The Early Church and the Family
Best-selling author and church history professor Jerry Sittser gives us a peek into the lives and marriages of the early Christians who were an influence for good in the Roman culture. How did they do that? Early Christians valued marriage and children, unlike their Roman contemporaries who divorced at will and practiced abortion and infanticide. Early Christ followers also upheld their vows of faithfulness, and even took in abandoned babies left to die. Christians also had a strong sexual ethic, and valued the lives of all, including singles, widows, and orphans.
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Jerry Sittser gives us a peek into the lives and marriages of the early Christians who were an influence for good in the Roman culture.
The Early Church and the Family
Bob: The early church was concerned that Christians believed the truth/that they were orthodox in their beliefs. Jerry Sittser says they were equally concerned that Christians lived out their faith.
Jerry: During the rights of initiation when they were being scrutinized or examined before baptism, they would not simply ask: “Ann, do you believe in God the Father Almighty?” “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son?” “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?” You would say, “Yes; yes; yes,”—repeat that. Then they would ask: “Ann, are you visiting widows?” “Are you reaching out to the poor?” “Are you visiting prisoners?” That was as important to them as having correct doctrine.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, April 9th. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I’m Bob Lepine. You’ll find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. In our world today, both orthodoxy and orthopraxy are essential if we’re going to be salt and light in our world. Jerry Sittser joins us today to talk about that. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You know, I remember thinking—maybe, ten/fifteen years ago, as the internet was beginning to emerge in the culture—I thought—
Dave: —the inter-web?
Bob: The inter-web/the miraculous worldwide—
Dave: —the worldwide—
Ann: —the dial-up.
Bob: Yes. [Laughter] I began to think, “We’ve got a way to reach the ends of the earth.” I mean, you go through remote African villages and look at the people, who are on their cell phones, connected to the internet.
In recent days, I’ve wondered: “Is that a blessing, or is that an impediment to the gospel? How can we figure out how to use that?” and “How can we avoid the traps that are there?” I’m thinking about this in the context of the book we’re talking about this week and our friend, Jerry Sittser, who is joining us on FamilyLife Today. Welcome back.
Jerry: Thank you, Bob. It’s a pleasure.
Bob: Jerry is an author/a professor for more than 30 years. He has taught at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. His new book is called Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World. They didn’t have the worldwide web in the early Christian movement; they had the roads through Rome.
Jerry: They did.
Bob: That was a big deal.
Jerry: They had their own version of it, Bob; honestly, because life was so public. They didn’t have the speed of the internet, but word got around really quickly.
Bob: You take—we were talking about this earlier—you have, for the last two dozen years, taken students in January into a monastic setting for three weeks, away from all electronic media—no internet, no media, none of that—and put them through—
Dave: —and they don’t die! [Laughter] That’s fascinating—
Jerry: No; we’ve not lost one yet. [Laughter]
Dave: —without a cell phone.
Bob: They slow down, and they study. They spend time in community, and they spend time in worship. They have a whole different rhythm of life—
Bob: —which a lot of listeners are going, “How do I sign up for that class?—because I would like three weeks, where I had a whole different rhythm of life.”
What do you find happens there? What I’m getting at is—the technology good/bad dynamic that we are dealing with here—how do we understand that?
Jerry: Yes; I’ve pondered this question so often. The world has always advanced, technologically, one step after another. I mean, there was not the wheel and then the wheel; right? We didn’t have the printing press, and all books were hand copied; and then we had the printing press, and it exploded print media. Then we had the radio, and then we had the TV. It’s inevitable, and it will continue; that’s just the nature of human creativity to want to push boundaries and advance into new frontiers.
The problem is when we forget the old. The old is not irrelevant; the old has to be integrated into the new; or better put, the new has to be integrated into the old. You look at something like Twitter® and Facebook®, and all of these—Instagram—and all of these mediums, which are instant; they are more impersonal. Even if you are dealing with friends, nobody can have 500 friends,—
Jerry: —or 1,000, or whatever; it’s simply not possible. Those mediums—however good they are—and they can be useful for the kingdom, just like the printing press was or the radio was. Think about early Christian radio broadcasts.
Bob: And still is, I’ll say.
Jerry: And still is.
Bob: Okay; thank you!
Jerry: Exactly; right—no; it is! [Laughter]
It [new mediums] can’t replace old mediums because we are fundamentally human persons made in the image of God. We are made for relationship, and we are embodied. Think about the incarnation; think about how radical it is—that when God chose to communicate with us in His final work, He came as a human being. That means He was confined to a time; He was confined to a place; He looked a certain way. Jesus did not have blond hair; Jesus did not speak English or Chinese; He spoke Aramaic; He never travelled very far from home. It’s particularity, and particularity is essential for human relationships. We can’t lose that, Bob.
