February 28, 2012
Why should evangelicals care about the early church, about the first several centuries after the end of the New Testament? Another of the reasons why studying that time period could be valuable to us has to do with the striking similarities between the first several centuries of Christian history and the age in which we live today.
In the Roman world, and later in the European world that gave birth to America as we know it, Christianity was “enfranchised” from the fourth century to about the nineteenth or early twentieth. That is to say, Christianity was given favored status within society, and the legal and political structures reflected that favoritism. (By the way, I should add here that Europe has never been the only place where Christianity flourished. But that’s a story for another time!) But it is no secret that in the past hundred years, Christianity has increasingly become disenfranchised in the Western world. The major cultural influences on American society have become more secular (even though most Americans remain Christians of some sort), and in Europe most people have actively abandoned the Christian faith. Europe and America have become “post-Christian.”
The Church has often had trouble adapting to this post-Christian environment. Our ways of presenting the Gospel typically assume a great deal of familiarity with the Christian message, our ways of doing ministry often assume that people respect “church” and will come to church to hear the gospel if we are friendly and inviting enough. Even our traditional ways of defending the Christian faith assume that people believe there is such a thing as truth and that they care about finding that truth. In many places and situations, these traditional approaches to outreach and ministry don’t work anymore, and as we recognize their ineffectiveness, we are beginning to think deeply about how we can best do ministry in a post-Christian, post-modern environment.
What we often don’t realize is that a POST-Christian environment looks very much like a PRE-Christian environment. In the Roman world of late antiquity (roughly the first three centuries of the Christian era), there were many parallels to our situation today. Most stunningly, that society was as rampantly “experience” oriented and entertainment driven as ours is. Although the philosophers cared deeply about truth, most ordinary people were pragmatic, eclectic, and blissfully inconsistent about the principles by which they lived their lives. They sought religious experiences that met their felt needs, but their religion had little impact on their entertainment choices, their moral decisions, etc. Also striking is the fact that the Roman government, while priding itself on granting religious freedom, actually reacted rather harshly to any religion in its midst that objected to an easy religious relativism or called into question the supremacy of the State over religious expressions. Sound familiar? It should.
As a result, Christians in the Roman Empire (and again, there were MANY Christians outside the Roman Empire as well) faced the monumental task of defending a religion that insisted on absolute truth in a society of relativistic, eclectic, pragmatists. They had to foster a Christian morality in a society where the average level of morals—by virtually any measure—was much lower than it is in America today. And they had to convince the Roman government that even though they claimed Christ was greater than Caesar, Christians were still the Empire’s best citizens and thus did not need to be persecuted. The Christians’ relation to the society around them was very different in the first through third centuries from what it would be in the fourth through nineteenth, but very SIMILAR to the relation between our society and the Church today. As a result, the early Church has a lot of insights to offer us as we try to minister in an increasingly post-Christian world now.
Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.