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Cultural Sanctification: Engaging the World like the Early Church

By the end of the second century, Christians were thoroughly entrenched within Roman culture and social life. To begin with, their numbers were growing at a rate quite unsettling to many of their neighbors. At least in North Africa, said Tertullian, Christians had spread out rapidly: “Though we are but of yesterday, we have filled all that is yours, cities, islands, fortified towns, classes of public attendants, the palace, the senate, the forum . . . nearly all the citizens you have in nearly all the cities are Christian.” Many Romans agreed, in dismay; they whined, “the State is filled with Christians—they are in the fields, in the citadels, in the islands: they make lamentation, as for some calamity, that both sexes, every age and condition, even high rank, are passing over to the profession of the Christian faith.”

Given this growth, Christians and non-Christians carried on regular everyday interactions, in the marketplace and conversations at social gatherings in public places. Pagans “came in contact with the movement in a number of casual ways,” as Nock says in his classic work on conversion, because “there was little, if any, direct preaching to the masses.” The church was not distinguished from the culture by anything in their outward appearance, especially since they were not typically found among the upper crust of society and thus blended in even more with those around them. What did distinguish them was their distinctive doctrine and practice. Christianity came on the scene with “very distinctive roots” and, though fully embedded, was never fully enmeshed in the culture.

Public skepticism toward Christianity also produced gossip and rumors as might be expected among people living in close quarters with each other. Not everyone was attracted to Christianity; there was widespread suspicion, misunderstanding, and ridicule. This led to constant tensions between the pagan and the Christian communities that played out in daily interactions. Refusing to worship pagan gods, Christians were subjected to various forms of interrogation. They were excluded from public places; ultimately, some were tortured and killed for their convictions. This hostility escalated in the times of Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian, as these emperors tried to bring unity to the fractured empire. Christian theologians often discussed how pagans charged them with all kinds of outlandish arguments. They “regard us as a human herd cut off from other people,” Tertullian said, and Minucius Felix’s pagan interlocutor suggested that Christians were a “shadowy and cunning race, silent in public, but chattering in lonely corners.”

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