Bob: Right; yes.
Jerry: Ultimately, as Christians, that’s how we grow followers of Jesus. We’re never going to be able to mass produce mature Christians. We can use the internet and all the modern technological devices we have, but it can’t be at the expense of the more traditional ways that we’ve produced anything of worth/worthwhile—I mean, the Sistine Chapel, a great musician, a great composer—anything like that.
Bob: —and relationships.
Jerry: —and relationships.
Bob: Relationships online are not the same as face-to-face relationships.
Jerry: How do you grow a marriage? I mean, I’m with marriage experts here: it’s day after day. As I say, you know, I was widowed for 20 years—Bob knows—and I got remarried 9 years ago. I say to my sweet wife, Patricia—I say, “Every morning I get up, you’re still there!” [Laughter] She says, “Jerry, that sounds so negative.”
Ann: Jerry, I’m just going to say, “That’s not a good thing to say to your wife.” [Laughter]
Jerry: Believe me, I know. I smile, and I give her a hug and a kiss; but I say: “It’s—that’s the daily-ness of marriage to that real person I’m married to, who has habits, and a way of using language, and a way of being in the world—that’s the particularity of marriage; that’s the particularity of discipleship.”
Dave: Yet, the social media connection, that so many millions are finding, is a symptom; because they want it—
Jerry: They do.
Dave: —and they long for it.
Ann: —and they are lonely.
Dave: But it is really a symptom that they really want skin; right? And their lives—
Jerry: They want skin, but they don’t know how to get that.
Dave: Right; right.
Jerry: Yes; we, as Christians, can help them get there; because ultimately, as disciples, we have to be embodied—
Jerry: —and that means having coffee with somebody, and doing a holiday with somebody, inviting neighborhood kids into your backyard to play, and everything else.
Bob: So, are you on Twitter and Facebook?
Jerry: I’m not, and my publishers—[Laughter]—don’t like me for it. I have an Instagram account. I follow ten people, and they are all my children or in-laws. [Laughter]
Bob: If you’re talking with your students, do you tell them the way to get culturally engaged is to be online and to capture these arenas for the gospel?
Jerry: Oh, sure. I mean, I think when I talk about being online, I talk about how you present yourself—that you can’t ever take anything back: an image that you put online, something that you say, something that you engage in. A pastor friend I know, about a year ago, wrote, “I hate the President.” He didn’t realize—I mean, it was a huge mistake on his part.
There are some dangers; we have to use it as a medium in which to exhibit Christian virtues.
Bob: Yes; our focus here is, as you know, marriage and family.
Bob: Were the Christians living in Rome in the first two centuries different in how they approached marriage and family relationships from the way the Romans or the Jews viewed?
Jerry: Oh, most certainly. First of all, they valued marriage. I mean, as shocking as this sounds—it was shocking back then; maybe, not so much now anymore—they held men to the same standards as women. That was radical—the same moral, ethical, sexual standard—which means that men had to be married to that one woman—no concubines, no prostitutes; nothing. That was radical back then, and it was good for women.
Bob: —and one wife—not multiple wives.
Jerry: One wife.
Jerry: It’s interesting to observe that women outnumbered men in the Christian movement. Men outnumbered women in the Roman world, because women died in childbirth; many children died. Roman families didn’t want a lot of girls—it was too expensive—they wanted boys; so they would be more inclined, if they practiced infant exposure, to put girls out—baby girls—not baby boys.
Bob: Infant exposure meaning: “Leave the child outside”; right?
Jerry: Infanticide; yes—I mean, just leave them out to die. Christians would, sometimes, take them and adopt them, by the way.
There were a number of ways that made Christians stand out. Imagine shopping at a marketplace, as a follower of traditional religion, and coming to a stall, where you’ve got a husband and wife, and they’re kind to each other. There is no sign of gods and goddesses; they don’t go to temples, and shrines, and monuments—none of that stuff—and they have three daughters, and they are happy to have them. Now, that would have been a radical statement.
Okay; so, they valued marriage—there is no question about that—but they also honored people who chose to remain single. Early on, they developed orders for virgins; so it wasn’t as if deciding not to marry made you second class in the Christian movement. It didn’t make you second class; whereas in the Roman world, it was strongly urged that you would marry.
They cared for widows once they reached a certain age. There is evidence that, in the year 250, Rome had on its payroll 1,500 women and other needy people—in the church in Rome/just in the church in Rome.
They gave alternatives for people, who did not follow a route of traditional marriage, and not make them feel like second-class citizens and would include them in the life of the church. What we would call traditional families now became a kind of nucleus for an extended household of other people, who were valued and cared for.
Ann: Did discipleship take place in the homes in the early church?
