Episode 42: Life in a 1st century church

Ever wondered what it was like to be part of one of the earliest Christian communities in the 1st century church?  Follow along with Laurence and Paul’s thought experiment as they attempt to place a 21st century consciousness into the body of a 1st century Christian!  They explore the where, when, what and how of a Christian gathering around 65AD and think about what we might recognise and what would feel different.  This starts to reveal which aspects of Christianity should be protected from change, and where we should be flexible, all in preparation for our forthcoming series on aspects of church history.

Show Notes

This episode is an introduction to our forthcoming series on aspects of early church history. Paul and Laurence think about what it might have been like to be part of a Christian community in the 1st century.  

This is quite hard to imagine because life was so different so many years ago, but it is helpful to think about what we might expect to be the same and what can change over time.

A thought experiment about the 1st century church

So Paul and Laurence embark on a thought experiment and attempt to place our 21st century consciousness into the body of a 1st century Christian. They invent an individual and place him at a time and place.  He’s a chef from the Milvian Bridge area, near Rome and he has moved to Philippi in 65AD and is about to walk into the local Christian community.  What would he expect to find?

Paul first of all thinks about the multiple reasons that people might have become Christians in the first century and finds that those reasons are largely the same combination of intellectual and emotional factors that call people to the Gospel today.  So to some extent people are still people in whatever age!

When did Christians meet together in the 1st century?

But Laurence wants to know when our chef needs to turn up at the Philippi Christian gathering.  From the evidence in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul identifies that it could have been any day, but most likely the first day of the week.  Because of the way Romans counted days in a month rather than in a 7 day week, it is highly likely that this gathering would be happening on an ordinary working day. 

They think about why they didn’t use the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest.  There are a number of possible explanations but one of them leads Paul to introduce a document called the Didache (pronounced did-ark-hay).  This is a document dated to around the end of the first century and gives an insight into how an early Christian community was organised.  It also seems to hint that one of the reasons Christians met on the first day of the week was to be distinctly different from Judaism.

Where did 1st century Christians meet?

Laurence now wants to know where our imaginary Christian would be going.  Again from Acts it’s clear that most gatherings happened in people’s homes.  There is a later example of Philemon who was pretty wealthy (he owned slaves) and the local church met in his house.  So Paul and Laurence imagine walking into a Roman villa style property with a central courtyard where they gathered.

Who was in a 1st century church?

The next question they consider is who might have been there in this gathering.  This reveals a really unique aspect of the Christian groups in the society at the time.  People from all levels in society would have been there with a common purpose – to remember and reverence Jesus.  This might not seem odd to us now, but it was really unusual in the very hierarchical Roman/Greek society in which it brought shame to people to mix socially with those of lower rank in society.

Paul goes to the letter to Philemon again as an example of how this was emphasised, as the letter is about Philemon accepting a runaway slave back as an equal because he has become a brother in Christ.

What did Christians do in a 1st century church?

Next they think about what would actually happen at this gathering.  The focal point is to remember how Jesus gave his life and originally it seems this was done as part of sharing a meal (as Jesus did with his disciples at the last supper).  They also find the Didache useful for filling in some of the details of first century church practice, including for example, how to deal with a newcomer arriving who claims to be a Christian.  It seems the remembrance of Jesus was accompanied by singing and prayers and different people from the gathering each speaking and making a contribution. Paul also points out that they could have read out a circular letter as is described in Colossians 4:16-17

Should Christians today change from the 1st century church?

Now that we have a good sense of what happened, Paul and Laurence think about what this Christian group would want to protect from change.  Some of the New Testament letters are pretty strong in saying that there are some essential truths of the Gospel and that if these are denied then it renders the Gospel meaningless.  A good example appears in 1 Corinthians 15 where some are saying that the resurrection is past, and the apostle Paul explains that this would mean their faith is futile.

Even though there are essential truths that shouldn’t change, they also note that many aspects of how and when they met and what they did would be very flexible, particularly if they needed to meet in secret for fear of arrest and imprisonment. But even under such difficult circumstances, one aspect which marked Christians out from society was their aim of living according to moral standards, with integrity and honesty.

Finally, Laurence and Paul discuss two competing tensions for the early Christians.  One is a pull towards a more legalistic, ritual-performance based religion (like some forms of Judaism) and the other is a pull to use freedom in Christ as an excuse to behave immorally.  Both of these are resisted in the New Testament letters, but it appears to be a timeless challenge facing Christian communities in any age.

This episode is intended to introduce more that we hope to put out in the coming weeks considering aspects of early church history, focusing on: the practice of baptism, Christian persecutions and church organisation.

Related content

In episode 15: Connecting with God, we explored the idea of diverse people meeting together as people who all follow Jesus – and how this helps us connect with God.

We opened a conversation about changes to doctrine through church history in the blog The birth of Jesus – A Christmas statistic that makes sense.