Main Features of Early Christian Life


The pen of an unknown writer of the second century has given us, in the Letter to Diognetus, the following vivid description of early Christian life: "The Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. They display to us, nevertheless, a wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners: Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are insulted, and repay the insult with honor. They do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. . .

"To sum up all in one word: what the soul is in the body, that are Christians in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. The flesh hates the soul, and wars against it, though itself suffering no injury, because it is prevented from enjoying pleasures; the world also hates the Christians, though in no wise injured, because they abjure pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and the members; Christians likewise love those that hate them. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible bodies, looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens. God has assigned them this illustrious position, which it were unlawful for them to forsake." [Chaps. v., vi.]

This is, no doubt, somewhat of an idealization of the life of the early Christians. Due account must be made of detracting elements. There were unworthy members in the Church from the beginning. In the intervals between persecutions, worldly minded men found a place among the Christians. The ignorance and credulity of many afforded a congenial soil for the growth of superstitions. Still, the atmosphere of Christian life in the first centuries was very largely an atmosphere of spirituality and consecration. The description quoted corresponds, in no small degree, to the real position and life of the early Christians. While in the world, they were not of the world; that is, the old heathen world, with its social and moral maxims and tendencies. They represented a new creation, were bearers of the principles of a new social and moral dominion.

To begin with the most outward respect, the Christians distinguished themselves by their abstinence from the pleasures and amuseruents which engrossed the minds of their heathen neighbors. Tertullian, indeed, speaks as though there were Christians in his day who coveted participation in certain classes of current amusements. But the Church at large looked upon such indulgence as contaminating, and especially unworthy of the Christian community in its season of solemn trial and arduous warfaie. Attendance not only upon the abhorrent exhibitions of the amphitheatre, but upon the games of the circus and the plays of the theatre, was regarded as inconsistent with the Christian vocation; while a professional connection with such spectacles was counted ample cause for a refusal of all fellowship. Tertullian appeals to the tender and peaceful nature of the Holy Spirit as utterly out of harmony with the noise and passion incident to the heathen diversions, and declares that one ought not to be willing to hear what one would not be willing to speak. From this lower order of pleasures, he points to the higher ones of the Christian inheritance. "What greater pleasure," he exclaims, "than distaste of pleasure itself, than contempt of all that the world can give, than true liberty, than a pure conscience, a contented life? what nobler than to tread under foot the gods of the nations, to exorcise evil spirits, to perform cures, to seek divine revealings, to live to God? These are the pleasures, these the spectacles, that befit Christian men --holy, everlasting, pure." [De Spectaculis. Compare Clement of Alexandria, Pæd., iii. 11.] A like train of thought appears in a writing attributed to Cyprian. In the Scriptures, it is argued, the Christian finds an exhibition which throws all worldly display into the shade. "This is a spectacle which is beheld even when eight is lost. This is an exhibition which is given by neither prætor nor consul, but by Him who is alone and above all things, and before all things, yea, and of whom are all things, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."

One of the most signal distinctions of the early Christians was their exhibition of humanitarian virtues. They gave an illustration of benevolence and brotherhood that was unknown to the classic world. We find, indeed, among the Stoics, as already noted, the conception of a universal brotherhood; but the true bond of that brotherhood was not grasped and exemplified by this or any other school of classic heathenism. Love in the Christian sense, as a heart-impelling power, carrying the affections across all bounds of class and distinctions of nationality, was a new thing in the world.

Christianity put a new estimate upon the worth of man, overthrowing the classic rule that the individual is to be estimated according to his worth to the State, and teaching that he is to be valued according to his worth in the sight of Him who created and redeemed him. The Christians started out from the principle of the essential equality of all men in the sight of God. Lactantius gave expression to a principle oft repeated in the previous centuries when he wrote: "Should any say, Are there not also among you poor and rich, servents and masters, distinctions among individuals? No: we call ourselves brethren for no other reason than that we hold ourselves all equal. For since we measure every thing human, not by its outward appearance, but by its intrinsic value, we have, notwithstanding the difference of outward relations, no slaves; but we call them brethren in the Spirit and fellow-servants in religion." [Instit. Div., v. 16.] A very explicit statement of the same sentiment had been given by Clement of Alexandria. "Domestics," he writes, "are to be treated like ourselves; for they are human beings, as we are. For God is the same to free and bond." [Pæd., iii. 12.] Ignatius gives this exhortation: "Despise not slaves, either male or female." [Epist. ad Polycarp., iv.] "Am I a slave," says Tatian, "I endure servitude. Am I free, I do not make a vaunt of my good birth. I see that the same sun is for all, and one death for all, whether they live in pleasure or destitution." [Orat. ad Græcos, xi.]

