The Early Church was doing something radical in the ancient world. Men and women, slave and free, different ethnicities all gathered together celebrating one God, one Spirit, one faith.
Such radical behaviour naturally attracted criticism. The atheist Celsus, a 2nd century opponent of the faith, was particularly aggressive in his criticism of the new faith. One of his major criticisms was that the meetings and rituals of these Christ followers worryingly resembled the ‘secret associations’ of cults and dark religious groups.
The first point which Celsus brings forward, in his desire to throw discredit upon Christianity, is, that the Christians entered into secret associations with each other contrary to law, saying, that of associations some are public, and that these are in accordance with the laws; others, again, secret, and maintained in violation of the laws. And his wish is to bring into disrepute what are termed the love-feasts of the Christians.
Origen, Against Celsus, 1.1
What was Celsus saying here? Origen (who wrote Against Celsus in response to the atheist) tells us that Celsus was trying to discredit the faith. He does this by suggesting that Christians were merely adherents to these illegal, secretive associations that carried out such debauched practices as ‘love-feasts’. Celsus makes the meetings and meals of the Christians into a dangerous series of illicit meetings…
Why did such an accusation carry weight? Because the ancient world was full of associations, guilds and societies.
Associations, Guilds and Societies
The ancient world was full of social gatherings. Guilds and associations, called collegia in Latin and thiasoi in Greek, abounded. Everyone was a member. Blacksmiths were members of blacksmiths guilds, laywers members of legal guilds. The rich were members of dinner party societies, the poor members of clubs and guilds designed to share simple meals and offer emergency provisions. These guilds were divided among social class and career. These guilds supported their members, organised social events, and even provided funds and materials for the funerals of members.
Guilds and societies were a big and common part of Roman life. These secret associations Celsus mentions were illegal perversions of these guilds. They secretly worshipped one god above all others, members were devoted to their cause, and their actions were often criticised as being illegal or repulsive.
Though all these guilds, secret or ordinary, had defined members lists, it was only these secret ones that would shun all others. Gods and goddesses were so often tied to a particular guild. Patron deities were especially revered. But no self-respecting association would disregard all other gods purely because they happened to prefer one. And no regular association would allow slaves and peasants to mix with officials and elites.
The Early Church did both those things. They taught their members that there was only one God, and they accepted into their midst anyone, regardless of their social standing, if they professed faith in this one God.
And so it was easy for opponents of the faith to label them secret, perverted groups.
So the Church had to find a way to explain to the world what it was they were about. Christians began to use words like collegium, or thiasos, to describe how they were meeting together. We even find Early Christian churches described as philosophical schools of learning. The Church had to play language games to interact with the world around them.
The best known label for these Early Christian groups was ekklesia – the term from which we get our English word: church. In the ancient world an ekklesia was a gathering, an assembly, a meeting. The Early Church began to use words like this to make what it was doing accessible to outsiders. Because that is perhaps the biggest difference between the church and these other groups: anyone could join, everyone could be welcomed in. A profession of faith in Christ is all that was required, and anyone who met the living God could do that.
The Early Church faced the challenge of describing what it was they were doing to a world who had never come across them before. In our own world, the terminology: church, has an established and largely understood meaning.** But we must guard against our churches resembling collegia. We must guard against a lack of welcome, a lack of engagement. The Gospel is exclusive, there is a clear in and out. But the church had the job of presenting the Gospel invitation to the world. We can’t do that if our closed up membership is looking inwards, refusing to engage with the world around them. We can do that, when, radically, believers of all ages, stages and backgrounds, gather around the Gospel in love for God’s creation.
Our mission as church is to go out. A clear and defined membership of believers, inviting everyone we meet and engage with to join God’s great salvation plan.
That invitation is just as alien to our modern world as it was to the Roman world of the Early Church. We don’t face the barrier of setting up a whole new way of ‘doing life’, but we do face a similar challenge. Christ still calls us to reject all other gods, to meet with and encourage one another, and to go out on mission to a lost world that will never understand what we are doing until we introduce them to Jesus.
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Jesus’s Great Commission is to go. It is to take the Gospel to all nations, leading repentant sinners to a saving faith in Christ. Our Lord commands us to engage with the world around us. Not to dilute the Gospel message or to conform to the ways of the world, but to go, and to take that wonderful Gospel message out to the communities and people who work and live around us.
Because the Early Church was different. And so are we today. We’re different because we aren’t living for ourselves. I’m not in church because it’s powerful or wealthy. I’m there because I’ve been saved by Christ at the Cross, and I want to join my family in praising Him, encouraging one another in the truth, and obeying His command to gather together. Church will always look weird to a world rejecting God. But if we aren’t reaching those outside Church with the Gospel, they’ll never quite understand why that is.
*Membership in the Early Church is an interesting topic: often it seems that those born into Church families were included as members. The Biblical picture is to love and raise children in the faith, but they must still stand on their own two feet. They must decide for themselves whether they will trust and obey Jesus before they can be members of the Church.
**Sometimes that meaning is negative in our world, this places even more of an emphasis on going out with the Gospel message to lost sinners in need of grace! We aren’t going out to advertise ourselves, but to tell the wonderful redeeming truth of an all loving God.