Editors note: Everyday life in the early church

I don’t remember where we picked up this saying, but in my family, we say that doing everyday things in the normal and expected way is to do them “like people.” “Sorry I didn’t come in the right door this time—I’ll do it the next time like people.” “I’m going to go to the football game this Friday after school like people.” “I’m going grocery shopping like people.”

When the team at CH thought over how long it had been since we did an issue focusing solely on the early church (six years ago in 2017 with #124: Faith in the City, if you’re counting) and wondered what aspect of that large topic to consider, our minds drifted all the way back to issue #49, Everyday Faith in the Middle Ages

That issue was largely not about high-level theological debates or political intrigues—though we’ve covered such things in CH before—but about church and devotional life in the Middle Ages and how they did things “like people.” We asked questions such as: How, where, and when did folks pray every day? What did they teach their children? Where did they go on pilgrimage, and why? What did they learn from their worship environment? What did they think about money and marriage and monasteries?

In the same spirit, we decided to do an issue on Everyday Faith in the Early Church. Amazingly, we’ve never looked at that topic head-on in 40 years, though our other early church issues have touched on it (#17 on women, #37 on worship, and the aforementioned #124 on urban faith in particular).

The one and only God

There’s one large difference between the first few Christian centuries (we’re stopping at roughly 400 AD in this issue) and the Middle Ages—one on which a thousand smaller differences depend. Christianity in the medieval West (the subject of #49) was the dominant faith. Christianity in the late Roman Empire was not, though it grew with surprising speed year after year. The Christian faith denied a central organizing principle of the Roman state—the emperor’s ability to represent the gods and even to be a god—and that opened it up to persecution. 

Knowing this, though, can give us tunnel vision about persecution. It happened in the early church, and it was brutal when it did. But with several notable exceptions, it was not empirewide for most of the first three Christian centuries. We can profitably ask and answer other questions about everyday early church faith. 

The Christians you’ll meet in the following pages prayed for the emperor even though they would not call him “Lord.” They got married and worried about how to be parents. They had day jobs. They wrote and read books. They helped the poor and tried to steward their money. They prayed and fasted and sang and traveled. They gathered weekly for the Eucharist. Sometimes they even went to dinner parties (see p. 16).

Today many Christians claim similarities between our own lives and the lives of those in the early church, and some argue that the West is in a post-Christian era resembling the pre-Christian Roman Empire. If we are to be persecuted, let us pray to meet it bravely when it comes. In the meantime let us pursue everyday faith like the early followers of the Way: let us pray and sing and fast and travel and love and teach and serve and steward and work and gather and worship. Like people. CH 

By Jennifer Woodruff Tait

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #147 in 2023]

Jennifer Woodruff Tait is managing editor of Christian History
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