Modern Christians find themselves in a similar position to Christians in the ancient world. Both inhabit a society in which Christian views of religion, ethics, and culture stand at odds with the prevailing views and accepted opinions of the day. Both provide a distinctive identity that is often despised and dismissed by the social and cultural elite. Yet despite these challenges, the early Church expanded in incredible ways. Given how out of step Christianity was with the surrounding culture, modern readers should be encouraged to see how God nevertheless blessed the early church with steady and surprising growth.
Christianity did not emerge in a vacuum. It was established in the face of opposition on all sides. The religions of the Roman world stood in stark contrast to the doctrine and life of the early Christians. Indeed, Christianity represented a radical challenge to the established religious order. Christian distinctiveness can be seen in at least three broad areas: first, Christianity was a distinct religion, second, Christianity had a distinct ethic, and third, Christianity was a distinct culture.
A Distinct Religion
Religion in the Roman world was pervasive. Every aspect of life, from the domestic to the civic sphere, was infused with religious significance and attended by ritual practices. While religion was everywhere, it was hardly monolithic. Ancient Rome, much like modern Western culture today, was a pluralistic society. The roots of Roman religion were found in the culture of the Greeks, but within this Greco-Roman milieu, countless cults flourished. While each cult had its own distinctives, Everett Ferguson gives some general characteristics which applied to virtually all pagan religions in the ancient world. Each of these characteristics stands as a point of contrast to the teachings of Christianity and the church.
For example, in pagan religions, “morality was not closely associated with religion.” While ethics was a subject of interest for ancient philosophers, it was not always connected to religious practice. Religion in the ancient world had far more to do with the right performance of rituals than it did with the right ordering of one’s conduct. Pagan religion did not share Christianity’s concern for holiness. This is not to say that ancient peoples had no scruples. It is important, however, to recognize that religion was not primarily concerned with how men lived. (This was a task that was taken up by the philosophers more than the priests.)
Christianity also stood out in the ancient world due to its insistence on the exclusivity of Christ. While ancient society was deeply religious, it did not see any one religion as being better than another. While certain families, cities, or nations might favor one god over another, they remained decidedly polytheistic. This polytheism, ironically, arose from a growing monotheistic tendency in the ancient world. J.N.D. Kelly writes about the, “monotheistic interpretation of the conventional polytheism” in which, “more and more the many gods of the pagan pantheon tended to be understood either as personified attributes of one supreme God or as manifestations of the unique Power governing the universe.”