Early Christianity was a revolution that swept through the ancient world like fire through dry timber. The early Christian church was a countercultural movement that challenged the pivotal institutions of Roman society. As Tertullian wrote: “Our contest lies against the institutions of our ancestors, against the authority of tradition, against man-made laws, against the reasonings of the worldly wise, against antiquity, and against customs.”1
How strange it is, therefore, that the modern church claims that the early Christian church was merely teaching and practicing the culture of their day. This is particularly ironic since the Romans bitterly criticized the Christians for just the opposite–for not following the cultural norms of their day.
But the relationship of the early Christians to their culture is not simply a matter of past history. It is something that should deeply concern the church today. For most of the cultural issues facing twentieth-century Christians are the very same issues that faced the early church. However, our response to these issues has generally been quite different than theirs.
The Early Christian Church and the World
When the church was still close to the time of the apostles, Christians truly lived in this world as strangers and foreign residents. They lived by kingdom values, which made them noticeably different from the world around them. Because their focus was on Jesus Christ and His kingdom, the public affairs of this world were essentially irrelevant to them.
As quoted in the Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, Hermas, who wrote around the year A.D. 150, or perhaps earlier, from the city of Rome, had this to say: “You know that you who are the servants of God dwell in a strange land. For your city is far away from this one. If, then, you know your city in which you are to dwell, why do you here provide lands, and make expensive preparations, and accumulate dwellings and useless buildings? He who makes such preparations for this city cannot return again to his own. …Do you not understand that all these things belong to another, and are under the power of another? …Take note, therefore. As one living in a foreign land, make no further preparations for yourself except what is merely sufficient. And be ready to leave this city, when the master of this city will come to cast you out for disobeying his law.” 2
Tatian, who lived in the Middle East, wrote a defense of Christianity and the early Christian church around A.D. 160. In it, speaking on behalf of all Christians, he proclaimed: “I do not wish to be a king. I am not anxious to be rich. I decline military command. I detest fornication. I am not impelled by an insatiable love of [financial] gain to go to sea. I do not contend for chaplets. I am free from a mad thirst for fame. I despise death.. …Die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it! Live to God!” 3
Clement of Alexandria was a Christian instructor in the church in Alexandria, Egypt. His writings, which date to around A.D. 195, express the early Christian detachment from the politics, patriotism, and events of this world. He summed up the early Christian spirit when he wrote, “We have no country on earth. Therefore, we can disdain earthly possessions.”4
Tertullian, who wrote between the years A.D. 195 and 212, was a fiery author who belonged to the church in Carthage, North Africa. Like his fellow Christians of that age, he testified that Christians have no interest in the political and governmental affairs around them:
“All zeal in the pursuit of glory and honor is dead in us. So we have no pressing inducement to take part in your public meetings. Nor is there anything more entirely foreign to us than the affairs of state. We acknowledge one all-embracing commonwealth—the world. We renounce all your spectacles. …Among us, nothing is ever said, seen, or heard that has anything in common with the madness of the circus, the immodesty of the theater, the atrocities of the arena, or the useless exercise of the wrestling ground. Why do you take offense at us because we differ from you in regard to your pleasures?”5
Addressing his fellow Christians, Tertullian wrote, “As for you, you are a foreigner in this world, a citizen of Jerusalem, the city above. Our citizenship, the apostle says, is in heaven.”6
Origen was one of the most brilliant men of his day. For several decades, he served as a teacher in the church in Alexandria. Later, he moved to Caesarea, where he was ordained as an elder or presbyter. One of Origen’s most valuable works was his reply to Celsus, a pagan critic of Christianity:
“Celsus also urges us to ‘take office in the government of the country, if that is necessary for the maintenance of the laws and the support of religion.’ However, we recognize in each state the existence of another national organization that was founded by the Word of God. And we exhort those who are mighty in word and of blameless life to rule over churches. …It is not for the purpose of escaping public duties that Christians decline public offices. Rather, it is so they may reserve themselves for a more divine and necessary service in the church of God—for the salvation of men.” 7
Cyprian served as bishop of the church at Carthage around the year A.D. 250. He left a considerable body of correspondence with other Christians and with other early Christian churches, which gives us valuable insight into the beliefs of Christians in his day. Corroborating what his fellow Christians were saying, he wrote, “We should ever and a day reflect that we have renounced the world and are in the meantime living here as guests and strangers.”8
The foregoing article was written by David Bercot. © Scroll Publishing Co. Used by permission.