Christianity as a Way of Life
The descriptions of the Roman Empire and state authority offered in Christian texts seems to be one that is oppressive. Since the state often punished Christians for disturbing the peace, the Empire is often shown as merciless and callous. However, texts seem to suggest that the Empire did not treat Christians any differently from the other citizens of the state. Christianity in itself was not illegal under Roman law, so Christians were not targeted specifically as a group. Then, the popular portrayal of early Christianity as a mass political movement that the Romans dedicated much resources to thwart seems implausible.
Although popular knowledge of early Christians emphasize their persecution and severe ostracism within the Roman Empire, a closer study of Roman law reveals that Christianity and being Christian were not crimes in and of themselves. As a matter of fact, citizens of the Roman Empire were free to worship any god. Even their proclamations about Jesus were not considered heretical. On the contrary, it was not out of the ordinary to declare a human to be divine. After all, the emperor himself was thought by many to have been divine. In addition, the “secret meetings” of Christians to celebrate the Lord’s Supper often portrayed, as highly covert and something the Christians attended in fear of being found out, also were not illegal. As a matter of fact, most of the rituals and beliefs associated with being a Christian in ancient times were not deemed criminal. In actuality, the Roman Empire punished Christians for breaking laws that were applicable to every Roman citizen.
While Christians were not sought out as a group in particular, it is true that individual Christians did suffer punishment in the hands of Roman authorities. Much of the punishments imposed on them were for criminal activities. As Bart Ehrman points out, while civil law was very developed, criminal legislation was rarely created. For the most part, governors were responsible for exacting punishment as they deemed necessary. For instance, Christians were not reprimanded for worshiping God but for violating laws on worshiping the emperor and the state gods. Most often, Christians were persecuted for “disturbing the peace.” Christians in the ancient world seem to project an image of exclusivity and isolation. Their communities were tight-knit and exacted extreme demands on their members.
Early Christians were called to abandon their families to join the “family of Christ.” People left their families to join other “brothers and sisters” in their faith. Thecla is an example of this phenomenon as she is seen abandoning everything to be a disciple of Paul. As Ehrman points out, while this alternative way of life showed Christians new possibilities, the citizenry saw this as disturbing. While, it is documented that Christians suffered directly or indirectly for their beliefs as time passed, in its beginnings, Christianity was not considered a movement of mass proportions and influence that merited much attention from the state. On the contrary, Christianity was seen as just another cult that may cause some disruptions but would ultimately fade away. It can be argued that it was Nero who made it legitimate to criminalize being Christian even though he himself persecuted Christians for criminal acts only, as he was the one who punished Christians widely. He simply took advantage of the growing distrust and disdain for Christians. Historical data seems to show that, at least in its inception and very early years, Christianity was not considered a politically motivated movement. First, they lacked the influence to command such attention. And secondly, they lacked the sheer number of people necessary to create a political movement at the time. For the most part, Christians were persecuted for breaking the law and not for their heretical ideas. Perhaps this can be further illuminated by a study of early Christian texts which laid out rules of conduct for early Christians.
According to Christian texts, God instructed his followers to obey the law. Romans 13 proclaims “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities…for those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists was God has appointed…” This passage shows that Paul, a leader of the ancient Church did not advocate uprisings and unlawful conduct. Rather, he teaches his followers to obey the law and be good citizens. He even equates good citizenry with being a good Christian. Paul stresses that it is God’s will that his followers pay their taxes, honor those who are worthy of honor and to follow the ten commandments. There seems to be no political perspective to these codes of conduct that Paul has outlines for his Churches. As ambassadors for Christ, Christians were to respect and subject themselves to civil government and according to 1 Timothy 2:1-2 pray for such rulers and authorities so that they might live a tranquil life. Of course there are contradictions within the New Testament as well. For example, in Acts 5:29, the apostles proclaim, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” It is easy to see why a lot of confusion on what was right and wrong and what God wanted and did not may have presenting many Christian communities.
1 Peter 2:13-17 is yet another example of confusing instructions that were taught by leaders. Here the author instructs believers in Christ to “accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or governors…Fear God. Honor the emperor.” This passage can be very confusing. While followers of God are supposed to honor the emperor they are still supposed to worship God alone. Following state regulations meant worshiping the emperor and state gods. This would mean having to ignore the teaching of worshiping God alone and no others.
Texts of the New Testament seem to support historical data that show that early Christianity was by no means a political movement. Christian texts show that believers in Christ were urged to be good citizens and to follow civil law and authorities. While they may have beliefs different from the general public, they were to live as normal citizens and not think themselves above the law. If they were a political movement or if Christian leaders sought to make a movement out of Christianity, then their teachings would have more of a rebellious tone and would call for change in the Roman system. If Christianity was meant to be in any way political, there would have been a call to challenge authority in some way. After all, political movements are most often characterized by their eagerness to change something that they feel authorities are doing wrongly. Also, for Christianity to be a united political movement all its different churches and leaders would have had to be in communication with each other. This would have been very difficult in ancient times because of the lack of expedient communication devices. It seems that Christianity was more a way of life than a movement seeking to exact change.