People of the Way
Monday, January 21, 2019
Church historian Diana Butler Bass has brought new light to forgotten or misconstrued elements of Christianity. Today I share some of her research on what early Christians thought it meant to follow Jesus:
Throughout the first five centuries people understood Christianity primarily as a way of life in the present, not as a doctrinal system, esoteric belief, or promise of eternal salvation. By followers enacting Jesus’s teachings, Christianity changed and improved the lives of its adherents and served as a practical spiritual pathway. This way—and earliest Christians were called “the people of the Way”—bettered existence for countless ancient believers. . . .
Christian defenders, such as Justin Martyr (ca. 100–ca. 165), used the example of Christian practice to make the case that Jesus’s way “mended lives”:
We who formerly . . . valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies . . . . 
To Justin, the old ways had passed; a new way opened in Jesus. Far from being divisive, Christianity was an inclusive faith that might bring diverse peoples together. However one interpreted the effects of the new faith, both enemies and defenders of Christianity understood that the new religion transformed people, giving even women, peasants, and slaves a meaningful ability to reorder their lives.
The way was based on Jesus’s teaching recorded in Mark 12:28-34. An unnamed questioner asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” and Jesus responded with what is now called the Great Command: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Loving God and neighbor was, according to Jesus, the way of the Kingdom of God and the path of salvation. In the account of this teaching in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus adds, “do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:28). . . .
Jesus’s followers took these words seriously. In many cases, and unlike contemporary practice, the process of becoming a Christian took several years, an extended time of teaching spiritual inquirers the way on which they were embarking. Christianity was considered a deliberate choice with serious consequences, a process of spiritual formation and discipline that took time, a way of life that had to be learned in community. . . .
In many quarters Christian communities are once again embracing the ancient insight that the faith is a spiritual pathway, a life built on transformative practices of love rather than doctrinal belief.
 Justin Martyr, First Apology, chapter 14, as quoted in Rowan Greer, Broken Lights and Mended Lives: Theology and Common Life in the Early Church (Pennsylvania State University Press: 1986), 13.
Diana Butler Bass, A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story (HarperCollins: 2009), 27-30.