What were Christians like during the first centuries after Christ and the Apostles? As I have been reading “A People’s History of Christianity” and other books, a clear picture is emerging. Those earliest Christians were rooted in the same basic faith that we hold today, but the focus of their daily lives was really quite different.
Early Christianity developed across the world in many diverse regions and cultures. It cut across the barriers of social class, race and gender as well. Christians stood out from their nonchristian neighbors by their humility, love, and service to others. Christianity was understood primarily as a way of life, not a doctrinal system or just a means to eternal salvation. Their common focus was the Great Command to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.
The earliest Christians were called “The People of the Way”. This Way, and the dramatic transformation that it brought into the lives of believers, challenged the status quo and infuriated the adherents of the various pagan religions. The awful persecutions that these early believers endured were not due to doctrine or ideology, but rather to the radical difference in their lifestyle that raised misunderstanding and suspicion among their neighbors. They stood out because they did not pursue power or possessions. They weren’t out to change the world or to “win” in some sense. They just wanted to follow Jesus. And their numbers grew because others could see how The Way provided a practical spiritual pathway that changed and improved their lives.
The earliest Christians had no church buildings, no elite clergy, no political agenda, and no fundraising except to give to the poor. All of that came later as Christianity “progressed” toward what we experience today. We would do well to consider the example of our first Christian forefathers, and reexamine our own spiritual priorities. Can our neighbors recognize that we follow The Way without reading our bumper stickers?