Missing the point on why the early church condemned and abstained from certain pagan and civil practices, prostitution, and entertainment
I don't smoke cigarettes . . . I don't go to the movies or the theater . . . I don't attend secular concerts . . . don't drink coffee . . . go to the beach . . . go dancing . . . fill in the blank.
These lines and words are familiar to most evangelical and, especially, conservative Christians. Somehow these lines have been incorporated as a part of our idea of sanctification and how we take a stand against the world–in reality how we define ourselves and the world we oppose. For most of my Christian life I had understood some certain behaviors and places, some types of entertainment, and of course houses of ill repute were sinful, evil, and down-right ungodly–and no Christian should go or participate in such.
There is a temptation, however, without some careful thought, biblical understanding, and wisdom, to identify certain activities and venues as evil, ungodly, and "pagan" (unChristian) in and of themselves–almost "just because" (and then attach a Bible verse). There is a tendency among us to simply think the early church condemned certain pagan and civil practices, prostitution, and entertainment because, somehow, such places and behaviors were inherently evil and ungodly.
Don't worry, I haven't changed–much–on this thinking, but . . . consider where we might be missing the biblical (i.e., the gospel) point. I won’t dispute the notion entirely, but we need to ask why, what makes them evil and ungodly?
In early Christianity, Nero (54–68) had accused Christians of being haters of mankind. Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian (c. 56 – c. 120), reflecting on Nero's post-Rome-burning activities, wrote in his Annals (c. 116):
Nero's indictment of the church caught on. The gathered-church and Christians were accused of being haters of mankind and antisocial (i.e., did not participate in the approved and appropriate Roman social activities). However, it wasn't just because there was something inherently evil, pagan, or sinful in pagan temples (of course idolatry is bad in any form), Roman theaters, religious brothels (there were no other at that time–really), and after-supper symposium entertainment (which included orgies, dancer-strippers, prostitution, and, as well, sexual encounters between adult men and pubescent or adolescent boys). The accusations had more to do with who was welcome at their table (literally), who made up the gathered-church, and how their faith (the gospel and the work of the cross) now defined the concept of being human. These "pagan" practices and venues were antithetical to the nature of the church and who was welcome to participate at the common meal, the Lord's table, and in baptism. The Christian community began to abstain from such activities–and their abstention and their gathering together as church was a challenge and a display of condemnation–because in the gospel and as a result of the cross, the leveling of humanity began to be practiced by the church (i.e., its habitus as a gathered-people). Children (boy and girls), women, slaves, and individuals of differing social, economic, and work classes took on new meaning, new intrinsic value, new dignity to each other "in Christ."
Not all human beings were considered equally human or human at all. There was most definitely tiers of human hierarchies that placed a vertical understanding of people, human caste, occupations, age, gender, and ethnicity. When Christians were accused of repudiating and eschewing religious and pleasure practices and institutions of its day—i.e., the theater, temple prostitution, races, gladiator combat, household symposium entertainment—they did so primarily because these venues supported, displayed, and maintained the social and cultural tiers of human hierarchy (now that was and is evil)—not simply because somehow these things were inherently evil. They were venues and practices that supported and maintained social and cultural habits that were inherently racist, misogynistic, de-humanizing, child-abusive, women-abusive, enslavement (i.e., slavery), and thus maintained the evil and ungodly tiers of human hierarchy. All this was challenged by the gospel revealed in the cross and displayed by the gathered-church. This is why the early church was hated. They were accused of hating mankind and of being antisocial because the gathered-church by its very nature and habitus (i.e., how a church practiced being church and how that translated into daily, mundane life and human associations) challenged the status quo of the tiers of human hierarchy. This scared, frighten, and unsettled the gate-keepers, definers, and powers of the social order.
I think, today, we're missing this element of a church's presence because of our Christendom-dependent, politically-aligning, homogenous, building-centered church experience doesn't create church in the same way the New Testament and early church was formed and acted. Through who we are as church and how we do church (in much of Christendom today), we have no power to challenge the very places and practices of racism, misogyny, child and women abuse, slavery (of any kind), and any form of de-huminzation of any gender, age, class, or person. Perhaps, it is time and appropriate to reconsider how we do church.
For a thread on the nature of the gathered-church as God's platform for addressing and challenging the tiers of human hierarchy >> The Seditious gathered-church.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.