Jerry: They did. I mean, we didn’t have any church buildings, as we understand them today, until well into the third century. So, that’s—
Bob: No youth pastors either; right? [Laughter]
Jerry: No; actually no. I mean, so for, at least, the 200/for the first 200 years, they would be either house churches—sometimes, they’d rent halls. I estimate that the average church was somewhere between 50 and 75 people, and they would multiply them; so there would be many, many churches in a community that were kind of organically connected together.
But no notion of: you get in your car, you travel, you go to a big church, and then you go home again. It was much more integrated into the normal life of people. That meant you could walk a block and join a house church for morning prayers every morning at
six am. It wouldn’t be possible for us to do that now, except in our homes.
Ann: And that’s what I was going to ask: “What was the discipleship process that you’re aware of that we can implement today in our own homes? What do you think, and what did you do, as a father, with your own kids?”
Jerry: Well, not enough—obviously, we never knew enough. I did learn from this period, and I think there are things we can learn/a number of things we can learn. One of the most important things in our home was a really clear bedtime routine that would include a lot of reading/prayers. I’d sing hymns every night with my kids. I probably had about 50 or 60 hymns memorized that I would sing to them—sounds really nerdy, I know—but I teach church history, so I am a nerd. [Laughter]
And hospitality was an important value in our home. Actually, I wrote a rule of life for our home after I lost my first wife. We had six principles that we followed, and hospitality was one of them. I didn’t want my kids to feel that, with their mom gone, we were sort of that family that was always kind of the victim. We’d invite people into our home and at our table. Sometimes, at Thanksgiving or Christmas, we’d have 20/22 people.
It’s interesting—all of my kids do the same thing now; they are very hospitable. My son, John, who lives in Seattle—once a month, with a good friend, who is an excellent chef—they have a neighborhood feast at their house.
Ann: —once a month.
Jerry: They cook all the food, once a month; about 40 people show up—just neighborhood.
Hospitality was important; service was important; bedtime routines and prayers were important; Bible reading was important; we always went to worship on Sunday—so a number of things like that—I wanted the home to be, you know, a disciple-making unit, without being too self-conscious or too heavy-handed in that process.
Dave: Today, it is common, I would guess in the church—for a lot of families/maybe, most families—to farm that out. It’s like: “That’s what the church does for our family,”—
Ann: —or “…school…”
Dave: —everything you just said.
Jerry: —or “…a Christian school…”
Jerry: But that leads to isolation—
Jerry: —you’re always with your own kind of people.
Remember, at the beginning, in yesterday’s show, I talked about accommodation: “You want to win Rome’s approval, but you over accommodate; then Rome absorbs.” That’s what our culture is doing to a lot of Christians—it’s absorbing us—or “You isolate to maintain your purity and distinctiveness, but it’s at the expense of impact and relevance.”
When we create Christian enclaves—now, it’s going to sound critical—Christian schools, homeschooling—my wife/my first wife was a homeschooler, so I’m not down on homeschooling—but the impact has got to be, eventually, to train children and their friends to have an impact on the larger world for Christ—
Jerry: —for whom Christ died, as I’ve mentioned to you before. I’m afraid we forget to do that; we want to just isolate ourselves.
Ann: —because we are afraid.
Jerry: We’re afraid.
Bob: And we see how the culture is catechizing our kids—
Bob: —and we’re concerned too much exposure to the culture is going to have that kind of an impact in their lives.
Jerry: —so we withdraw.
Bob: So, how do we raise kids who don’t get discipled by the world? How do we have them in the world without them being discipled by the world?
Jerry: I’ll tell you this much: our world is mild compared to the Greco-Roman world, so these early Christians had a far bigger task before them than we do. For one thing, we still have a ton of Christians in our culture; we’ve got technology; Christian schools; Christian publishing houses; megachurches with all kinds of sophisticated programs. We have FamilyLife®—your organization—[Laughter]—and the empire you have and the kind of impact you have, which we can be grateful for. We have so many resources. What did they have?—they had the gospel.
Jerry: They had the example of Jesus; and they figured out how to be patient, small-scale, organic, and very determined. I love that!
Dave: Yes; and they didn’t pull away.
Jerry: They didn’t pull away.
Dave: They realized they were being sent.
Jerry: They couldn’t; they couldn’t. If they would have pulled away, it would have been: “Let’s all wear red hats, so Rome knows who we are”; then live in their own enclaves and just kind of be avoidant of the larger culture.
Now, did they go to temples?—obviously not. Did they sacrifice to the gods and to the emperor?—they, obviously, didn’t; in fact, they were martyred because they didn’t sacrifice to the emperor. But listen to this—when Christians were brought before pagan officials for trial, they asked them only one question—only one: “Are you a Christian?”
“Ann, are you a Christian?”
Jerry: And then they would say again, “Think twice now, because you know what’s going to happen; are you a Christian?”
