by Jonathan Clatworthy
from Signs of the Times No. 72 - Jan 2019

When Christianity began it was not what it is today. We could learn a lot from it.

So argued Frances Young in the Archbishop Blanch Lecture at Liverpool Hope University on 17th October. Frances is a scholar of early Christianity and a Methodist minister.

She described what it seemed like to outsiders in the Roman Empire. The Latin word christiani implied membership of a political faction. They were often called a ‘third race’, neither Jewish nor Greek. In some ways they seemed like a mystery cult - with their initiations, talk of life after death, and rules about purity and ethics. In other ways they were like a philosophical school, because they taught the kinds of things philosophers taught in those days: who created us, how the world works, how to live well. They were most like a philosophical school, with the one big difference that anyone could join.

Christianity spread rapidly. Why? Christians often appealed to their healings and exorcisms as proof of their faith. Their opponents accused them of magic. Later generations have often found this convincing. However, at the time they were simply doing what others did. Proponents of other gods also claimed the most impressive miracles. 

Contrary to earlier opinion, Christianity didn’t grow through public missions. Even Paul didn’t usually do them. His talk in Athens was exceptional. Normally, wherever he went, he attended the local Jewish synagogue and started networking from there. The growth was through personal contacts, word of mouth, the kind of thing I was always being told to do more of when I was a vicar.

The early growth of Christianity has been calculated at about 40% per decade, which is impressive. The main things that impressed people were:

  • Support for the destitute: From the evidence we have, Christian churches supported huge numbers.
  • A reputation for healing: At times of plague, while pagans would expel the infected from the community, Christians would care for them.
  • Contempt for death: Martyrdom was common.

To summarise, their willingness to perform astonishing acts of self-sacrifice attracted a lot of attention. 

Why were they so willing? Like philosophical schools and mystery cults, they offered their own distinctive teaching. The content of their teaching makes sense of their practices.

The most important element of their teaching, Frances stressed, was the oneness of God and the rejection of other gods. We get our word ‘monarchy’ from a Greek word combining mono and arche. Arche can mean two things, ‘beginning’ or ‘rule’. So the Christian ‘monarchy of God’ meant that one supreme god was both creator of the whole universe and ruler of it. This had important implications:

  • It put them in conflict with the cult of the emperor.
  • It gave the belief an urgency: God sees everything, so Christians wanted to convert their friends.
  • It was inclusive: God is the creator of everything and everybody. God is concerned about everybody. So anybody could join.

What about Christ? The important thing about Christ, in second century teaching, was that he was a revealer of God. They did give Christ a wide range of titles - we are familiar with many of them today - but they were the titles other people gave to the Roman emperors. In other words, calling Christ ‘saviour of the world’ or ‘son of God’ was all part of the monarchia of God. 

The conversion of individuals did of course take place, but the emphasis was on a new world order. Conversion to Christianity meant change from one worldview to another.

What can we learn from it?

There was much else in the lecture, but these are the elements I thought we could learn from most. 

For me, where the penny dropped was in the connection between the teaching and the practices. Believing in a god like that gave them confidence. A new and better world order was possible because God had designed it for that purpose. They could live according to it there and then. Confidence in God meant they did not need to fear death. 

The word ‘confidence’ is my choice. You could describe it as ‘faith’; but in subsequent Christian literature the word ‘faith’ has been interpreted in so many ways that I prefer to avoid it here. 

Of course there were also plenty of early Christians saying things more like what pagans were saying; but this confidence was unique to Christians. We don’t know how many Roman pagans believed in life after death, but other Romans were not prepared to risk death as willingly as Christians did. 

We should also allow for the fact that some Christians believed God was about to bring in the end of the age. So we can’t be sure how many Christians were motivated by misleading beliefs. Still, the connection is there. Their confidence, in the god they believed in, gave them hope. It empowered them to do what they would not otherwise have done. 

The pagan gods did not provide any reason for hope of a new world order. The empire had one emperor and millions of slaves. From the evidence available at most 3% lived in any kind of luxury. 85% were farmers taxed so heavily that they could only just survive. 10% were destitute, with no source of income. About a third of live births were to parents who couldn’t afford to keep them. They plonked the baby in a jar and left it somewhere in the countryside, to die alone unless picked up by a passer-by and raised for a life of slavery. All this was normal. Pagans had no expectation that life would ever be any different. There was no concept of progress. It was Christians who raised the prospect of a better world order.

What now?

How does this compare with today? Our secular society has inherited core Christian values - equality, human rights, the sanctity of life. They are expressed, for example, in the Welfare State. Other faith traditions, like Judaism and Islam, can defend them just as well because they believe in the same kind of god. 

Secularism cannot. Once secularised, these values turn out to be indefensible. The sanctity of life is a meaningless concept because nothing is sacred. The only human rights are the ones granted by governments. We are blatantly not equal. 

So as the Christian God gets replaced by some other supreme authority - the free market, individual choice, patriotism, the will of the people - traditional practices of caring for the destitute, disabled, infected, newborn and elderly no longer seem appropriate things to do. Welfare benefits get redescribed as a burden, a cost to the economy. If only the recipients would kindly drop dead, the rest of us would be better off. Refugees get judged according to whether they have skills the country needs: if not, keep them out. And so on. 

That early Christian confidence, in that kind of god, empowered people to achieve the unthinkable. Over time it got lost. We desperately need to rediscover it. 

I don’t mean that the Christian churches need to rediscover it, though they do: the loudest Christian voices today offer completely different versions of Christianity. I mean that we today, like those early Christians, need to offer to society a positive account of how we and the universe have been designed. Like that earlier theory, it will need to explain two things: why a new and better world order really is possible; and how ordinary people like you and me can help to bring it about.