Christianity from the first three centuries might be the most instructive about how to live out Christian faith today
“Any religion is, by definition, crazy to a non-believer.”
That aphorism was coined by Jeffrey Weiss, formerly a religion reporter at the Dallas Morning News.
Dubbed Weiss’ law, it explains how weird other religions can look to people who are not a part of those faiths—things that people inside those belief systems view as completely normal.
I thought about Weiss’ law while perusing Larry Hurtado’s most recent book, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World.
Hurtado, a professor at the University of Manitoba from 1978-96, writes in the book that what we consider normal Christian belief and practice today was once viewed as strange and subversive in the first three centuries—the time before Constantine made Christianity legal and acceptable in the Roman Empire.
Or, as he put it, it was a time when there were features of early Christianity “that made it distinctive, odd, even dangerous in the eyes of some of that time.”
Back then, the Romans considered the new Christian faith not only weird, but also repugnant.
“There is a group, hated for their abominations, called Christians,” wrote the historian Tacticus.
Added another historian, Suetonius: “The Christians are a class of men given to a new and wicked superstition.”
Said a third, Lucian: “The poor wretches have convinced themselves they are going to be immortal and live for all time.”
And what were these superstitions and abominations? The idea that a man could die and rise from the dead, of course.
The practice of the Eucharist also caused concern—to the Romans, eating Christ’s flesh and blood sounded like cannibalism.
But there were other reasons, too. Christianity was seen as a threat to the state. By refusing to acknowledge the primacy of the emperor, as adherents of other religions did, Christians appeared disloyal and threatened the stability and legitimacy of the Roman Empire.
The new faith also upended behavioural norms. Christians were expected to live by high moral standards—men, for example, were required to be faithful to their wives at a time when it was widely accepted they could have one or more mistresses.
Another radical idea was how Christianity based its identity not on ethnicity or nationality but on a shared religious belief. As well, the new faith elevated the role of women, and rejected the practice of child brides and the killing of baby girls.
The result was that life for the earliest Christians was very difficult—including persecution and death. And even without that, “becoming a Christian held no social or economic advantage,” writes Hurtado.
“Those who wanted to aspire for upward social mobility would have been advised to give Christianity a pass,” he adds.
For Hurtado, Christians today might do well to learn how the church before Constantine engaged the world.
“Christianity is no longer the socially dominant force that it once was,” he wrote. “Christians are again one kind of religiousness among many others. So, actually, it may well be those Christians and texts of the first three centuries that will be the most instructive about how to live out Christian faith in these circumstances.”
Sometimes I wonder: What would it look like today if Christians around the world put their faith first, before their nation?
What if they all practiced unconditional and non-judgmental love for any and all who cross their path?
If they lived by the highest ethical norms?
If they actively celebrated and promoted women as leaders?
If they were once again considered dangerous and subversive by the state?
I don’t know about you, but that would just be weird.
From the June 10 Winnipeg Free Press.