong around them. As we look into the lives of these early Christians, hopefully we can be reminded ourselves that the Gospel that was so richly true for Roman citizens in the ancient world is still wonderfully true for us today.