Early Christians vs. Contemporary Christians: What’s Different?

By Robert Winn, author of Christianity in the Roman Empire

What do Christians do? One answer might be that Christians do the same things everyone does:  eat and drink, sleep, maintain important relationships with family and friends, work, play, and celebrate important events. But this is not really what this question is asking. What we are asking is this: what do Christians do that makes them different from everyone else? Christians in contemporary North America might answer in this way: attend church, read the Bible, pray regularly, fellowship with other Christians, and participate in ministries. They might also answer this question by listing things Christians don’t do because they would violate Christian morality.

Though living in a very different world and time, the very first Christians in the Roman Empire would have answered this question similarly. On the one hand, Christians are not all that different from their neighbors. An anonymous Christian author claimed that Christians

“are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric life-style. . . . They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Ever foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring [i.e., commit infanticide]. They share their food but not their wives. . . . They live on earth but their citizenship is in heaven.” (Winn, 50–51)

Nevertheless, as this author makes clear, Christians, even when involved in the normal round of human activities, were different when it came to their moral code and their ultimate loyalty.

Early Christians also would have answered such a question by describing what made them different religiously. Communal worship would have been one answer. In the Didache, a “Church Order” manual from the second century, the author views the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist, as the main event of the weekly gathering of Christians. This ceremony, “spiritual food and drink” for Christians, is a rite that points to Jesus Christ, encourages Christians to confess their sin, and symbolically proclaims the reality of unity among all Christians. This is important to the author: “those identifying as Christians must maintain unity with fellow Christians or they will not be able to participate in the essential act of Christians worship” (Winn, 40).

In the middle of the second century, perhaps around the same time the anonymous Christian quoted above was writing, Justin Martyr, who wrote to defend Christians against its detractors, described Christian worship while also commenting in general on what makes Christians different. On the one hand he explained what Christians believe—while they do not worship or acknowledge the gods of Rome they do worship the one true God—and on the other he addressed what Christians do and do not do. Despite the rumors that Christians were involved in incestuous sexual relationships and were disloyal to Rome, Justin claimed that Christians were the most moral and respectful Roman subjects. Christians praise chastity apart from marriage, and they follow the biblical teaching on paying their taxes and praying for their leaders.

Just as there is nothing shameful about the Christian way of life, so too there is nothing harmful about Christian communal worship. According to Justin, Christians have two important ceremonies, baptism and communion, and these two events define who a Christian is. Baptism is the ceremony of rebirth, while the Lord’s Supper provides nourishment for believers, whether they are newly born Christians or Christians who have lived for a long time.

Christians gathered to worship and embraced a way of life that set them apart from their neighbors. These are two ways early Christians would answer our question. A third answer was simple: Christians pray.

In the Didache, the author counsels all Christians to pray three times daily and recommends the Lord’s Prayer for this purpose. About a century later, Hippolytus of Rome, the author of the Apostolic Constitutions, also recommended prayer throughout the day: when they rise from bed, mid-morning, at mid-day, mid-afternoon, the end of the day, and in the middle of the night. The goal of this prayer regimen is to make the believer constantly mindful of Christ.

A contemporary of Hippolytus who lived in a different part of the Roman Empire, Origen of Alexandria, sees prayer as an activity directly linked to the work of the Spirit in the life of a believer:

‘For our mind would not even be able to pray unless the Spirit prayed for it as if obeying it, so that we cannot even sing and hymn the Father in Christ with proper rhythm, melody, measure, and harmony unless the Spirit who searches everything, even the depths of God, first praises and hymns Him whose depths he has searched out.’ Because of this active and necessary presence of the Spirit, Origen believed that prayer could powerfully change a person: ‘the soul becomes more spiritual,’ which leads to the ‘transformation of the entire personality.’ Not only does the Spirit graciously assist Christians in their prayers, but Scripture also provides examples of truly spiritual prayers—prayers through the Spirit—that can guide and assist an individual’s prayer life, such as Hannah’s prayer from 1 Samuel, Hezekiah’s prayer from 2 Kings, or many of the Psalms. (Winn, 121)

The most important scriptural prayer, and the one Origen spends the most time discussing, is the Lord’s Prayer, which he sees as the ideal starting point for Christians desiring to pray in the Spirit.

Communal worship and a life of prayer do not exhaust the list of activities early Christians might mention to answer the question we started with, but they are certainly at the top of that list. For contemporary Christians, it is worth reflecting whether these two items should be at the top of our list as well.

Robert E. Winn is a Professor of History at Northwestern College (Orange City, Iowa) and the author of Eusebius of Emesa: Church and Theology in the Mid-Fourth Century.

We may have more in common with Christians of the early church than we realize.

In Christianity in the Roman Empire, Robert Winn guides us through the history of Christianity from the first century to the years before Constantine. Winn bridges the gap between contemporary Christians and those who lived in the Roman Empire from AD 100–300, with engaging discussion questions and in-depth details about controversial topics (such as persecution and biblical interpretation) and figures of the time (such as Perpetua and Felicity, and Justin Martyr). This book will provide you with a deeper appreciation for the early Christians as you learn about their struggle in the face of cultural and societal pressures to build the faith community we have today.

For more information about Christianity in the Roman Empire, visit our website or read this exclusive Q&A with Bob!

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