Christianity did not make direct war upon slavery as an institution, for that would have been to engage in social and political revolution at an unseasonable era. But it greatly ameliorated slavery in practice, and inculcated principles whose logical issue could be nothing less than emancipation. There is, it is true, only scanty reference to the practice of manumission before the time of Constantine; but it may be inferred that there was a growing sentiment in its favor.

In pursuance of this principle of equality, all classes received a proper share in the offices of brotherly love. The poor in each congregation were provided for by weekly contributions. The rendering of these offerings, according to Irenæus, was esteemed not so much a burdensome requirement, as a free and welcome fulfilment of a high and holy vocation. "The Jews," he says, "had the tithes of their goods consecrated to Him; but those who have received liberty set aside all their possessions for the Lord's purposes, bestowing joyfully and freely, not the less valuable portions of their property, since they have the hope of better things."

Cont. Hær., iv. 18. 2. It should be noticed, however, that the spontaneous character of Christian giving was not kept up to its proper standard throughout the period. With Cyprian and Origen we find a disposition to favor the Jewish idea of the binding obligation of tithes. At the same time, there was a more serious deterioration, in that the relief of the recipient was no longer made the sole consideration, and almsgiving was held up as a work of merit, a means of special benefits to the giver. See Uhlhorn, Christian Charity in the Early Church.

Strangers were awarded free hospitality. From however distant a quarter a brother might come, he had only to show a certificate from his bishop to secure attention to his wants. Duties of hospitality and charity were made by Tertullian a strong argument against mixed marriages. "Who [being a heathen]," he asks, "would suffer his wife, for the sake of visiting the brethren, to go round from street to street to other men's, and indeed to all the poorer cottages? Who will suffer her to creep into prison to kiss a martyr's bonds? If a pilgrim brother arrive, what hospitality for him in an alien home? If bounty is to be distributed to any, the granaries, the storehouses, are foreclosed." [Ad Uxorem, ii. 4.] One reason for fasting, as regarded by Hermas, was the saving of means which might be bestowed upon "a widow or an orphan, or some person in want." [Simil., v. 3. Compare Origen, Hom. in Lev., x.] For the same end, Clement of Alexandria inculcated plainness of dress. While Christian simplicity, he argues, inculcates that "our life ought to be any thing rather than a pageant," Christian charity is likewise positive in its prohibition of needless display. "It is monstrous for one to live in luxury while many are in want. How much more glorious is it to do good to many than to live sumptuously! How much wiser to spend money on human beings than on jewels and gold! How much more useful to acquire decorous friends than lifeless ornaments!" [Pæd., ii. 13.]

The strong contrast between the Christians and the heathen, in respect of the offices of brotherly love, was strikingly exhibited amid the ravages of a pestilence in Carthage and in Alexandria. While the latter deserted their sick friends and left the dead unburied, the former cared for their plague-stricken brethren with all tenderness, and paid due respect to the remains of the dead. At the same time an illustration was given of how easy it was for Christian benevolence to overflow the bounds of the Church. Cyprian exhorted his people to extend their ministrations to their heathen neighbors, reminding them, that as children of God they ought to imitate that divine clemency which bestows blessings upon the just and upon the unjust. [Life of Cyprian by Pontius. Compare the language of Dionysius of Alexandria in Eusebius, vii. 22.]

