A Distinct Church

Note: To read the previous entry in this series, click here.

Christianity did not emerge in a vacuum. It was established in the face of opposition on all sides.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] Every aspect of life, from the domestic to the civic sphere, was infused with religious significance and attended by ritual practices.[4] 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.[5] While each cult had its own distinctives, Everett Ferguson gives some general characteristics which applied to virtually all pagan religions in the ancient world.[6] 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.”[7] 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.[8] 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.)[9]

Christianity also stood out in the ancient world due to its insistence on the exclusivity of Christ.[10] While ancient society was deeply religious, it did not see any one religion as being better than another.[11] 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.”[12]

The differences between pagan and Christian religious life were not just found in the way that they thought about religion but also in the way they practiced religion. Greco-Roman religion was heavily ritualistic. Piety was expressed by performing appropriate ritual actions to honor the gods. These ritual actions permeated Greco-Roman life. Ferguson describes some of these religious rituals when he says, “The hearth was the center of the Greek domestic cult. The meal began and ended with a religious act: before a meal Greeks offered a few pieces of food on the hearth; after the meal they poured out a libation of unmixed wine to the Agathos Daimon.”[13] Every Roman home had a lararium next to its entrance. The lararium was a shrine for the “watchful, protective spirits of the family and household” that the Romans called the lares.[14] These household shrines were another center for ritualistic piety, “At every meal a small portion of food was placed before the lararium. Three times each month an offering of flowers was made as well.”[15] This emphasis on ritualistic actions carried over into public religion as well. In the Greco-Roman world, virtually anyone could perform priestly functions (provided he knew the correct way to approach the deity and carry out the ritual practices).[16] Priests had both administrative and ritual duties, but priests did not offer spiritual instruction or counsel or provide any sort of teaching or exhortation. Whereas early Christian leaders focused on the task of teaching and proclamation from the Scriptures, pagan religious leaders gave their attention to civic and cultural affairs.[17] Pagan temples were not centers of community life, places of instruction, or forums for regular corporate worship. Instead, they provided a focal point for private religious sacrifices and offerings and for administrative and cultural affairs. Early Christianity would have stood out as being a radically different type of religion in the Greco-Roman world.

A Distinct Ethic

As was noted above, ethics in the ancient world was more generally seen as a feature of philosophy than it was of religion. Early Christianity, however, made ethical behavior a central part of its religious identity and practice.[18] Early Christian writings constantly urge fellow-believers to behave in ways that are consistent with the Scriptures and the commands of God.[19] This set Christianity at odds with many common practices in the ancient world. Hurtado identifies numerous areas where Christian and pagan ethics parted ways, including the practice of infant exposure, the celebration of gladiatorial contests, and radically different views of proper sexual ethics.[20] In each of these areas, and more, Christianity proved to be a society apart. As Hurtado puts it, “The behavioral expectations placed on early Christians were demanding and represented at a number of points sharp departures from what was tolerated and even approved in the larger Roman culture. […] Christian adherents of all social positions were called, and from the point of initiation onward, to live up to the behavioral demands of their faith. Early Christianity ‘took it to the streets,’ generating a novel social project in that time.”[21]

A Distinct Culture

The novel way in which Christianity thought about religion and practiced religious and ethical life led to the formation of a distinct culture.[22] This can be seen in many areas. The ecclesiastical structure of the early Church stood out in the pagan world as did the social and economic diversity of its membership.[23] One striking example of the distinctiveness of early Christian culture can be found in the bookish nature of Christianity.[24]

Early Christianity was obsessively word-focused. The church structured its life and witness around the reading, hearing, proclamation, and propagation of the Scriptures.[25] Early Christians preached sermons, wrote books and commentaries, composed hymns and letters, and founded extensive libraries.[26] The literary character of early Christianity is made all the more remarkable by the fact that literacy rates were low (probably no more than 10-12% of Greco-Roman men could read – and the numbers would have been far lower for Greco-Roman women),[27] and the cost of books was relatively high (even a small book would cost as much, or more, than the daily wage for an ordinary laborer).[28] This is just one example of the many ways in which Christianity stood out as a distinct culture in the ancient world.   


This brief survey of the remarkable growth and striking distinctiveness of early Christianity can provide valuable lessons for the contemporary church. 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. While some modern Christians may be tempted to reshape Christianity to better fit the culture around them, the example of the early Church stands as a reminder that radical distinctiveness need not inhibit the spread of Christianity. 

Further Reading

Cassiodorus, Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning and On the Soul.  Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2004.

Ferguson, Everett.  Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993.

Frend, W.H.C. The Rise of Christianity. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1984.

Gamble, Harry Y. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995.

Grant, Robert M. Early Christianity and Society. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1977.

Green, Michael. Evangelism in the Early Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1970.

Haykin, Michael A.G. The Church Fathers as Spiritual Mentors. Ontario, CA: Joshua Press, 2017.

Holmes, Michael W. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishers, 2007.

Hurtado, Larry W. Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2006.

Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978.

Kruger, Michael J. Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church. Downers Grover, IL: Intervarsity Academic Press, 2018.

Meeks, Wayne A. The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

Phillips, John J. “Book Prices and Roman Literacy.” The Classical World 79, no. 1 (1985): 36-38.

Robinson, Thomas A.  Who Were the First Christians?: Dismantling the Urban Thesis. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Schaff, Philip and Henry Wace. A Select Library of Ante-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Second Series. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.

