Tag Archives: Christian uniqueness

A Different Kind Of Faith — Dewayne Bryant, Ph.D.

The uniqueness of Christianity sets it apart from other world religions. At times, believers have received ill treatment ranging from simple ridicule to outright persecution. In the first century, Christianity appeared as a faith different from anything the Roman Empire had ever seen. Although many differences emerge upon close examination, Christians differed from their religious neighbors in three significant areas: their worship of one God, the promotion of morals, and religious practice.

Exclusive Worship of One God. Christians differed sharply from their pagan neighbors in worshiping only one God at the exclusion of all others. The Romans had no problem with Christians worshipping God as long as they paid respect to the gods of Rome. Pagans saw early Christians’ refusal to do so as both bizarre and intolerable. Christians acquired the reputation of being seditious, divisive, and dangerous to the well-being of the empire.

The Romans tolerated Jew’s insistence upon worshipping Yahweh alone because of the antiquity of the Jewish faith. As a recent development with no ties to any particular ethnicity or nation (Gal. 3:28b), Christian beliefs found little sympathy. The Romans saw the exclusive worship of one God as unprecedented and unjustifiable.

Promotion of Morals and Ethics. Christianity is not merely a religion of theological tenets and beliefs but prescribes distinctive ethical teachings. The typical person in the ancient world made little if any connection between religion and morals—this was the domain of philosophy. The religious were interested in placating the gods and warding off unwanted attention from vengeful spirits. Christianity offered a moral and ethical system of belief designed to imitate God’s holiness and righteousness (Eph. 5:1-14). Indeed, ancient religion had little interest in emulating the gods, whose behavior was often deplorable if not criminal.

Religious Practice. Religious activities made up a significant part of the fabric of daily life. Christianity differed from paganism in that it had no altar, sacrifices, depictions of God, shrines or temples, or priesthood (at least, not how pagans understood them; cf. 1 Cor. 6:19; 1 Pet. 2:5). Temples could often be found in the heart of the city, and shrines and altars could be seen throughout (e.g., Acts 17:16). Rome expected its citizens to worship the gods, which Christians in good conscience could not do.

With an abundance of opportunities for showing the necessary reverence to the gods, Christians must have had a difficult time navigating society. In the modern world, concealing one’s Christian faith is relatively simple; in the Roman Empire, such a thing would have been almost impossible. Living out the faithful Christian life was not only a matter of choice but of consistency. New Testament writers commended the perseverance of the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:2-7) and the Ephesians (Rev. 2:2-3) for their resolute faith under challenging circumstances.

The behavior of the early Christians must have left their neighbors befuddled. The disdain and even hostility of the Romans toward early believers is proof of the distinctiveness of the Christian faith. It differed from both the traditional religions of the classical world and the mystery cults. In spite of the consequences they suffered for their faith, Christians lived their lives as a “peculiar people” (1 Pet. 2:9). They weathered the efforts other others in their day to compromise their distinctiveness and conform to popular attitudes toward religion. They serve as a model for those today who still seek to imitate Christ and bring the light of life to a darkened world (2 Cor. 4:6-11).

Dewayne is a minister at the New York Ave. Church of Christ in Arlington, TX. He serves as a staff writer for Apologetics Press and the Apologia Institute, and as a professional associate for the Associates for Biblical Research.

The Uniqueness of Christianity — Dewayne Bryant, Ph.D.

The story is told about a British conference on comparative religions attended by the famed apologist C. S. Lewis. During one session in which a number of scholars vigorously debated the uniqueness of the Christian faith, Lewis wandered into the room and asked, “What’s the rumpus about?” Those present told him they were debating whether Christianity offered any unique contributions in the world of religion. Without missing a beat, Lewis replied, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”

While Lewis was correct, he only touched the hem of the garment. When Christianity first appeared in the context of the Roman Empire, it proved to be a faith unlike anything else the world had ever seen. Contrary to the beliefs of some critics, Christianity does not owe anything to pagan beliefs that preceded it. Here we will survey just a few of the things that made the Christian faith distinct from other religions available at the time.

