What did ancient Romans think about Christians? On a number of occasions, I’ve heard these words attributed to early church’s neighbors:
See how they love one another.
I wondered where the quote came from and I found it in the writings of a North African Christian named Tertullian. In 197 AD he wrote a letter to the Roman authorities to plead for justice for the church and to stand up for the gospel of Jesus Christ in the face of cruel opposition.
The letter, known as Apologeticus, is 50 chapters long, with over 35,000 words in the English translation. It describes the injustices Christians endure, refutes the popular charges against them, establishes the value of the Christian church to the empire, argues against idolatry and explains Christian beliefs and practices. The quotation in question comes from the beginning of chapter 39, which describes Christian assemblies.
The chapter begins with this affirmation.
We are a body knit together as such by a common religious profession, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of a common hope.
The church assembled first of all to wrestle with God in prayer, the kind of “violence” in which God delights.
We pray, too, for the emperors, for their ministers and for all in authority, for the welfare of the world, for the prevalence of peace, for the delay of the final consummation.
The assembly read its sacred writings.
With the sacred words we nourish our faith, we animate our hope, we make our confidence more steadfast; and no less by inculcations of God’s precepts we confirm good habits.
And then there was something like preaching … or maybe something more like the exhortations that took place in Wesleyan assemblies of the 18th and 19th centuries.
In the same place also exhortations are made, rebukes and sacred censures are administered.
Sometimes, in extreme cases, it was necessary to remove the unfaithful from the assembly.
For with a great gravity is the work of judging carried on among us, as befits those who feel assured that they are in the sight of God; and you have the most notable example of judgment to come when any one has sinned so grievously as to require his severance from us in prayer, in the congregation and in all sacred intercourse.
I am reminded of the closing the General Rules of the Methodist Church:
If there be any among us who observe them not, who habitually break any of them, let it be known unto them who watch over that soul as they who must give an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways. We will bear with him for a season. But then, if he repent not, he hath no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls.
There was also a monthly offering for the poor in their midst, and for those suffering banishment, enslavement or imprisonment for the name of Christ.
On the monthly day, if he likes, each puts in a small donation; but only if it be his pleasure, and only if he be able: for there is no compulsion; all is voluntary. These gifts are, as it were, piety’s deposit fund. For they are not taken thence and spent on feasts, and drinking-bouts, and eating-houses, but to support and bury poor people, to supply the wants of boys and girls destitute of means and parents, and of old persons confined now to the house; such, too, as have suffered shipwreck; and if there happen to be any in the mines, or banished to the islands, or shut up in the prisons, for nothing but their fidelity to the cause of God’s Church, they become the nurslings of their confession.
Like a mother with a child at its breast, then, the church cared for its own in need. It is in this context that we find the commonly quoted line.
But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another, for themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves will sooner put to death.
Tertullian contrasts holy Christian love of the brethren with the sexual depravities of Roman culture, and then he goes on to describe Christian love feasts. The meals are modest, chaste and sober banquets by Roman standards, at which even the poorest of their members can eat and be satisfied. The banquets begin and end with prayer. Each person is asked to stand and sing “a hymn to God, either one from the holy Scriptures or one of his own composing.”
We go from it, not like troops of mischief-doers, nor bands of vagabonds, nor to break out into licentious acts, but to have as much care of our modesty and chastity as if we had been at a school of virtue rather than a banquet.
The kind of love Tertullian described, then, was apparently not inconsistent with his vision of Christian discipline and accountability. As Tertullian describes Christian practices throughout his letter, we see how the Christians of his community differ from the culture around them. They are not violent with each other or their enemies. They don’t kill their children, even in the womb. They are honest and don’t steal. They don’t eat meat from animals that have been killed cruelly; they eat simple foods and live modest lives. They are sober. They use their possessions for the good of others. They are chaste and don’t surrender themselves to lust. They don’t traffic in sex or use prostitutes. Their men don’t have sex with anyone other than the women to whom they are married. They don’t commit incest. They build wholesome bonds with their family members and households. They seek the good of the world in which they live. They don’t commit idolatry of any sort. Their piety is as much an inward reality as it is an outward act. They assemble together as a body. They confess their faith in the triune God at stand with their fellow Christians even at the cost of their own lives.
See how they love each other, indeed, but see also how they live their lives in courageous holiness. The early Christians practiced disciplined living for the sake of Christ in a world that neither understood them nor welcomed their strange ways.
Postscript: Tertullian, of course, composed Apologeticus as a Christian writing to a pagan Roman audience. It is a bit of advertising, not an objective description of Christian life. For more information about what pagan authors actually thought about Christianity, I recommend The Christians as Romans Saw Them by Robert Louis Wilken. Wilken (pp. 45-47) points out that Tertullian uses the common language of Roman “associations” in chapter 39 of Apologeticus to describe the church and make it seem more familiar to Roman audiences.