Redeemer Presbyterian Church

Renewing the city socially, spiritually and culturally

The early Christian “social project”

January 2017
Tim Keller

In November we looked at two new books by scholar Larry Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World (Baylor University Press, 2016) and Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries? (Marquette University Press, 2016). These volumes explain that the early Christians were persecuted more than any other religious group in the first three centuries because they refused to honor other gods or worship the emperor and therefore they were seen as too exclusive, too narrow, and a threat to the social order. 

Hurtado asks the obvious question that a historian should ask. Why, if Christians were seen as so narrow and offensive and were excluded from circles of influence and business and often put to death — why did anyone become a Christian? One of the main reasons was that the Christian church was what Hurtado calls a unique “social project.” 

They were a contrast community, a counter-culture that was both offensive and yet attractive to many. We mentioned this briefly in November, but here we will spell out what made the Christian community so different.

Hurtado points out that the basis for this unusual social project was the unique, new religious identity that Christians had. Before Christianity, there was no distinct “religious identity” because one’s religion was simply an aspect of one’s ethnic or national identity. If you were from this city, or from this tribe, or from this nation, you worshipped the gods of that city, tribe, or people. Your religion was basically assigned to you. 

Christianity brought into human thought for the first time the concept that you chose your religion regardless of your race and class. Also Christianity radically asserted that your faith in Christ became your new, deepest identity, while at the same time not effacing or wiping out your race, class, and gender. Instead, your relationship to Christ demoted them to second place. That meant that, to the shock of Roman society, all Christians, whether slave, free, or high born, or whatever their race and nationality, were now equal in Christ (Galatians 3:26-29). This was a radical challenge to the entrenched social structure and divisions of Roman society, and from it flowed several unique features. 

(1) The early church was multi-racial, and experienced a unity across ethnic boundaries that was startling. See the description of the leadership of the Antioch church in Acts 13 as just one example. Throughout the book of Acts we see a remarkable unity between people of different races. Ephesians 2 is testimony to the importance of racial reconciliation as a fruit of the gospel in the lives of Christians. 

(2) The early church was a community of forgiveness and reconciliation. As we have said, Christians were often excluded and criticized but also they were actively persecuted, imprisoned, attacked, and killed. But Christians taught forgiveness and withheld retaliation against opponents. In a shame and honor culture in which vengeance was expected, this was unheard of. Christians never ridiculed or taunted opponents, let alone repaid them with violence. 

(3) The early church was famous for its hospitality to the poor and the suffering. While it was expected to care for the poor of one’s family or tribe, Christians’ ‘promiscuous’ help given to all poor, even of other races and religions, as taught in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37) was unprecedented. (See Gary Ferngen, “The Incarnation and Early Christian Philanthropy” online.) During the urban plagues, Christians characteristically did not flee the cities but stayed and cared for the sick and dying of all groups, often at the cost of their lives. 

(4) It was a community committed to the sanctity of life. It was not simply that Christians opposed abortion. Abortion was dangerous and relatively rare. A more common practice was called “infant exposure.” Unwanted infants were literally thrown out onto garbage heaps either to die or to be taken by traders into slavery and prostitution. Christians saved the infants and took them in. 

(5) Finally, it was sexual counter-culture. Roman culture insisted that married women of social status abstain from any sex outside of marriage, but it was expected that men (even married men) would have sex with people lower on the status ladder — slaves, prostitutes, and children. This was not only allowed, but was regarded as unavoidable. This was in part because sex in that culture was always considered an expression of one’s social status. Sex was mainly seen as a mere physical appetite that was irresistible. 

Christians’ sexual norms were different, of course. The church forbade any sex outside of heterosexual marriage. But the reason the older, seemingly more ‘liberated’ pagan sexual practices eventually gave way to stricter Christian norms was because the “deeper logic” of Christian sexuality was so different. It saw sex as not just an appetite but as a way to give oneself wholly to another and in doing so imitate and connect to the God who gave himself in Christ. It also was more egalitarian, treating all people as equal and rejecting the double standards of gender and social status. Finally, Christianity saw sexual self-control as an exercise of human freedom, a testimony that we are not merely the pawns of our desires or fate. (See Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, Harvard University Press, 2013). 

It was because the early church did not fit in with its surrounding culture, but rather challenged it in love, that Christianity eventually had such an impact on it. Is it possible that essentially the same social project could have a similar effect if it was carried out today? I’ll write about that in next month’s newsletter. 




Articles in this Issue