Lessons from the Earliest Christians for Our Secular Age byfor The Gospel Coalition
In Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian ‘Third Way’ Changed the World, Gerald Sittser—professor of theology at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington—shows how the early church emerged in the Roman world with a distinctive identity in Christ. The phrase “new race” or “third race” comes from a second-century letter written to a Roman official named Diognetus. Christians became the “Third Way” after “First Way” Rome and “Second Way” Judaism. Christ’s followers blended into Roman society seamlessly when it came to language, clothing, food, and commerce. But when life involved worship, sexuality, family life, caring for the poor, and proclaiming the gospel, they “functioned as if they were a nation within a nation, culturally assimilated yet distinct at the same time.”
The Roman way was an all-encompassing civil religion, tolerant, pluralistic, and syncretistic. As Sittser observes, “Rome’s religion was Rome itself.” It absorbed new religions into its pantheon, while maintaining absolute subservience to Rome and strict allegiance to the divine status of the emperor. Rome “had the most trouble with the religions that demanded exclusive commitment to one God and to one way of life. Most religions of this kind, especially Christianity, were considered by definition anti-Roman.”
Sittser recounts a conversation he had with a Kenyan pastor in Nairobi. The pastor asked why Christians in America refer to themselves as “American Christians,” suspecting more to the identification than a person who happened to be an American. The title “American Christian” seemed “heretical to him because it tempted Americans to confuse the two identities, and thus to import American culture (e.g., wealth) to other parts of the world, always ‘in the name of Christ.’”
The conversation highlights an explicit connection between first-century Rome and post-Christendom America. Indeed, Sittser’s description of ancient Rome fits America today. I believe the scholar-historian is the best person to bridge these two worlds and show us the “Third Way”—how to live for Christ in America without being “American Christians.” We must become bilingual interpreters of history, taking what we know of the early Christian “Third Way” and applying it to “Third Way” Christ-followers today.