In relating to the surrounding culture in a post-Christendom world, what lessons should the Church learn from the pre-Constantinian era? The Church in the twenty-first century is facing many challenges and one significant factor in this situation is the process of secularisation which has been at work over the last hundred years or more…
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In the twenty-first century the broadly Christian basis of society has given way to something much more diffuse. In particular the absence of a Christian values to underpin governmental regimes is resulting in an increasing number of potential conflicts between Church and State, and suggests that the Church needs to find ways of adapting to a new role outside the main value system of the majority of people. This paper examines the situation of the pre-Constantinian early Church and the way it related to the cultures surrounding it. The Church’s early relationship with Jewish, Roman and Greek culture is examined, and experiences gathered in this pre-Constantinian period are applied to the contemporary situation of the Church, showing that in terms of identity, ethnic relations, attitudes to war, social customs and political engagement, the modern Church has much to learn from its own earlier history. In modern times, as in pre-Constantinian times, Christianity is not the accepted “norm”, and its doctrines are not perceived as the core values of society at large. Instead of sustaining and promoting a stable Church/State symbiosis, which we see in the post-Constantinian conceptof “Christendom”, the Church finds itself on all fronts in danger of entering into conflict through contamination from and resistance to the surrounding cultures. The implications of isolation from the dominant norms are perhaps most significant in the area of evangelism. In pre-Constantinian times, as in present time, any Christian outreach work must start from an assumption that people will require intensive mentoring, apprenticeship and instruction in even the most basic doctrines.1 Nothing can be taken for granted, in terms of factual knowledge or moral training in the family, and the position of outsider that the modern Church occupies means that it must find ways of operating that help to clarify, define and maintain its position in relation to a somewhat hostile environment . The first lesson that the modern Church must learn from this earlier stage in its history is therefore to revisit and re-emphasize its core message through teaching of basic Christian facts and principles. One aspect of early Church history which has perhaps been underplayed by later commentators is the extent to which it harmonized with the cultures around it in the very beginning. An important factor in its first spurt of growth was its focus in cosmopolitan centres, where a multitude of different cultures co-existed with each other without any problem: “Absorption and adaptation were to mark the progress of the church both in east and west so long as it remained predominantly urban.”2 The trading cities of the Mediterranean were a melting pot for different races but also for different ideas, and the fledgling church took advantage of this relative freedom to develop its structures and systems, often taking selected elements from different cultural groups around them. Celebration of the Jewish Sabbath, for example, was a custom that was adapted for Christian use but was clearly borrowed from the Jewish tradition. Much of the rhetoric and some philosophical texts for exposition and teaching were borrowed freely ...
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