Christians are strangers and sojourners in the world. This article paints four pictures to help the reader understand what it was like for the early church Christians to live as sojourners in this world while they suffered under persecution. The author then applies this to Christians living as pilgrims in today's world.

Source: Lux Mundi, 2013. 6 pages.

The Lesson of Four Mirrors Some thoughts about the spirituality of sojourning in the Early Church

We often hear it said that the way of the church in this postmodern era strongly reminds us of the situation of the early church within the pagan world of the Roman Empire. In many respects, this is so. Still, we ought not to forget that there is at least one important difference. When Christian churches came into being, Christian faith and life was new and foreign to the dominant cultural and religious climate of the time. Among the great variety of religious movements within the empire, Christians were a completely new and strange phenomenon. The rise of Christianity evoked strong reactions, ranging from contempt and resistance to curiosity and attraction.

In our postmodern culture, the situation is radically different. The Europe that was previously ‘Christian’ has become strongly secularised. In the minds of most people, the Christian faith does not present anything new or challenging any more. It is well and truly out of date, a dying flame that is best forgotten as quickly as possible. In any case, it does not have the slightest attraction for them anymore.

It is important to keep this firmly in mind when we attempt to mirror ourselves in the spirituality of the early church. After all, a mirror can give a sharp, perhaps confronting image; however, it can also have a distorting, even an alienating effect. When the church and the Christian faith of today observe themselves in mirrors of the early church, these effects will certainly be present.

Still, looking carefully into these mirrors for a while is a worth the effort. It can be quite instructive, both for correction and for encouragement. Whenever we consider the spirituality of the being strangers and sojourners1 within the context of the early church, we can discern four mirrors:

  • Forced sojourning
  • Attractive sojourning
  • Extreme sojourning
  • Ritual sojourning

Forced Sojourning🔗

It is fair to say that the testimony of Scripture compelled or at stimulated early Christians to live as sojourners in this world. Many passages in the Bible exhort believers to be ‘not of this world’, to go through this life as ‘strangers and sojourners’ (ESV). However, early Christians were also driven by force of circumstance into the isolation of being sojourners. Quite early, the citizens of the Roman Empire began to view Christians with unease and suspicion.

Describing the persecutions of Christians under emperor Nero, the well-known Roman historian Tacitus writes that Christians were accused of ‘hatred of mankind’. This imputation highlights the fact that Christians were radically different. Within the prevailing social, cultural and religious climate of the day, they occupied a position so exceptional that they were regarded as enemies of the state. This also was the chief reason why Christians suffered such severe persecution – to the point of being tortured and even executed – within the Roman Empire.

It must be said that during the first centuries, these persecutions were not always equally severe. There were lengthy periods when Christians were able to live in relative peace. In addition, the persecutions often varied in intensity from region to region: in some parts of the empire, Christians were generally left alone, while in others their lives were often in danger. The most severe persecutions, occurring across the breadth of the empire, took place around the middle of the third and at the beginning of the fourth centuries AD. During these times, literally thousands of Christians suffered torture and were put to death.

‘Hatred of Mankind’🔗

What were the chief causes of this hatred and persecution directed against Christians? I already referred to the most significant charge levelled at Christians: the charge of ‘hatred of mankind’. Prevailing opinion held that this hatred was evident in the withdrawal of Christians from important spheres of social, cultural and religious life. The New Testament already shows that Christians refused to take part in meals that included meat sacrificed to the idols. In addition, there were the numerous gladiatorial contests, sporting events and stage performances that were a completely indispensable part of public life. For Christians, the chief ground for their refusal to participate in these activities was the fact that they were all saturated with pagan idolatry. The philosopher Celsus, in a well-known and hostile treatise against Christians, wrote that they also failed to join in the defence of the empire when it was in danger of attack by barbarians. Christians refused to serve in the army, and were even hesitant to fill administrative roles. It is true that early Christians saw the filling of certain positions in government or the military as incompatible with their faith. That should not be surprising, since the highest official positions, and certainly military service, were very closely connected to the veneration of Roman state deities, and the Caesar cult.

