In my Part I blog, the early Church’s primary focus was on the future coming of Christ. They cared little for building spiritual structures, developing ecclesiastic programs, or hiring church professionals. My source was Dr. Ernst Troeltsch’s (1865–1923) book The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (Volume I, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 1992). His book was originally published in 1912, translated from German to English by Olive Wyon, and published in two volumes. In this second blog, I will concentrate on the early Church and social distinctions: classes and callings. (pages 120–127).
In today’s post-modern culture, Christianity is critical of modern economic and political structures. But during the Roman period until Christianity was legalized by the Emperor Constantine (ruled 306–337 CE), Christians did not criticize the economic or social structures. Under Pax Romana (27 BCE – 180 CE), the Roman empire was relatively peaceful. Amongst Christians, there were no social or class distinctions during ecclesiastical gatherings. Slaves and wealthy patrons were treated equally. After returning to the general society, Christians accepted the social hierarchies. Their primary reason for this dualistic life was that the existing structures developed from the original sin of Adam. Only Jesus’ return to establish the Kingdom would reverse original sin. Christians saw no point in fixing a sinful world.
Most of the early Christians were from the lower classes and their focus was eschatological as expressed in Apostle Paul’s writings. Once accepting God’s call to a life of faith, Christians were not to change their situation; they were to wait for the Kingdom upon Jesus’ return. The Medieval and early Protestant vocation theology of a personal call into the existing social structure did not exist during the early Church period. The later Medieval feudal society, after the fall of Rome, was the driving force behind this theological change.
Most of the Roman population were concentrated in coastal towns that traded. The wealthy and powerful were dependent on the vast population of the working classes (slaves and freedmen). Over time, as Rome organized their vast empire, fixed hereditary positions were established which caused more class conflicts, primarily due to corruption. When Rome was a republic, government had more checks-and-balances.
Early Christians followed Niebuhr’s Christ Above Culture (synthesists) motif that allowed Christians to remain within society but operate within Christian commandments. 1 Cor. 7:20 was interpreted as maintaining Christian virtues, not fixed occupations and social structures. It did constrain occupational choices. For example, the State was pagan which precluded civil service positions. It was forbidden to kill, so military service was not an option. The arts were excluded as they depicted pagan themes and immoral conduct. Craftsmen and artisans could not work on public buildings which depicted pagan objects or deified Emperors. Teaching classical pagan subjects was taboo. “The question is always whether a certain calling is permitted or not, or whether it ought to be modified or restricted in certain directions.” God designating a personal calling was not a theological idea yet. Christian occupational choices fell into two categories: acceptable or not.
As Christianity grew, Roman leaders began to worry. Aulus Celsus (c. 25BCE – 50CE), a Roman physician, complained that if Christian principles prevailed, “the Emperor will soon have no army and no officials, and that the Empire will perish.” Synthesists were a threat to the Empire making persecutions justified for State preservation.
Early Church leaders criticized certain aspects of Roman society but did not advocate reforms. God was in charge and the social systems could go on as usual. The unknown writer of the Epistle to Diognetus (130 CE) stated: “Christians are not differentiated from the rest of mankind by locality, language, or customs.” But by the third century, the Christian population grew in number, classes, and professions. Compromises were made which allowed more Christians to participate in society. For society to function, both Christians and non-Christians understood that the social order needed to be upheld. Rather than reform the entire social order, the social order adjusted to Christian ethics and morality. The pre-Constantine Christian movement functioned as synthesists within a pagan society. The post-Constantine, now legal Christians saw no need to be Above Culture since Roman society was now Christian.
“The idea of a Christian civilization, of a spirit which should penetrate, mold, and renew the common life, was entirely absent; for that very reason also there was no idea that the Church might initiate any social reform.” There were so many difficulties within the Roman State (economic, disasters, wars, and diseases) that social changes were lower priorities. Eventually, Christians had two options: submit to and participate in the sinful worldly conditions or isolate within a monastic community that concentrated on love and the Spirit. This two-tiered system was adopted by the Middle Ages.
After the fall of Rome when society transitioned into Medieval social classes, callings and designated social classes were integrated. The minority monastic society of church professionals concentrated on the higher order, passive spiritual life. The majority of the population, the participative classes, kept to their God-designated social orders and worked to provide sustenance. This structure held until the Protestant Reformation.