(By Tim Keller, The Gospel Coalition). Many say that Christians who maintain the historic, traditional doctrines are behind the times, are too exclusive, and are “on the wrong side of history.”
Two recent books that cast doubt on this view are from historian and biblical scholar Larry Hurtado: Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World and Why on Earth Did Anyone Become a Christian in the First Three Centuries?.
The earliest Christians were widely ridiculed, especially by cultural elites, were excluded from circles of influence and business, and were often persecuted and put to death. Hurtado says Roman authorities were uniquely hostile to them, compared to other religious groups.
Why? It was expected that people would have their own gods, but that they’d be willing to show honor to all other gods as well. Nearly every home, every city, every professional guild—including the empire itself—each had its own gods. You couldn’t even go to a meal in a large home or to a public event without being expected to do some ritual to honor the gods of that particular group or place. To not do so was highly insulting, at the least to the house or community. It was also dangerous, since it was thought that such behavior could elicit the anger of the gods. Indeed, it was seen as treason to not honor the gods of the empire, on whose divine authority its legitimacy was based.
Christians, however, saw these rituals and tributes as idolatry. They were committed to worship their God exclusively. While the Jews had the same view, they were generally tolerated since they were a distinct racial group, and their peculiarity was seen as a function of their ethnicity. Yet Christianity spread through all ethnic groups, and most believers were former pagans who suddenly, after conversion, refused to honor the other gods. This refusal created huge social problems, making it disruptive and impossible for Christians to be accepted into most public gatherings. If a family member or a servant became a Christian, they suddenly refused to honor the household’s gods.
Christianity’s spread was seen as subversive to the social order—a threat to the culture’s way of life. Followers of Jesus were thought to be too exclusive to be good citizens.