Another important factor that led to the persecution of Christians was that they were generally regarded as ‘atheists’. In that time, ‘atheism’ was something different from what we presently understand it to be. Today, atheism is understood to be a conscious refusal to believe in the existence of a (personal) God. In the time of the early church, ‘atheism’ was especially applied to people who were unwilling to participate in the veneration of the deities that were locally worshipped, in the city-state, region or kingdom in which one lived. In extreme cases, people made a public display of their refusal. The local population generally perceived the presence of these ‘atheists’ as a great danger. After all, the security and wellbeing of the community depended on the protection and favour of the local and regional gods. Should these deities discover that there were people in their region who refused to worship them, they were likely to withdraw their protection and, in their wrath, send all kinds of disasters and calamities upon the community. If the gods were angry, peace and prosperity would vanish as snow in the sun, to be overtaken by social disturbances, earthquakes or war.


In this light, it is quite understandable that Roman emperors generally were quite tolerant of all kinds of religions, provided its adherents did not completely distance themselves from the Roman state deities, especially the divine protective spirit of the emperor. Those who refused to offer sacrifices to the gods of the state were, in fact, a threat to the peace and prosperity of the empire, and were regarded as enemies of the state. Hence, the accusation of ‘atheism’ had serious implications, and could easily inflame popular fury against Christians. The acerbic words of the church father Tertullian are well known:

If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightway the cry is, ‘The Christians to the lions!’

The final accusation levelled against Christians was that they were thought to be guilty of cannibalism and incest. This was connected with the fact that the Christian community appeared to be very closed to outsiders. This ‘secretiveness’ was deeply intriguing to non-Christians, and often brought with it extremely negative consequences. Many people supposed that Christians secretly practised the ritual killing and eating of small children (cannibalism) and all kinds of sexual perversions, including incest.

The exact background of these accusations is hard to track down. Most likely, however, they were the result of persistent and malicious rumour-mongering, which included the following. The dreadful accusation that Christians would ritually slaughter their children, dip bread in their blood and then eat it, can easily be explained as a (deliberate) distortion of the accounts that circulated about the celebration of the Holy Supper. The charges of indulging in a variety of sexual perversions, most notably incest, could be related to the fact that Christians called each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’, and greeted each other with ‘a holy kiss’. These Christian practices were then misunderstood and completely distorted in the public imagination. This whole complex of rumours was extremely widespread, and caused much harm to Christians. After all, in the Greco-Roman culture of the time, sexual promiscuity, incest and cannibalism were regarded as the most extreme manifestations of barbarism.

When we mirror ourselves in this complex of ideas, there are at least two things to be learned.

In the first place, it is clear that in this world Christians must expect to encounter contempt, disgrace, and (false) accusations. These experiences do not just happen by chance; they are part and parcel of what the church of Christ experiences through the ages.

Moreover, the early Christians show us that they were willing, for love of Christ, to bring great sacrifices, if necessary to give up their lives. This is consistent with the teaching of Scripture that the willingness to make sacrifices is one of the chief features of Christian love. Love demands that believers deny themselves the for sake of the Other, for the sake of others, for the sake of the Kingdom, and for the sake of one’s personal salvation. This motif confronts us with the question, so many centuries later, and in a self-centred and materialistic western culture: “What are we willing to give up for His sake?”

Attractive Sojourning🔗

During the first centuries of the church, the pressure of persecution made it increasingly difficult to proclaim the Gospel openly, as the books of Acts extensively recounts. Preaching in the synagogues, philosophers’ schools and marketplaces is gradually silenced, because the lives of the preachers are increasingly in danger. Nevertheless, the church continued to exert a strongly attractive influence during this period. How could this come about?

During this period, the Christian faith is propagated, not so much through overt evangelistic activity, and much less through a well-worked out strategy of missionary activities. Instead, Christianity gains in influence largely through personal interactions between Christians and those in their immediate surroundings, and through a way of living that for some leads to martyrdom.


To begin with, the household is often the place where people first hear the gospel, and where they might also come to faith. When the man of the house – the head of the family – becomes a Christian, the whole household generally is converted to the faith (see Acts 10:24ff, 10:44ff, 16:32ff). A believing wife, through her way of living, might become the means through which her husband is won for Christ (1 Corinthians 7:11ff; 1 Peter 3:1ff). Slaves, freedmen and family friends may, in this way, come to faith. Conversely, they might also become the means through which the Gospel comes into the household.

A second avenue might be conversations with neighbours, in the marketplace or in the bathhouse. In the works of the early church fathers there are numerous references to these personal contacts, and their contribution to the spread of the Gospel. Even Celsus, a fierce opponent of Christianity, mockingly observes:

We see how in private homes woolworkers, cobblers, fullers, in short the most uncivilized country bumpkins, dare not say or do anything in the presence of their elders and wiser masters. But whenever they get hold of children separately, along with foolish women as ignorant as themselves, they begin to spout the most astonishing things: ‘Do not heed your father or your teachers. Listen to us, instead! They are foolish and stupid. They have no knowledge of what is truly good, nor can they perform it, since their minds are occupied with the most senseless trifles. We alone know how men ought to live’, they say, and with more such nonsense they persuade them.