Another marked application of Christian principles appeared in the domestic field. We find, it is true, the beginnings of that abnormal asceticism which finally culminated in monastic extremes. The feeling of dualism so strongly characteristic of the age came, in spite of theoretical inconsistency, to influence in a measure the thought and practice of the Church. "The heathen Gnostic principle," says Schaff, "of separation from the world and from the body as a means of self-redemption, after being theoretically exterminated, stole into the Church by a back-door of practice, directly in face of the Christian doctrine of the high destiny of the body and perfect redemption through Christ." [Church History, ii. § 105.] This growing tendency toward asceticism naturally affected the conception of marriage. Before the end of the second century a strong prejudice had arisen against second marriages. This, however, may have been due in the first instance to a desire to emphasize the sacredness of the marriage relation, rather than to any contrary motive. It was helped on also by a very natural disposition to regard as a proper ideal for the laity the same restraint which a current interpretation of 1 Tim. iii. 2 imposed upon the clergy, this passage being thought to prohibit second marriages. [Origen, Cont. Celsum., iii. 48.] From this objection to a renewal of the conjugal relation, some went on to a species of disparagement even of a first marriage, at least to the extent of praising the superior virtue of the virginal state. As early a writer as Athenagoras not only reprobates second marriage as a "specious adultery,'' but bestows a special commendation upon those who choose the unmarried state as a means of living in closer communion with God. [Legat., xxxiii.] A similar exaltation of virginity appears with Tertullian, Cyprian, and Origen. Their theoretical preference on this point, however, is not to be overestimated. They did not question the propriety of marriage: that extreme was left to the heretics. It was not till the latter part of the period, that the right even of the clergy to marry began to be seriously questioned. As already indicated, the first synodal restriction in this direction, that is on record, came from the Council of Elvira. This was only a provincial council, and adopted a rigor that was not yet insisted upon by the entire Church.

As respects Christians generally, no more radical principle found acceptance in the Church than appears in the following utterance of Tertullian: "There is no place at all where we read that nuptials are prohibited, of course on the ground that they are a 'good thing.' What, however, is better than this 'good,' we learn from the apostle, who permits marrying indeed, but prefers abstinence." [Ad Uxorem, i. 3.] And even this much of preference would seem not to have been universally entertained at the close of the second century. At least, we find Clement of Alexandria giving his preference to the man who enters into family relations, and makes a good use of the discipline which they impose. Speaking of the true Gnostic, or the ideal Christian, he says, "He eats and drinks and marries, not as principal ends of existence, but as necessary. I name marriage even, if the Word prescribe, and as is suitable. For having become perfect, he has the apostles for examples. And one is not really shown to be a man in the choice of a single life; but he surpasses men, who, disciplined by marriage, procreation of children, and care for the house, without pleasure or pain, in his solicitude for the house, has been inseparable from God's love, and withstood all temptation arising through children and wife and domestics and possessions." [Strom., vii. 12.] It is to be noted also that those who exalted the virginal above the married state intended by this verdict no disparagement of woman. The basis of their preference for the single life was its freedom from distraction, and also the idea that fleshly indulgence was opposed to the greatest advance in holiness.

If monastic tendencies encouraged a special praise of virginity, there were at the same time in the Church those high ideas of marriage which ultimately assigned to it the character of a sacrament. Such aberrations on the side of ascetic theories, as have been noted, by no means prevented a beautiful ideal of home life from being commonly entertained. In fine, it was a positive and glorious regeneration which Christianity wrought in the domestic sphere. It raised woman from a position of comparative slavery to a position of dignity, sanctity, and comparative equality. The words of an ancient formula for the initiation of a deaconess, "Thou didst not disdain that thy only begotten Son should be born of a woman," [Const. Apost., viii. 20.] are one among many significant indications of a transformed estimate of woman's position. She was regarded as a candidate for the same spiritual ideal as man. "In this perfection," wrote Clement of Alexandria, "it is possible for man and woman equally to share." [Strom., iv. 19.] Childhood received in like manner an augmented sanctity and importance, and the abuses of the parental relation current among the heathen are mentioned by the early Christian writers only with abhorrence. The bonds of family were regarded as cemented and sanctified by the common relations of its members to the same God and Saviour. "We must regard the woman's crown," says Clement of Alexandria, " to be her husband, and the husband's crown to be marriage, and the flowers of marriage the children of both. The glory of children is their fathers, and our glory is the Father of all, and the crown of the whole Church is Christ." [Pæd., ii. 8.] " Whence are we to find words enough," asks Tertullian, "to tell the happiness of that marriage which the Church cements, and the oblation confirms, and the benediction signs and seals; which the angels report back to heaven, which the Father holds for ratified? What kind of a yoke is that of two believers of one hope, one desire, one discipline, one and the same service ? Both brethren, both fellow-servants; no difference of spirit or of flesh. Together they pray, together prostrate themselves, together perform their fasts; mutually teaching, mutually exhorting, mutually sustaining." [Ad Uxorem, ii. 8.] As Tertullian's description indicates, the home was counted a sanctuary, and united worship of its inmates one of the great privileges of the home life. Tertullian even lays down the rule, that a Christian brother who has chanced to call ought not to be dismissed from the house without prayer. [De Orat., xxvi.]