Jerry: They would ask a third time; and if you say a third time you are a Christian and you refuse to offer a sacrifice to the gods or to the emperor as a god, you’d be executed.
Now, with that kind of pressure, you have to produce what I call functional Christians. I mean, it’s like a functional athlete. I remember when my boys played AU Basketball. By the time they were about in sixth/seventh grade, they became what I call functional players. Put them on a court; they always know what to do. They could have gotten better, and they did get better at shooting, dribbling, and so on; but they had skills that made them functional on the court.
Our job is to produce functional Christians so that, no matter where they are, they know what it means to follow Jesus. It’s like, if we put a private detective on my tail for a week, and I didn’t know it, no matter what I was doing, I would be recognizably Christian all the time.
Jerry: Now, you can’t do that by just sitting in church.
Ann: And when you have that persecution, you are desperate for Jesus; you are desperate for knowledge and growth. You’re in the Word; you’re worshipping, because you could die; and so your Savior is your link to life.
Jerry: Right; it tended to reduce the number of what we could call nominal Christians.
Jerry: You are kind of in or out. Now, there was always a little band of nominal Christians. I mean, that’s always been the case in the history of Christianity; but generally speaking, it was a little bit more extreme. It was a bell-shaped curve—it was two humps: Christian/not Christian—with a small number of nominal in between.
Jerry: Of course, now, it’s easy to be nominal. I think that the evangelical movement has created a new kind of nominal Christianity, and it concerns me.
Bob: What do you mean?
Jerry: I mean, I call myself an evangelical Christian. Mainliners kind of led the way in the ‘50s and ‘60s by, in my opinion, accommodating culture in certain ways. I see evangelicals doing it in a different kind of way, more oriented toward a health and wealth gospel/prosperity thinking—other things like that—accommodating Christianity to cultural values that run contrary to the gospel.
Bob: When you were writing Resilient Faith, who were you hoping would read it; and what were you hoping the impact on it would be for their lives?
Jerry: Well, I wrote it for Christians—thoughtful, reading Christians—it’s too demanding a book for just kind of casual reading—that need an alternative example; and we have it in history. One scholar called it a usable past. We can learn from the people who went before us. They didn’t do everything perfectly; we aren’t either.
Jerry: But they did it different, and they can teach us things.
Ann: It’s inspiring!
Bob: Somehow, they went from a couple of thousand to 50 million. We could learn from that.
Ann: That’s a megachurch.
Jerry: —5 million; right.
Bob: Yes, to 5 million; that’s right.
Jerry: —but organized very differently from us. I just think there’s a lot we can learn from them.
Bob: Thank you for this book. Thank you for being here and for this conversation. This has been rich.
Jerry: My pleasure.
Jerry: You’re good people.
Ann: Thank you.
Jerry: Thank you.
Dave: Thank you.
Bob: We’ve got copies of Jerry’s book, Resilient Faith, available in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Go online at FamilyLifeToday.com to get a copy, or call 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, our website: FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Get a copy of Jerry Sittser’s book, Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian “Third Way” Changed the World.
David Robbins, who is the president of FamilyLife®, is here. I’ve been watching you out of the corner of my eye as you’ve kind of been nodding and just paying attention to what we were talking about. This was fascinating; wasn’t it?
David: This was just one of those days that—it is so rich. There is one particular line that I keep dwelling on: “Families should think of themselves as units of discipleship.” You know, church history challenges us to take seriously our call to make our homes a type of life-on-life discipleship school. It involves apprenticing our kids and grandkids with the ways of Jesus; but also, inviting our kids in the journey of reflecting Jesus to our neighbors and to our community.
No one doubts that kids need to be taught content about Jesus; and in the West, we have a lot of access to it; but so much fruitful discipleship happens when parents pursue Jesus and His ways and appropriately invite their children to learn, along with them, and be part of the process.
At FamilyLife, we are about fueling families/discipling families. It’s not just about getting biblical blueprints out; but resourcing you to pass them on to your corner of the world. We are so grateful to be connected to people, like you, because we really do believe that every family who follows Jesus can have an extraordinary impact on others for the kingdom.
Bob: “Effectively developing godly marriages and families who change the world one home at a time”—that’s what we are all about here. Thanks to those of you who are world changers—those of you who partner with us in the ministry of FamilyLife Today. I know some of you listening are volunteers; some of you are listening pray for us regularly—thank you for that. Thanks to those of you who are monthly Legacy Partners; your financial support is the backbone of all that we do here at FamilyLife Today, and we are so grateful for your partnership with us.
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And we hope you can join us back tomorrow. We’re going to hear from John Piper tomorrow about how the reality of the resurrection should reshape every part of our lives; it should change how we think about life. We’ll hear him explain that tomorrow. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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