Of course, these words are inspired by an implacable hostility towards the Christian faith. Still, they show clearly how – in the eyes of their opponents – the Gospel is spread through personal contacts. Celsus even expresses the fear that in this manner the whole world might one day become Christian!

Thirdly, we ought not to forget that contacts of this kind also took place on a larger scale. It is well-known that all kinds of ‘new religions’ were propagated in a similar manner throughout the empire by travelling merchants, and by others whose circumstances made it easy to move from place to place (slaves, soldiers, etc.). This was also the manner in which the Christian faith spread from one regional centre to another.

Not just in words🔗

Finally, early Christians propagated their faith, not just in words, but especially in their deeds and way of living. We think of their love and acts of charity, demonstrated in their alms for the poor, support of widows and orphans, care for the sick, the weak and those unable to work, and their concern for slaves and prisoners. These acts of charity made Christians stand out as ‘strangers and sojourners’ in an increasingly hardening Roman society. At the same time, this charity was a significant element in their spirituality. Writing about the mutual love of Christians, and the response of pagans to it, Tertullian says:

But it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. ‘See’, they say, ‘how they love one another’, for themselves are animated by mutual hatred; ‘how they are ready even to die for one another’, for they themselves will sooner put to death.

This love becomes concretely visible in the diaconal care for those in need, or those less fortunate, within the church. The ‘least of the brothers and sisters’ (Matthew 25:40) are regularly visited, and often generously supported. Moreover, these acts of charity are not confined to those inside the congregation; they also extend to non-Christians, be it to a lesser extent. The rule of Scripture is clearly applied:

Let us do good to all men, but especially to those who belong to the family of believers.Galatians 6:10

This mirror, too, provides us at with at least two opportunities for reflection. To begin with, we must ask ourselves whether we use every possible opportunity to spread the Good News of the Gospel: in our families, in our recreational pursuits, among our friends and in our workplaces. Of course, it is an excellent thing to develop missionary strategies and establish missionary churches. However, if we think that this fulfils our missionary calling, then our activity is actually distinctly ‘un-missionary’. Besides, we should never underestimate the effect of ‘witness without words’. Of the early church it was said: ‘they are persecuted, and still they love.’ That exerted a powerful appeal. We could possibly say of the Reformed world today: ‘They are deeply divided, they don’t radiate love; hence they have lost all attractive influence’. For centuries, this mirror on the wall has asked: “Is this a fair comment?”

Extreme Sojourning🔗

In the course of the fourth century, a profound and pivotal change occurred in the church. Prior to 311AD, the Christian faith was an unacceptable religion – it deserved to be destroyed root and branch. From that year onward, Christianity became an ‘authorized’ religion within the Roman empire. Not long after that, it became a ‘favoured’ religion, and eventually it was proclaimed the state religion of the Roman Empire.

The role of emperor Constantine (c.290-337AD) was quite central to this development. As a result, from 311AD onwards, many joined the Christian Church ‘for a living’: being a Christian conferred social and economic advantage. In consequence, all kinds of pagan practices were often repackaged and ‘Christianized’. Consciously or unconsciously, the church quickly and thoroughly accommodated itself to prevailing Roman culture.

How did the leaders of the church and principled Christians respond to this development? An extreme reaction to this increasing worldliness was a radical withdrawal by hermits and early monks. There were already Christian hermits before the fourth century, but from Constantine’s time onward, they increased greatly in number. It was in this time that Anthony, the renowned Egyptian hermit, retreated into a life of solitude in the desert to devote himself to God. The church father Athanasius, none less, wrote an impressive and influential biography of this man.

Why would such people seek the solitude and isolation of the desert? There were several reasons. On the one hand, the desert was exalted as a pristine place, far from the corruption of city life. It was a place where one was not exposed to the numerous temptations that came through interpersonal relationships; in unspoiled nature, one could live closer to God.

There was, however, another side to this. The wilderness was regarded as an abode of demons, inhabited by dangerous wildlife: snakes, hyenas, jackals and the like. In the writings of the hermits, such creatures were often associated with the devil. This literature highlighted the great struggle with the Evil One and his demons that hermits must undertake in the wilderness, before they could enter into the paradisiacal rest of union with God.

