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An Alternative Community

By Les Henson.

Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

One of the most frequent self-designations of the early church was 'resident aliens' (paroikoi). They understood themselves to be different from others in their culture and called themselves the third race in counter-distinction to the Jews and Gentiles. An alternative story nourished this distinctive sense of an alternative community--the story of the Bible, which was imbibed by the catechumen in the process of being catechised.

So, the story of the Bible supplanted the story that controlled the public life of Roman culture in the minds and hearts of believers. This catechetical process had a pastoral purpose that empowered a distinctive people. It enabled them to survive and thrive in a hostile world. This community shaped by Scripture was so attractive that by the end of the third-century, ten per cent of the Roman Empire had become Christian.

The church's designated rites and practices to reform pagans into Christian people who individually and corporately looked like Jesus Christ. As such, they were attractive. A second-century Christian remarks, "Beauty of life causes strangers to join the ranks...We do not talk about great things; we live them." However, we do not just have the testimony of the early church; we also hear from their enemies regarding the attractive power of their distinctive communal life. Celsius and Julian, the Apostate, bear witness to the impact that the church had as a result of its exemplary and distinctive lifestyle.

What was the content of this praiseworthy and distinctive lifestyle? It involved: The breaking down of barriers between rich and poor, male and female, slave and free, and Greek and Barbarian; care for the poor, orphans, widows, sick, mineworkers, prisoners, slaves, and travellers; and the exemplary moral lives of ordinary Christians in contrast to the rampant immorality of the average Roman citizen.

It also involved: the hope, joy, and confidence experienced by Christians in a world of despair, anxiety, and uncertainty; their unity in a fragmented and pluralistic society; their chastity in a world dominated by sex; their generosity with money and simple lifestyles in a world dominated by accumulation and consumption; and their forgiving love towards their enemies.

Thus, the believing community, nursed and shaped by a different story, living as resident aliens acted as light in a dark world. They did not allow themselves to be pushed into a private realm within the Roman Empire. Instead, they rejected the public doctrine of the Roman Empire and lived out of the story of the Bible. They acknowledged that 'Jesus is Lord' in stark opposition to the confession that 'Caesar is Lord,' which bound the Roman Empire together.

Thus, we see there was a community that understood its identity in terms of witness to the kingdom of God. They lived out of the story of the Bible and stood in redemptive tension with the prevailing culture. Their contrasting and alternative lifestyle functioned at the margins of Roman society, and yet it was appealing to many and publicly subversive of the prevailing worldview.


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