Monotheism

The Judeo-Christian tradition stood apart from other religions because it advocated the worship of one God. In contrast, Roman religion was thoroughly polytheistic. The number of gods, divinities, and spirits recognized by Romans numbered into the thousands.

Human beings attached gods to peoples (1 Kings 11:7), forces of nature (1 Kings 18:24), and geographical areas (1 Kings 20:28). Throughout the Greco-Roman world, cities had patron gods, a practice that existed as far back as the earliest times in ancient Mesopotamia. The Romans went even further by revering divinities responsible for such minuscule things as the lock of a door or the first cry of a newborn child. Roman deities could very well be an example of micromanagement at its finest.

Unfortunately, the exclusive worship of God in the early church caused Romans to perceive it as dangerous and subversive. Romans feared that the Christians would offend the gods of Rome by failing to give proper respect. This would, in turn, cause the gods to withdraw their blessings from the empire. The authorities considered Christianity so potentially harmful that they punished believers with the death penalty, a fact illustrated by the correspondence between Emperor Trajan and Pliny the Younger in the early second century.

Christianity as a “Book Religion”

Today, religions can be identified by texts that most represent their teachings. This was not possible before the emergence of the early church. Pagan religions did not have sacred texts that served in an equivalent manner as the Bible. While important sacred texts did exist (such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead), these were not intended for public reading, nor were they used to reveal the will of the gods or shape the behavior of faithful believers.

Jews considered Scripture reading essential. In the Old Testament, God commanded the reading of the Law (Deut. 31:11). During the time of Ezra, the law was read publicly for hours on end while Jewish believers reverently stood at attention (Neh. 8:3). The importance of reading Scripture continued in the New Testament period with readings in synagogues (Luke 4:16-21; Acts 13:14-15; 15:21). This practice continued in Christianity with an emphasis on the written word (Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 1 Tim. 4:15; 2 Tim. 3:16). Although Jews valued the reading of Scripture, Judaism had always been concerned more with orthopraxy (proper behavior or religious observance) than orthodoxy (proper belief), the latter of which was distinctive to the early church.

The existence of such a vast number of manuscripts also implies the importance of doctrine. Pagans had little concern for proper beliefs concerning their gods, as numerous stories offer contradictory accounts of events during the experiences of the deities worshiped in the Roman Empire. Christianity has always been concerned with sound doctrine (1 Tim. 4:6; 2 Tim. 1:13; 2 John 9), which has no true parallel in any other religion, ancient or modern. Romans looked to philosophy, not religion, for teaching on proper living.

Exclusivity and Openness in Christianity

The contrast between Christianity and other religions regarding membership could hardly be more vivid. Formal cults offering the traditional worship of the gods were very open. Membership was not exclusive, unlike Christianity which recognized only those as members who had gone through specific steps including expressing faith, repenting of sinful behavior, adopting a holy lifestyle, and being immersed for the forgiveness of sins (cf. Acts 2:14-41).

The mystery religions—so-called because of their secrecy—opened their doors to almost anyone who had sufficient resources to cover the cost of initiation. Membership in one did not preclude membership in another (although the expense of initiation could be cost-prohibitive). The price of admission finds no parallel in Christianity.

Mystery religions valued secrecy so much that a mob nearly murdered the Greek playwright Aeschylus (c.523–c.456 BC) because an audience perceived one of his play as revealing secrets of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Christianity, on the other hand, has always been open to all regardless of gender or socioeconomic status and offers membership to any who would follow Christ. While the mystery cults were open to a select few, the gospel is for all (Rom. 1:16; Gal. 3:26-29).

Efforts made by critics to show that Christianity evolved from other religious traditions in the ancient world cannot withstand scrutiny. This is familiar territory in critical scholarship, as various writers have attempted to connect both ancient Judaism and early Christianity with other religious movements and ideas. If Christianity emerged independently from upon other religions, then its distinctiveness must be explained. It bears the marks not of invention or evolution, but of divine revelation.

Dewayne is a minister at the New York Ave. Church of Christ in Arlington, TX. He serves as a staff writer for Apologetics Press and the Apologia Institute, and as a professional associate for the Associates for Biblical Research.