“What in the world is this Christianity thing?”
A phrase like this would not have been unusual among Romans in the first couple of centuries. In the eyes of the average citizen, Christians were an odd bunch. And what made them odd was not just what they believed. It was how (and who) they worshiped.
To be sure, worship was a big deal in the ancient world. The ancient Greco-Roman culture was very religious. Even more to the point, they were publicly religious. Worship rituals and activities were visible for all to see.
And it was precisely here that this “Christianity thing” was found to be strange and unusual. Indeed, Christian worship seemed to hack off just about everybody. Here’s why:
The Exclusivity of Early Christian Worship
A fundamental aspect of early Christian worship was its exclusivity. Only Jesus was to be worshiped. Whatever other religious loyalties one possessed before coming to Christ, they had to be abandoned and full devotion given to Jesus the King.
One might think the Roman state wouldn’t care about such things. Wasn’t religion a private matter?
Not at all. To be a good citizen, your duty was to pay homage to the Roman gods who kept the empire prosperous and flourishing. To refuse to worship the gods wasn’t only socially rude (Christians were viewed as sanctimonious), but it risked invoking the gods’ displeasure.
Thus, Christians’ refusal to participate in the broader Roman worship caused them to be viewed as reckless and callous to the welfare of their fellow man. Indeed, they were called “haters of humanity” (Tacitus, Annals 15.44). As a result, they often suffered serious persecution.
The Object of Early Christian Worship
Of course, the idea of an exclusive religion was not offensive to everyone. Monotheism was not, in principle, a problem in the Jewish world. This is what the Jews had been doing for thousands of years.
But, they found Christian worship offensive for a very different reason. Christians were worshiping this human being, Jesus of Nazareth. How could any good Jew (the earliest Christians were Jewish) worship a human being? Worship was to be given to Yahweh alone.
Needless to say, the earliest Christians did not see this as a problem. For them, Jesus was the God of Israel in the flesh. Thus, they were quite comfortable praying to Jesus, singing to Jesus, and offering him all adoration and praise.
This was a stunning move by the earliest Christians. They remained committed to monotheism and yet, at the same time, offered worship to both the person of Jesus and to God. They didn’t view themselves as worshiping two Gods. Yes, there were two figures, but they shared a single divine identity.
So Christian worship offended both Romans and Jews–but for very different reasons.
The Manner of Early Christian Worship
In terms of the particular details of the early Christian worship service, there were plenty of things that would have offended (or at least confused) the Romans.
For one, Christian worship was very much centered on a book. The Scriptures, both OT and NT, were a central feature of early Christian worship services. They were read aloud. They were expounded. Christians studied them, memorized them, and were devoted to them.
In our modern western world, this doesn’t seem at all unusual. But in the ancient world, books were not a featured part of pagan religious practices. They were more about ritual than they were about doctrine or teaching.
For this reason, the Romans did not know quite what do with this “Christianity thing.” Was it a religion? It certainly didn’t seem like one. In fact, it was the “bookishness” of Christian worship that led some Romans to regard it more as a philosophy. For them, it didn’t even qualify as a religion at all.
The other offensive aspect of Christian worship was their private meetings. For obvious reasons, Christians weren’t eager to put their worship practices on full public display. So, they tended to meet early in the mornings, or in the evenings, often when it was dark, away from the masses.
Of course, this was seen as highly suspicious. As already noted, Romans regarded religion as public. So, what were these Christians up to in their “secret” meetings? As is well known, this occasioned all sorts of speculation (and accusation) about whether Christians were engaging in licentious or even cannibalistic activities in these gatherings.
So, Christian worship managed to irritate just about everyone. The Romans were agitated. The Jews were upset. Christianity was seen as a subversive threat.
But, here’s the key. Christians did not, for these reasons, decided to abandon, change, or modify their worship. Despite the opposition, they stayed true to their practices and true to their Lord.
That’s a great lesson for today’s church. Exclusive, Christ-centered, Scripture-based worship must continue to be the heartbeat of the modern church.
Even if it happens to offend just about everybody.