In other words: the hermetic life was seen as one of complete devotion to God, including a radical turning away from this world and a life-and-death battle against evil powers around and within us.

Pillar saints🔗

We encounter the most extreme – and bizarre – forms of hermetic life in the stylites, or pillar saints, in Syria during the fourth and fifth centuries AD. Along the pilgrims’ way to Aleppo there stood a number of pillars, each of which was topped by a platform of just a few square meters. Hermits such as Simeon Stylites spent 37 or more years atop such pillars, day and night. They ate very little, in some cases just one meagre meal a week. In order to prevent the temptations that the sight of women might bring, the pillar stood in a fenced enclosure, to which only men were admitted. Women must remain outside the gate, and any requests they might have were passed on by men. This period saw the rise of a kind of ‘pillar-saint-tourism’: great crowds of pilgrims travelled from hermit to hermit, to gain answers to their questions and to receive their blessings

As we look into this mirror, a feeling of estrangement creeps up on us: this was not what the New Testament meant when it described the believers’ sojourning. We could never withdraw from the world in this way. On the other hand, we are inescapably confronted with the question: “What does it mean, then, to be ‘in this world, but not of this world’, or: ‘do not be conformed to this world’ (Romans 12:2)?” In addition, the question forces itself upon us: “How can we, in a world filled with visual and verbal tumult, find a place of silence to draw near to God (Matthew 6:6)?”

Ritual Sojourning🔗

When, beginning with Constantine’s reign, the church becomes more and more worldly, another reaction manifests itself: it becomes increasingly difficult to join the church. Stricter demands are imposed upon catechumens, those who desire to prepare for baptism, and be received into the church.

Cyril of Jerusalem (c.313-386), a prominent writer of his time, describes the process as follows: as a rule, those who wish to be baptized must first undergo an extensive period of catechesis. Once this instruction is complete, they formally present their request for baptism at the beginning of Lent. At this point, they subject themselves to a searching examination concerning the motives for their request. This is followed by an intensive course of daily catechesis, in which the Creed is expounded. Halfway through this course, there is a solemn ceremony, during which the full text of the Creed is recited and impressed upon them – before this moment, they still do not know its literal text. On the night of Easter, the catechumens are baptised, and required to give explicit assent to the Creed: in effect, public profession of faith. In the week after Easter, further intensive catechesis follows. This time, attention is paid to the Lord’s Prayer, with the intention that this will prepare the newly baptised member for their first celebration of the Holy Supper. This takes place on the first Sunday after Easter.


A few things stand out for us when we consider this process. First, we learn that matters such as profession of faith, baptism and the Holy Supper are regarded as ‘mysteries’. They are not simply accessible to all and sundry. This emphasizes that ‘what is holy’ should not be ‘thrown to the dogs’ (Matthew 7:6). A powerful confirmation of this principle is found in the fact that guests and those not yet baptized were not allowed to be present as the Holy Supper was celebrated. They were required to leave the worship service before this took place. Second, it becomes clear that admission to membership of the church is not a mere formality, a matter of course. It requires sound instruction in doctrine and in the practice of a sanctified life. It is important that those admitted freely and sincerely submit themselves to the demands and the promises of the Word of God.

When we look into this mirror, there may be ‘condensation’ that could somewhat blur its reflection for us. In any case, we ought not to think that in the early church catechesis was intended to discourage people from joining the congregation. On the contrary, everyone was welcome, for the grace of Christ is offered freely to every sinner. At the same time, it emphasized that joining the church required a real commitment. Here, the mirror becomes crystal clear. Should we ever begin to weaken the ongoing need for catechesis, and the need for an unequivocal confession to remain faithful to the Word, the doctrine of the church, and the fellowship of the congregation, then we begin to distance ourselves from the church of our fathers.

We can put it more strongly: we would distance ourselves from the Word of the living God, and associate ourselves with the strange ideas of postmodern wanderers and seekers.

In this connection, we are faced with an urgent question: We often plead for worship services that are accessible and have a low threshold for outsiders. From a missionary perspective, this plea is understandable and in many ways justified. At the same time, we should also ask: “To what extent does the church still stand guard for the mysteries of God and His Word, as pure and reliable spiritual food for believers?” It is conceivable that we might, in misplaced missionary fervour, downgrade what is holy and accommodate ourselves entirely to the needs and feelings of postmodern humanity. It seems to me that these mirrors of the sojourning of the early church might well teach us a thing or two.

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