The early church was a group of people defined by their discontinuity to the Greco-Roman household system. The Christian Ecclesiae became an alternative household, in which allegiances shifted from the earthly pater to God the pater. This new community was sustained by repetitions of actions embodied by Jesus Christ, through the church as a sociological structure, martyrdom, the practice of Eucharist overseen by the bishop, and by the reading of early Jewish and Christian scriptures through the rule of faith. These foundational traditions held the community in sync with the life of Jesus and defined the Christian performance.
Jesus Christ was not simply a messenger; he was the message. His physical body was the actual incarnation of God and how he used his body and ministry redefined socio-political and theological paradigms in light of himself. The system in place was the Greco-Roman household, based on emperor worship and competition between different paters. The pater was the “man of the house” – one who asserted his power in order to gain social mobility. The system instigated violence amongst and within families by its own nature.
However, Jesus Christ established the Kingdom of God through which Christians could escape the internal follies of the household system. As the author of I Timothy writes, “You will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God.” Becoming a Christian was a profound political statement and caused much unrest. No Pater wanted to be shamed by his son’s, daughter’s, or even wife’s refusal to give honor to Caesar; it tarnished his own loyalty and therefore his social standing. Christians were not, however, trying to make an enemy of Rome; we see in I Timothy 2:1-6 that Christians were called to pray for the authorities, so that they could live peaceful and holy lives.
As the church grew it began to attract members of higher social classes. This was beneficial to the community because these members were able to offer a higher degree of safety for the community as a whole. In this process, however, the church adopted some performances from the Greco-Roman household system, such as the marginalization of women and slaves. The role of women still remained distinct, as seen in the stories of Martyrdom as we can see in the Acts of Thecela.
The highest expression of Christian devotion was to repeat the suffering and death of Jesus. The early church strove to live out the life of Jesus with their bodies. Their repetitions and practices were developed to imitate Christ. There was no better way to “take up your cross” than to share in the pain and suffering of Martyrdom. The act of martyrdom was not one of victimization, but faithfulness. The stories of the martyrs were told as the stories of heroes, almost as bedtime readings. In the Martyrdom of Polycarp, we see an old man brought before an angry mob, not unlike Jesus, questioned and given a chance to recant, not unlike Jesus, and finally we see him die a horrible death pressed against rough wood. This act was lived out of allegiance to Christ, and showed non-conformity to the repetitions of the Roman households.
Martyrdom was a central act of the Christian church until the Constantinian bifurcation. The bifurcation was the recontextualization of the Christian household after the conversion of Constantine. In the matter of a decade Christians went from being hunted down to calling the emperor a “brother in Christ.” This divided the Christian community into two different segments. Eusebius describes it in Demonstration of the Gospel, book 1, chapter 8.
“Two ways of life were thus given by the law of Christ to His Church. The one is above nature, and beyond common human living; it admits not marriage, child-bearing, property nor the possession of wealth, but wholly and permanently separate from the common customary life of mankind, it devotes itself to the service of God alone in its wealth of heavenly love! ... And the other more humble, more human, permits men to join in pure nuptials and to produce children, to undertake government, to give orders to soldiers fighting for right; it allows them to have minds for farming, for trade, and the other more secular interests.”
This bifurcation created a normative Christian life that no longer necessitated non-participation, but rather encouraged responsible participation in the Roman patronage system. In essence, this ended the function of martyrdom in the Greco-Roman household. Instead, the same performance could be lived out through another practice: monasticism.
In the Life of Anthony we see this new monasticism. A young pater, Anthony, turns away from the life of the household and takes on a life of discipline, a life in pursuit of perfection. He deprives himself of sex, food, sleep, and all other comforts. He lives among the dead and suffers his flesh so that he may nurture what is spiritual. He wars against the temptations of the carnal and does battle with his various demons. In doing so he seeks the same perfection as was sought by the martyrs that preceded him.
Yet before Constantine redefined Christianity’s role in the Roman world, the church was living out Christ through other practices. The most preeminent of these practices was participation in Eucharist. As Robert Wilkins writes, “before there were disputes about the teaching on grace, or essays on the moral life, there was awe and adoration before the exalted Son of God alive and present in the Church’s offering of the Eucharist.” It was a mode of acknowledging Christ’s presence in the ecclesiae and it was administered by the bishop.
The role of the bishop was established as a way to keep the church unified while under the great duress of Roman oppression. The position was elected by the local church body, and then was confirmed by other bishops. This maintained orthodox teachings of baptism and Eucharist. The bishop became an extremely important role in the church, in a letter to the Ephesians, Ignatius writes, “let us be careful not to oppose the bishop so that we may be obedient to God.” The bishop was seen as God’s direct acting agent in the community of believers. The role of bishop was also instrumental in the defense of Christianity from heretics.
During the second and third centuries Gnostics gained upward mobility, and this Gnostic “Christian” performance was based around a faulty interpretation of Christ, creation, and the early Christian scriptures. In order to keep interpretation unified, and to discriminate between true Christian repetitions and pseudo-repetitions, the Rule of Faith was created. This Rule of Faith was a lens for interpretation and was the “plot” or hypothesis of the scriptures and was the foundation of what would later become the Apostles’ Creed. “The Rule [itself] was not a creed, nor a formula, but an abbreviated body of doctrine wherein the genuine articles of the Christian faith were articulated.” The church reading the scriptures through the Rule of Faith solidified orthodoxy and fought off the primary dangers to the community. The first of these primary dangers was assimilation into the old patronage system, and the second was fragmentation from within.
In a profoundly ironic way, Constantine accomplished through inclusion what centuries of previous Caesars could not accomplish through oppression. Christians were effectively assimilated into the now “Christianized” Roman patronage system, and were fragmented by the bifurcation of early monks from the laity. While the bifurcation may have appeared to be a godsend to the community that one decade earlier had witnessed “…houses of worship demolished to their foundations, the inspired and sacred Scriptures committed to flame…” it may have actually been a cunning poison. It was a poison that was attempted to be absorbed by the early Christian monks.
The role of monks was to take on that which the multitude was no longer obligated to obtain: perfection. They challenge the laity by their example of piety, giving credence to the traditions and performances of the Christian faith. Their criticism of the patronage system is not stark. The monks of early Christianity acted as a counterbalance to the patronage system by remaining isolated from, yet not in total conflict with, it.
Jesus Christ was the incarnation of God, one who did not simply bring a message but was himself the message. His body, broken and resurrected, was the model for Christian performance. The ecclesia lived out his life with their bodies by joining God’s household, sharing in his death through martyrdom, partaking in Eucharist, and reading the Christian scriptures through the Rule of Faith. These central convictions were refined and challenged by Monks in the Post-Constantinian bifurcation. The Church, built upon the life of Jesus and strengthened by the blood of the martyrs continues these repetitions in her longing to one day be reunited with her bridegroom.