The Strange and Wonderful Sociology of the Early Christians

A few years ago, my family attended the wedding of a relative. The next day, as we were having breakfast in the hotel dining room, my teenage nephew came to eat. He was by himself, as his parents were still sleeping. 

We watched him collect his food and he came to sit with us. Unfortunately, our table was full. He then turned around and sat at a table with a family of strangers (who were not even at the wedding). The family he sat with stopped talking and stared at him, stunned that he chose to just sit down and join their family conversation. 

It didn’t register with my nephew that he broke the social code of joining someone’s restaurant table. He wasn’t embarrassed, because he didn’t know he had done anything wrong. As he settled in his seat, he broke the silence: “So, how are you guys doing?” And then he started to eat.

“I Am Not Ashamed …” to Break Social Codes?

Believe it or not, the earliest Christians were a lot like my nephew. They were not ashamed to break social codes and taboos, because they learned from the Lord Jesus a whole new way of looking at people. The “Roman” paradigm of sociology puts people into clear categories of gender, ethnicity, legal status and social class. Privilege, honor and accolades went to the few at the top (upper-class, male Romans), and the majority of the popular (low-wage workers, slaves and the urban poor) had little hope of upward mobility. 

When Christianity emerged in the middle of the first century, the early followers of Jesus lived by a completely different set of social rules. Jesus himself taught that the first will be last, and the last will be first (Matt. 20:16). He told parables about the lives of common folks like farmers, merchants, widows and slaves. 

Jesus made it clear to his disciples that everyone deserves dignity and respect, and that all are equal in the eyes of the Father. This left a mark on the apostles. They healed crippled beggars, people whom Romans considered plagues on society. They commended women as leaders, like Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2–3). They promoted good and fair treatment of slaves and commended people like Onesimus, who was a slave of the Christian leader Philemon.

Christians were called to have practical compassion for people in prison (Matt. 25:34–40; Heb. 13:1–3), as many Roman prisoners died from torture, suffocation, starvation, malnutrition or disease. 

What would the early Christians think about the 21st-century Western church? It might not be fair to throw all Christian groups together, but by and large, our ancient forebears would have trouble recognizing the way of Jesus in our lives and behavior. Unfortunately, the Western church too often mirrors the divisive, tribal and classist nature of wider society. 

Jesus and His Sociological Gauntlet

When Jesus taught “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and shared the parable of the Good Samaritan, he was throwing down a sociological gauntlet (Luke 10:25–37): Either disciples can choose to estimate people based on society’s rubrics of value and significance, or they can see all other people equally through the lens of the gospel. 

A “neighbor” is another person within your “reach” who was made in the image of God and is worthy of Jesus’ precious blood. This includes all people from least to greatest. 

Roman people didn’t typically believe that—at least that’s not the way most people lived in the Roman empire. Rome categorized people based on their ability to contribute to the grandeur of Rome and to reflect its glorious image. But for Christians to venerate the Man of the Cross was challenging the Roman sociological order. 

Imagine if our churches today were like my nephew: disregarding society’s rules of where people belong. Imagine what new conversations could take place. Imagine how empty seats could get filled. How unexpected friendships might form. 

Prejudice and fear are powerful tools of deformation. The gospel is a potent resource for cultivating a spirit of openness to new things, and for tearing down dividing walls. This is a worthy calling for 2024. Christians could do with a dose of courage to live a bit differently again. A new revolution can begin with just sitting down with strangers over breakfast and saying, “So, how are you guys doing?”