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The Early Christians Were Odd, Too

Editors’ note: 

For more on the second century see Michael Kruger’s new book, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church (SPCK, 2017).

It can be disheartening, not to mention frightening, when our culture rejects aspects of Christianity as strange or offensive. When Christians feel isolated and alone, it’s helpful to remember this experience is nothing new for God’s people.

Christians have been viewed as cultural misfits from the beginning, and the reasons for this assessment have changed little over the last two millennia.

In the second century, four features of Christianity stood out to the Romans as peculiar, if not offensive: worship, doctrine, behavior, and writings. It’ll be quickly apparent that these four features still attract despisers today.

1. Christian Worship

A fundamental aspect of early Christian worship was its exclusivity. Only Jesus was to be worshiped. Whatever other religious loyalties one possessed before coming to Christ, they had to be abandoned and full devotion given to Jesus the King.

One might think the Roman state wouldn’t care about private worship practices. They cared because the Roman government didn’t view religion as private.

To be a good citizen, your duty was to pay homage to the Roman gods who kept the empire prosperous and flourishing. To refuse to worship the gods wasn’t only socially rude (Christians were viewed as sanctimonious), but it risked invoking the gods’ displeasure.

Thus, Christians’ refusal to participate in the broader Roman worship caused them to be viewed as reckless and callous to the welfare of their fellow man. Indeed, they were called “haters of humanity” (Tacitus, Annals 15.44). As a result, they often suffered serious persecution.

2. Christian Doctrine

In addition to political persecution, the early Christians suffered significant intellectual persecution. Christian doctrine—particularly the idea of the incarnation—was regarded as ridiculous, silly, and not worthy of the intellectual Roman elites.

For Romans, the idea of worshiping a crucified person was the height of insanity. Crucifixion was a symbol of shame and rejection—why would you follow someone who suffered such indignity?

If you think the level of intellectual ridicule Christians receive today is new, think again.

Consequently, the likes of Lucian, Galen, Fronto, and Celsus offered scathing critiques of this “new” religion, mocking its teachings as well as its crucified founder.

If you think the level of intellectual ridicule Christians receive today is new, think again.

3. Christian Behavior

It wasn’t just what Christians believed that made them unusual; it was how they behaved. Christians stood out from their culture because of their distinctive sexual ethics.

While it wasn’t unusual for Roman citizens to have multiple sexual partners and engage with temple prostitutes, Christians refused to participate in these practices.

For instance, Tertullian goes to great lengths to defend the legitimacy of Christianity by pointing out how Christians are generous and share their resources. But then he says, “One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us but our wives” (Apology 39).

Why does he say this? Because in the Greco-Roman world it wasn’t unusual for people to share their spouses. Other examples of the Christian commitment to sexual purity can be found in the Epistle to Diognetus (5.7), Apology of Aristides (15), and the Apology of Minucius Felix (31).

4. Christian Writings

Christians were also viewed as peculiar by their Roman counterparts because of the distinctive role Scripture played in their religious life. Although a scripturally centered religion seems utterly normal in our modern day, it was unusual in the second century. In the ancient world, religions weren’t typically associated with written texts so directly.

This confused the Romans. What exactly was Christianity? A religion? It didn’t seem like any religion they were used to. Indeed, Christianity’s “bookish” nature made it seem more like a philosophy. As a result, many critics of Christianity lumped it in with other philosophical schools.

Stay Faithful to the Distinctives

There were many things about Christianity that it made it odd—exclusive worship, controversial doctrines, strange moral proclivities, and a hyper-focus on books.

And these aren’t fringe aspects of Christianity; they’re core parts of Christian identity.

These aren’t fringe aspects of Christianity; they’re core parts of Christian identity.

We’re reminded, then, that we have much in common with the second-century church. Therefore there is much cause for hope. That weak, fledgling, persecuted church not only survived, but eventually spread across the empire and the entire world.

That didn’t happen because the early Christians abandoned these distinctives. It happened for precisely the opposite reason: they stayed faithful to them.

If we in the modern church remain faithful to them, we can share in the same hope.

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