What was Christianity like before it was called Christianity?
Being 2,000 years removed from the very beginning of Christianity can be somewhat of a challenge to really understanding what it was like from the start. Fortunately for us, there was a man who was there from the beginning and who wrote down a fairly detailed account of what it was like for the earliest Christians, even before they were called Christians. That man was a doctor named Luke and he wrote a history of Christianity, which has traditionally been called Acts. From this document, as well as many of the letters written by the earliest Christian leaders, a picture can be drawn of what Christianity was like 2,000 years ago.
Why is it important to know what the earliest form of Christianity was like?
If I had to boil down all the reasons of why it is important, I would be left with two basic reasons: Respect and Safety.
Respect – The greatest man who ever walked this earth, the very man who split time in half and impacted the world greater than anyone else ever has or will, came to this earth and established something extraordinary. At the very least this deserves our attention and we should understand what exactly he established and why. But especially as a professing follower of Jesus, he deserves our respect in searching out the details of what exactly he established for us to follow. It just seems odd to claim to be a “follower of Jesus” yet not know what he established for us to follow…right?
Safety – There was an admonition among the earliest Christians to remember those who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings.
It is safe to assume that this was taught because of the natural human tendency to deviate from any given course and plot out a more comfortable or personally beneficial course. And since this would no doubt happen to Christianity as well, the only way to safeguard against it would be to “consider the outcome of their [the original Christian leaders] way of life and imitate their faith.”
A great analogy is found with counterfeiting money. People who are tasked with detecting counterfeits do not bother themselves with becoming familiar with every single type of counterfeit currency. Instead, they become experts in knowing every minute detail of the authentic currency so that when anything they come across deviates from it, it is easily detected. In the same way, when we become experts in knowing what the original form of Christianity was like, we will be able to easily detect counterfeit forms and avoid them.
The Original Distinctives of Christianity
Nearly every religious group or community of faith has a list of what they call “distinctives.” These are the things that set them apart as a unique group of people and include the basic beliefs and practices they adhere to. The earliest Christians were no different and had very unique beliefs and practices that all centered around the one person, Jesus Christ.
One of the earliest Christian leaders, Paul, wrote a letter to a group of people who were relatively new disciples of Jesus. In it, he wrote that they should hold to the traditions that were passed on to them, whether by word of mouth or by letter. These “traditions” that the earliest Christians held to are what I am referring to as the distintives that set them apart.
Distinctive 1: The Gospel – This is the central truth that everything else revolves around. It is the good news that after Jesus died for our sins he conquered death and appeared to hundreds of people to prove that he was alive.
Distinctive 2: The Gift of the Holy Spirit – Every person who believes the gospel is given the gift of the Holy Spirit. He is our guide, our comforter, and our “deposit guaranteeing our inheritance in the future.”
Distinctive 3: Believer’s Baptism – Every person who believes the gospel and receives the Holy Spirit is baptized in water. This symbolizes the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Distinctive 4: Lord’s Supper – Jesus took part of the tradition of the Jewish Passover and made it a memorial meal of his sacrifice. Believers meet in homes to “break bread” with each other. The Lord’s Supper consists of wine, representing the blood of the new covenant, and bread, representing his sacrifice for us. It is written that every time we eat the Lord’s Supper we are “proclaiming the Lord’s death until he returns.”
Distinctive 5: Expectation of Jesus’ Return – Jesus has already fulfilled prophecies about his death and resurrection but there are many more prophecies about the events surrounding his return to the earth that have either already been fulfilled or have yet to be fulfilled.
Distinctive 6: Lifestyle of Love – There was a saying among early Christians that “the only thing that matters is faith expressing itself through love.” This shows the weight of importance they placed on love.
Distinctive 7: Lifestyle of Holiness – Christians strive to live a holy life in response to what Jesus has already done for them. Avoiding sexual immorality, slander, drunkenness, malice, fits of rage, and anything else that is contrary to a holy life are a significant part of the Christian lifestyle we are called to live.
Distinctive 8: The Body of Christ – Contrary to the clergy/laity division of most religious organizations today, Christianity is unique in that every single person is supposed to be a minister to others, using whatever spiritual gifts they have to serve people.
Distinctive 9: Plurality of Leadership – Rather than having one man as the head of a local group of believers, there should be a plurality of leaders that share the responsibility of guiding the church.
Distinctive 10: Devotion to Prayer – “My house will be called a house of prayer.”
Distinctive 11: Teaching through Dialogue – Rather than monologue public speaking, teaching should be more inclusive and consist of dialogue with the ability to question what is being taught.
Distinctive 12: The Fulfillment of Jewish Scripture – Jesus made the claim that everything written down in the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms [basically the entire Hebrew Bible] was actually a prophetic masterpiece written all about himself. In this sense, Christianity was never thought of as a new religion but as the fulfillment of everything God established with the nation of Israel and their sacred Scriptures.
Distinctive 13: Apostolic Authority – This is most commonly referred to today as the “Great Commission” that God gave to his apostles, that they should go into all the world teaching people everything that Jesus commanded them. This Apostolic Authority still exists but in the form of their written words that they gave us, known today as the New Testament.
I will break each of these down in future blog posts and try to explain as best I can the significance of each one. Also, this is by no means an exhaustive or conclusive list of every single distinctive of early Christianity, just the ones that I have gleaned to be the primary and most foundational.
If it wasn’t called Christianity, what was it called?
Before the term Christianity caught on, the disciples of Jesus simply referred to it as “The Way.” This could be because Jesus referred to himself as “The Way, the Truth, and the Life.” It might also have had to do with the fact that being a disciple of Jesus was completely about living a new way of life in response to what Jesus had done for them.
No matter what the exact reason is for calling themselves followers of “The Way,” hopefully all Christians today can recognize the need to get back to their roots and discover more about the foundation of their faith.