The Body of Christ and Human Equality
An Ancient Ideal
“History has been invaded by God in Christ in such a way that nothing can stay as it was. All terms of human community and conduct have been altered at the deepest levels.”—David Bentley Hart
David Bentley Hart’s description of the impact of the Christian message was borne out visibly and conspicuously in early Christian communities. One historian described the “social diversity” in these congregations, accompanied by an “ideal of human equality.” The Christians, he noted, taught that in Christ “all were equal, and the distinctions of rank and degree were irrelevant. In church meetings, educated people sat as equals among other men’s slaves and petty artisans.” The new faith emerged in the context of cultural structures organized around brutal inequalities: freedmen and slaves, rich and poor, men and women. Christianity could not—initially—challenge the social status quo in the larger society. However, the gospel could and in its best moments did remove such limitations and boundaries within the circle of the Christian community.
Many scholars have confirmed that in these early congregations, “members of different social strata became extremely close to one another, supporting each other.” While freedom from broader political oppression may have been of limited scope, equality within the Christian community was not.
The Christian Family
We modern minds may have a hard time feeling the shock of that astonishing idea intrinsic to such fellowship—namely, that God walks among us as a minister and mentor and fellow traveler. He breaks bread with His companions, weeps over the death of a friend, dines with sinners, and washes the feet of His apostles.
Following this model, some of the first Christians successfully turned ad hoc communities into a society governed by love. A historian of early Christianity confirms the world-defying novelty “of a group joined by Spiritual power into an extended family.” Morwenna Ludlow uses the same language, writing that the “Christians described themselves as a kind of extended family or household.” This is not just nostalgic fantasy. Early Christians were in fact ridiculed “because we call each other brother and sister.” Indeed, as these early Christians insisted to a skeptical world, “We are your brothers and sisters as well.” The feature marking these early believers was their practice of lovingkindness—as one writer observed, “‘Only look,’ they say, ‘how they love one another.’”
The words of one contemptuous critic actually confirm the success with which Christians at times moved the marginalized to the center of concern. “Well, what do we have in the end? An impressive god indeed: one who desires nothing more than to adopt sinners as his children; one who takes to himself the creatures who stand condemned by another, the poor wretches who are (as they say of themselves), naught but dung.” The satirist Lucian similarly mocked the Christians for their gullibility and solidarity with their fellow sufferers. “They show incredible speed whenever” one of their number is the target of public sanction.
BONDS BEYOND BLOOD
Until the arrival of Christianity, most forms of community—even religious communities—were ethnic or kinship based. “Christianity now allowed religion to be conceived as an entity independent of the ethnic-cultural components that were normally (and inevitably) attached.” The sociologist Joseph Henrich confirms that Christianity’s transformation of Western culture was cataclysmic, signaling the demise of various forms of tribal loyalty to kin and clan in deference to “voluntary associations” with “groups of strangers.” In this way, Christianity inculcated and motivated a version of love that transformed the world.
This was not an incidental side effect, but a deliberate strategy. Any bonds strong enough to transcend tribal and familial loyalties had to be more than theoretical. Wayne Meeks argues that Paul’s letters reveal universal hybridization as a conscious effort at community building—with each church “by intention” becoming “ethnically and socially mixed. It was Paul’s strategy. Each of Paul’s revolutionary cell groups was deliberately developed to be a microcosm of the global reality that Paul and other early leaders believed was coming.” In the letters of Paul that shaped early Christian society, Wilhelm Wrade notes, “his zeal for community . . . always takes first place; the question he always asks is, ‘what builds it up?’”
COMPASSION FOR ALL
Christian love surpassed anything the ancient world had seen. Rodney Stark notes how through recurrent plagues, as citizens fled infected areas, Christians remained behind to nurse and minister to the sick at the cost of their lives. Around 260 AD, at the height of yet another epidemic, the Christian Dionysius recorded,
Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.
A century later, the fourth-century monk Rufinus described how Christians in Egypt treated arriving visitors:
As we drew near to that place and they realized that foreign brethren were arriving, they poured out of their cells like a swarm of bees and ran to meet us with delight and alacrity, many of them carrying containers of water and of bread. . . . When they had welcomed us, first of all they led us with psalms into the church and washed our feet and one by one they dried them with the linen cloth they were girded with, as if to wash away the fatigue of the journey. . . . What can I say that would do justice to their humanity, their courtesy, and their love? Nowhere have I seen love flourish so greatly, nowhere with such quick compassion, such eager hospitality.
SKEPTICISM AND CHALLENGES
In trying to decipher the appeal of early Christianity, the cynic Friedrich Nietzsche could only marvel at the gullibility of the teeming throngs of converts who had found this “better way.” Power and dominion were the source of the only real happiness, he insisted. The rich, the well born, the noble—these possessed the genuine article, until clever priests convinced them that some phantom joy was only found in pity, humility, selflessness, and fellow feeling. Yet even that great skeptic could not really explain how the noble, the powerful, the rich—how they too were persuaded to willingly forsake their privilege and aspire instead to humility, to selflessness, to compassion.
Christianity quenched a thirst that had never found perfect resolution: as Martin Buber diagnosed the essential human condition, “The longing for relation is primary.” Beneath the world of transactional relationships based on commerce, power dynamics, and self-interest, Christianity exposed the deeper roots of our being: fragmented individuals finding fulness only in a thriving web of relationships. The template for a society of perfect love and deep unity had been drawn: “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or free” (Col. 3:11).
Nor, said Paul, “is there male and female” (Gal. 3:28). “The Magna Carta of Humanity,” one scholar called this Pauline pronouncement. “There is nothing like it in all of antiquity.” A second-century witness wrote “if one or other of them have bondmen and bondwomen or children, through love towards them they persuade them to become Christians, and when they have done so, they call them brethren without distinction.” Justin Martyr wrote how “we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them.”
Even leaders, of course, are encouraged to act as servants of all, like the angels who call themselves humankind’s “fellowservants” (Rev. 22:9). And even Christ, God embodied, washed the feet of His disciples and said, “I do not call you servants . . . but I have called you friends” (John 15:15).
Certainly, the revolution never found its perfect form. Paul beseeched Philemon to treat Onesimus as “no longer a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (Phil 1:16); but he did not repudiate the institution of slavery. Just as Paul maintained that male and female were no different “in Christ,” but went on to make men “the head.” Still, the deeper threat to social hierarchies like slave/master and patron/client was real, and opponents of the Christian revolution were not slow in recognizing the transformations afoot, however incomplete. Revisiting those witnesses to the transformative impact of the gospel revealed in Christ is important for two reasons. It is a testament to the ways in which we have fallen short of an original vision. But it can inspire us with the confidence that we, too, might yet be able to astonish our contemporaries by a more conspicuous, godly love that sees the image of Christ in everyone.
Art by Fra Angelico
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