Christianity gave also to labor a new sanctity. The old theory that manual toil was unworthy of a freeman was cast aside. This was a great stride forward. Indeed, St. Paul's principle, that, "if a man work not, neither shall he eat" (2 Thess. iii. 10), was really the corner-stone of a new civilization. It involved conditions essential to Christian democracy and brotherhood. In the theory of Christians, the dignity of labor found a hearty acceptance. With the lives of their illustrious leaders before them, they could not do otherwise than honor all honest employment. Hence, the Apostolic Constitutions points to the example of the apostles, who labored as tentmakers, fishermen, and husbandmen, and exhorts to labor, saying, "The Lord our God hates the slothful." [ii. 63.]

Finally, we may mention, as characteristic of early Christianity in the sphere of life and practice, the cheerful and hopeful temper which it breathed into its adherents. A line of sombre hue began indeed to be drawn across that life by the asceticism which, from the rise of Montanism, made increasing progress in the Church. There was a tendency thereafter to put a greater discount upon the natural order of things, than is in harmony with the spirit of the New Testament. One manifestation of this was in the imposition of fasts.

["In the time of Tertullian," says Pressensé, "the Church still used large liberty in this respect. There was no compulsory fast, except that of the great Easter week, on the night commemorative of the entombment of Christ. The rules for fasting, however, were soon multiplied; and the custom of observing as days of vigil the Wednesday and Friday in each week, in memory of the Passion, become more and more general." (See Tertullian De Jejun., ii.)]

But even back of this asceticism there was a freshness and enthusiasm which tempered the element of gloom in it; and taking Christian life as a whole, in the first three centuries, it was peculiarly buoyant, cheerful, and hopeful. There was a sense of enrichment at the hands of Christ, and an expectancy of eternal fruition, which in a marked degree conquered adversity and banished heaviness of heart. Many a convert from the darkness and emptiness of paganism could enter heartily into the triumphant refrain of Clement of Alexandria: "He hath changed sunset into sunrise, and through the cross brought death to life; and, having wrenched man from destruction, He hath raised him to the skies, transplanting mortality into immortality, and translating earth to heaven." [Cohort., xi.] Joy was considered not only the birthright,but the duty, of Christians. "Remove grief from you," says the Pastor of Hermas, "and crush not the Holy Spirit which dwells in you. For the Spirit of God which has been granted to us to dwell in this body does not endure grief or straitness. Wherefore put on cheerfulness, which always is agreeable and acceptable to God." [Command, x. 2.] Nor was it merely while looking at the life beyond that the eyes of Christians were able to discern brightness. They dwelt, no doubt, mainly upon God's supernatural order; but they were not by any means wholly blinded to the revelation of God in nature. We find, for example, Clement of Rome, indulging a glowing description of the Divine harmony and beneficence stamped upon nature. [Epist. ad Corinth., xx.] The regular worship also of the Christian congregations paid tribute to God as the God of nature. "The eucharistic prayer never fails to unite in one act of thanksgiving both the natural and supernatural gifts of God, -- the bountiful providence which makes the harvest ripen, and the gracious forgiveness with which the prodigal is welcomed home." [Pressensé, Christian Life, Book II., chap. i.]