Christian Identity and Community in the Roman Empire

Christian Identity and Community in the Roman Empire

Living in the First Century World #6

Even though Christianity began as a rural movement (Christ emerging from the agricultural region of Galilee; Peter a small-town fisherman, etc.), the real growth and spread of Christianity came in the large Roman cities. Christianity, lived out in faith, in these large, close-quartered cities such as Corinth, Antioch, Ephesus and even Rome itself, flourished. This was no accident, of course, and as one author states:

It is impossible to understand the success of the early Christian movement unless we recognize the difference between ancient cities and modern ones and the impact of ancient cities on how the church grew. *

Roman Cities

The empire had several large cities with Rome (population around 1 million) being the largest. These cities were fairly sophisticated even by our standards with water fountains, sewage systems, public bathrooms, and wide paved streets lined by shops and parks in the city centers. They were also cramped with narrow, unpaved streets in other parts.

The cities were divided by social class. The elite enjoyed the best parts of the city. Their homes were large and luxurious with meeting halls, courtyards, dining halls, kitchens, and lodging for a variety of people—family members, slaves, household servants, business associates and clients. Fresh water via the aqueduct system was plumbed into the home. It was the center of family, life and business. The other classes did not enjoy this kind of space, but rather lived in crowded apartments. Their homes were the opposite of the elite—small, smelly, little natural light, no plumbing or running water. As a result, they would spend as much time out of their home as possible in the public baths, marketplace, temples, circus or stadium. But space was still an issue in the cramped cities. Privacy was hard to find. This naturally led to conflict as the constant flux of immigrants, traders and merchants created all kinds of tension. Just in the city of Antioch, for example, there were eighteen different identifiable ethnic groups. Yet Christianity took root and took off in this urban world. Here are a few clues as to why that occurred.

A New Identity

This is crucial to understand. Christians took on a new and particular identity as followers of Christ—one that crossed accepted norms and relationships while transcending Roman social order and categories. They took the apostle Paul at his word when, in 2 Corinthians 5:16-17, he urged Christians to no longer regard anyone from a human standpoint—that in Christ everything becomes new as the old is passed away. Christ-followers then assumed a new identity which would transform all secondary identities, putting them in subjection to the rule of Christ. While occupying the same social position Christians learned how to be a different kind of person within them. In so doing this social order was challenged and changed as Christians welcomed outsiders—gentiles, women, slaves—and therefore pushed against the inequities of the empire—if just subtly. As one author stated: “Living under the law of love, The Christian movement tended to flatten the social order without destroying it.”

The new identity was centered in Christ and his followers in these cities lived out their new identities as they imitated him. One second century Christian observer named Athenagoras put it this way:

You will find uneducated persons, and artisans, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth; they do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves.*

Now just imagine the power of God through this as demonstrated in the marketplace and crowded Roman cities. The new identity was recognized and drew ever more and more to Christ—no matter the cost. One example is Perpetua—a high born Roman noblewoman who gave all including eventually her life to follow Jesus. Here is an excerpt from a letter written to her by her father once she had chosen her new identity in Christ.

Do not abandon me to be the reproach of men. Think of your brothers, think of your mother and your aunt, think of your child, who will not be able to live once you are gone. Give up your pride! You will destroy us all! *

For Perpetua and numerous others being a Christian created a new identity for her and conferred on her a new status—not understood by Rome—which, in her mind was far loftier than her old one. Such faith could not be stopped and spread like wildfire throughout Rome.

New Community

Perpetua’s father was concerned for his family. Little did he know or understand that a new family—a new household had taken root and grown in the cities—right in the very houses and apartments surrounding them. Christians lived and worshipped in the same homes in which they lived—next door to their pagan neighbors. The house church created a new kind of family—one in which God was honored above all. It changed the dynamic of a Roman household. In this new community a runaway slave, for instance (Onesimus) could be welcomed back as a brother—and not be punished. One Roman trying to grasp this had this to say about Christians:

They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed…They obey established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require.*

In this new community—new household–Christians held others in higher regard than themselves; lived quiet lives, in that, they did not engage in civil disobedience; shared what they had with all; worshipped not in a temple but in their homes; ignored old social orders to create new ones; and shared their faith in subtle but bold ways. It was a community not built upon social status; common industry; or pagan ritual, but on Jesus the Nazarene. Quite incredible for a good Roman to behold, but one that gradually transformed the old order.

The early church launched a different kind of movement in the ancient world. Christians did not clamor for relevance or try to assert power. Their king was so different from Caesar, their kingdom so different from the empire, that to overthrow Caesar and his empire would have actually violated the central principles of the movement. Such a movement, unique as it was, confused and rattled Rome. It proved highly adaptable, resourceful, and successful in functioning within the empire.*

How could Rome suppress such that spread from the rural to the city to overtake the empire?

*Quotes and lesson material taken from Resilient Faith by Gerald L. Sittser