Schnabel, Eckhard J. Early Christian Mission. Vol. 1 &2. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

Stark, Rodney. The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1996.

———. Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.

Wilken, Robert Louis. The Christians as the Romans Saw Them. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

———. The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

Ben Franks is an MDiv student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. A native son of the PCA, he has done mission work in England with the EPCEW and served with churches in the PCA and OPC. He studied at Patrick Henry College and completed his B.A. in Classical Christian Education through Whitefield College. His writings have been published in the Puritan Reformed Journal, the Confessional Presbyterian Journal, and the Banner of Truth Magazine.

Related Links

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Only One Way, ed. by Richard Phillips and Michael Johnson

Histories and Fallacies by Carl Trueman


[1] As one classic study puts it, “The atmosphere in which it had to grow and develop was crowded with religious, philosophical and even theosophical notions. […] Some degree of familiarity with this environment is indispensable to anyone who hopes to appreciate the evolution of patristic thought” J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978), 6.

[2] For a thorough and up-to-date treatment of the distinctiveness of early Christianity, see Larry W. Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016). For a helpful introduction to the intellectual and cultural identity of early Christians, see Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003).

[3] For a helpful exploration of the danger of imposing modern categories of religion onto the ancient world, see Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods, 38-44. Hurtado summarizes his discussion with these words: “the key thing to underscore that is different between ‘religion’ in the ancient world and in the modern Western world is this: We tend to think of ‘religion’ as a distinguishable area of life. We also imagine that ‘religion’ in some common, generic sense (drawn heavily from the particular features of Christianity) is an essential and ubiquitous feature of humans of all times and places. But this is a dubious assumption” Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods, 40-41.

[4] “Religion was closely interwoven with society in the Greco-Roman world. […] Human life was thoroughly permeated with religion, and numerous ceremonies punctuated the course of life […] – political, social, economic, and military.” Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 2nd ed, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 170-171. Another historian adds, “In short, from the lowest to the highest spheres of society, all aspects of life were presumed to have connections with divinities of various kinds. There was really nothing like the modern notion of a separate, ‘secular’ space of life free from deities and relevant ritual.” Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods, 47. 

[5] Many of these mystery cults came from the East but people in ancient Rome worshiped the deities of the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Syrians, Phrygians, and Persians as well. For a helpful overview of religion in the Roman Empire, see Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 137-298.

[6] Ferguson lists a dozen such characteristics, but for the sake of space only a few will be mentioned here. See Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 161-165.

[7] Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 165.

[8] As Ferguson notes, “The wedding of ethics and religious belief, based on divine revelation, was one of the important strengths of Judaism and Christianity in the ancient world.”

[9] “For the most part, codes of conduct were derived from one’s national customs or from the ethical teachings of the philosophical schools.” Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 165.

[10] “early Christianity represented not simply belief in one particular deity among many but, actually, in some respects a different kind of religion. […] early Christianity was so different that many Roman-era people recoiled from Christian beliefs and practices, accusing Christians of rank impiety and even atheism.” Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods¸ 38.

[11] “There was no worry that any one deity would be offended if you offered worship to other deities as well. […] Indeed, for people in the Roman era generally, ‘piety’ meant a readiness to show appropriate reverence for the gods, any and all the gods. That meant, as the occasion called for it, reverencing any of those recognized as gods by any of the peoples that made up the empire.” Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods, 48.

[12] Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 12-13.

[13] He goes on to say, “From birth the child was surrounded by domestic piety. His earliest recollections were of the father sacrificing on the family alter and all the household assembled for sacred meals. Birth, puberty, marriage, and funerals were accompanied by ceremonial acts.” Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 166-167.

[14] Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 168.

[15] The lares were just one of many spiritual beings that played a role in Roman domestic piety. Ferguson describes the domestic pantheon this way, “The penates were the guardians of the pantry; they were closely associated with the lares and Vesta (goddess of the hearth). The lares and penates, with Janus (god of the doorway) and Vesta, protected the home.” Ferguson, Background of Early Christianity, 168.

[16] Ferguson notes, “The Hellenistic period saw a strong development of the practice of selling priesthoods. The vendor was always the state. The purchase of a priesthood was one method of making an investment for a livelihood or provisions for one’s family, with a sound title.” Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 173.

[17] “Among the honors that went with the office were a special place in religious processions, chief seats at the theatre and contests, and the privilege of wearing a garland wreath or gold crown. […] Under the empire, priests took on more and more the character of civil officers.” Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 174.

[18] For a more developed exploration of this idea, see Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods, 150-181.

[19] See Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishers, 2007).

[20] See Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods, 143-181.

[21] Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods, 181. For further discussion of this theme, see Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 56-59, and 63-74.

[22] A classic study of early Christian culture can be found in Wilkin, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought.

[23] For more on these themes, see Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads, 75-107, and 11-39.

[24] Four fascinating studies of the role of books in early Christianity can be found in Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods, 105-142, Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads, 167-201, Michael A.G. Haykin, The Church Fathers as Spiritual Mentors, (Ontario, CA: Joshua Press, 2017), 163-182, and Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995).

[25] Though the focus of early Christian literary culture was on the Scriptures, it was by no means limited to only the Sacred texts. A famous early Christian argument for broader liberal learning may be found in Cassiodorus, Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning and On the Soul, (Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 2004).

[26] For a fascinating history of early Christian libraries, see Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church, 144-202.

[27] Haykin, The Church Fathers, 166.

[28] See John J. Phillips, “Book Prices and Roman Literacy.” The Classical World 79.1 (1985): 36-38.