The early Christians didn’t distinguish between theology and practice.
These first three hundred years, during which the church was so radically countercultural, were also crucial years for the development of Christian theology. It was during this time that theologians articulated what the Bible teaches about the two natures (divine and human) of Christ. It described the relationships between the persons of the Trinity and wrote the first book about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. But these activities were not undertaken by different groups. There wasn’t a faction of “thinkers” on the one hand and “doers” on the other. And the church didn’t engage in these behaviors because they were motivated by a certain political or social agenda. Rater, they believed their conduct was the direct application of the gospel.
For example, Basil of Caesarea, who helped articulate the nature of the Trinity, connected his beliefs about Jesus directly with care for the poor. God and Jesus share one nature. And humans are made in God’s image. That means that regardless of ethnicity, class, and gender we all stand before God as one human race. We are required to care for all children of God, whether they are Christians or not. That’s pretty radical stuff.
As for the confidence Christians had in the face of persecution, the theologian Athanasius attributed this to faith in the Resurrection. Unlike pagan Romans, “All the disciples of Christ despise death,” he wrote. “They take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead.” Christians could care for the plagued and refuse to hail caesar because they didn’t fear death. This set them apart from their pagan neighbors, to be sure. And it motivated their conduct in the empire.
For the last 50 years or so, American Christians have been fighting for influence and input in American culture. In more recent years, we have lamented the declining impact Christianity appears to have on society at large. Churches strive to be culturally relevant in their worship and communication styles. We lobby for policies and legislation that will enforce biblical principles and values. For the first three hundred years or so, Christians approached these issues very differently. Of course we can’t simply mimic the early church. There are many important differences between the world they lived in and ours. Christians couldn’t expect to be represented in Congress by elected officials. Only citizens could depend on the state to protect their rights; and only a small percentage of the people who lived in the Roman empire were full-fledged citizens.
In other words, applying the example of the early church might be complicated. More to the point, the example of the early Christians can be uncomfortable. They were unflinching and uncompromising in their language and actions. But their perspectives and principles can be enormously helpful to us as we continue to learn how to live as “strangers in a strange land.” Their example compels us to take a close look at our convictions and decide whether we are as committed to bring our beliefs and behaviors in line and put our faith in action in a way that truly makes an impact.
This article originally appeared at ChristianBibleStudies.com. I’ve broken it into several pieces here.