Believers in an Unbelieving World

How the Early Church Engaged Society

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Professor, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Standing before the Roman proconsul, Polycarp knew the end was near. The skilled Roman official methodically questioned him and repeatedly demanded that Polycarp worship a pagan image. Each time he refused. The bloodthirsty crowd filling the amphitheater jeered the Christian bishop. Changing tactics, the proconsul encouraged Polycarp to persuade the people. Polycarp felt no compulsion to defend himself before such a hostile crowd. To the proconsul, however, Polycarp responded differently. “We have been taught,” he said (alluding to Romans 13:1), “to pay proper respect to rulers and authorities appointed by God, as long as it does us no harm.”1 While Polycarp held fast to his convictions, the words of the apostle compelled him to respect those in political authority.

This episode, recounted in the early Christian text The Martyrdom of Polycarp, captures the dramatic social pressures the early church endured. In some ways, the episode also reminds us of some of the pressures Christians face today. In his work The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl Trueman diagnoses the ills that afflict our society, and observes the resonances between the ancient and postmodern worlds. “The second­-century world is, in a sense, our world,” he writes.2 In spite of all our seeming progress, are we returning to the days when pagans wielded social and political power against the church?

Wisdom from the Fathers

If our modern world resembles the ancient one, perhaps we could glean some wisdom from the ways the early church navigated these murky waters. As Polycarp testifies, the Scriptures were essential to the early Christian apologetic. Passages such as Romans 13:1 and Matthew 22:21, alongside the examples of Old Testament figures such as Joseph and Daniel, guided the church’s vision for engaging the unbelieving world.

Of all the texts used by these early Christians, 1 Peter 2:16–17 clusters key themes of their public and political theologies. “Live as people who are free,” Peter writes, “not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” Peter knew the faithful were suffering under the weight of societal pressures, but he still admonishes them to “live as people who are free.” While freedom certainly entails release from bondage to sin and death, it also means freedom from the fear of any social or political power. There is no sense of retreat or capitulation in Peter’s words. He expects that the church will embed itself in the fabric of its social context and live freely “as servants of God.”

“Cultural engagement begins with the fear of God.”

The joy of living freely, Peter continues, is found in a fourfold sense of Christian obedience: fear God, honor the emperor, love the church, honor all people. In four short phrases, Peter compresses a vision for engaging society that reverberates through the writings of the early church as they navigated a pagan world.


As an aspect of Christian wisdom, cultural engagement begins with the fear of God.3 I take this as a general phrase describing a firm conviction in the nature and work of God and the wisdom of God required for Christian living (see Proverbs 1:7; 9:10; Psalm 111:10). The early Christians formulated these convictions in a doctrinal summary, often called the “rule of faith,” that they confessed at baptism. Once they emerged from the baptismal waters, the rule of faith described the theological framework that guided their spiritual lives.

Irenaeus of Lyons, for example, begins his summary of the rule by saying, “God, the Father, not made, not material, invisible; one God, the Creator of all things: this is the first point of our faith.”4 The second and third points confess Christ and the Holy Spirit, a developed Trinitarian vision of God. This doctrinal summary informed every feature of their doctrine and practice, and fortified a theological and moral dividing line from the inherited cultural ideologies.

This means that the first step of Christian engagement is discipleship. The church’s necessary focus is on training members, helping them to cultivate a sincere commitment to Christ and Christian doctrine. Only when they deeply imbibed the church’s faith could early Christians defend against intellectual challenges, endure social pressures, and even face martyrdom. Eventually their commitment to the teachings of the Scriptures prevailed. The early church succeeded, first and foremost, because the “central doctrines of Christianity prompted and sustained attractive, liberating, and effective social relations and organizations.”5


While the fear of the Lord was the first step, the early church affirmed the proper place of political power. Just as Peter encourages the faithful to “honor the emperor,” the early church respected those in political authority, even when they oppressed the church (see Romans 13:1–7; Proverbs 24:21).

Early Christian theologians well knew that political power was meant to curb sin and establish order, even though it could be abused. Alluding to Romans 13:4–6 and related passages, Irenaeus observes that “earthly rule” has been “appointed by God for the benefit of nations, and not by the devil, who is never at rest at all, nay, who does not love to see even nations conducting themselves after a quiet manner.”6 Not all civil leaders are virtuous and, in the Lord’s providence, people experience different types of political governance. Some rulers “are given for the correction and the benefit of their subjects, and for the preservation of justice; but others, for the purposes of fear and punishment and rebuke.”7

Based on the doctrine of divine providence and transcendence, Tertullian made the bold claim that the emperor “is more ours than yours [the pagans], for our God has appointed him.”8 He also claimed that Christians pray for political stability, saying, “For all our emperors we offer prayer. We pray for life prolonged; for security to the empire; for protection to the imperial house; for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest.”9 Though not afraid to criticize the emperor (or any other political figure) for neglecting his duties, Christians respected the place of civil authority.


Not only did early Christians fear God and honor the emperor, but they also loved the church (Romans 12:10; Hebrews 13:1). Christians in the ancient world, as today, recognized that laws and political structures cannot make people truly virtuous; that remains the work of the Spirit in the church. Political structures can help facilitate that work and provide environments that promote virtuous living. But politics will not save us or make us holy.

“Laws and political structures cannot make people virtuous; that remains the work of the Spirit in the church.”

While the church — either in the ancient world or today — is not perfect, early Christians argued that “what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world.”10 Even though the people of God are persecuted, ironically the Christians “hold the world together.”11 The early Christian community did not see the church as just another voluntary organization or social gathering but as the locus of God’s redemptive activity. From their vantage point, God is at work in the church, and the nations enjoy the blessings. The Christians, the early apologist Aristides writes,

love one another, and from widows they do not turn away their esteem; and they deliver the orphan from him who treats him harshly. And he, who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him in to their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother.12

The love among the church is a living testimony of the potential for human flourishing found in the gospel.


Finally, while the early church feared God, honored the emperor, and loved the church, they also recognized that Scripture called them to honor all people (Romans 13:7; 1 Peter 2:17). Christians “are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe,” writes the author of the Epistle of Diognetus.13 Instead, “following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.”14 Early Christians affirmed that all people are created in the image of God and worthy of respect, regardless of social standing. “We are the same to emperors as to our ordinary neighbors,” Tertullian writes.15

The early church pursued holiness and modesty, and in so doing hoped to persuade some. Justin Martyr, reflecting on the way the gospel transformed lives, writes that Christians “pray for our enemies, and endeavor to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live conformably to the good precepts of Christ, to the end that they may become partakers with us of the same joyful hope of a reward from God the ruler of all.”16 Now with renewed vigor and resourcefulness, we need people of faith living with this kind of vision for society: the living testimony of a faithful, virtuous, loving community that honors all people.

We Have Been Here Before

We could say much more about the wisdom of the early Christian approach to living in an unbelieving world. The words of 1 Peter 2:17 and the example of the early church provide a helpful framework to begin thinking through this complex topic. In one sense, the example of the early church may be comforting. We have been here before. The church has survived and even thrived in times like these.

But then again, these days are different. Modern paganism (in the words of T.S. Eliot) is still intermingled with the vestiges of a Christian past. Our social and religious institutions, organizations, and traditions are in transition, tangled in the messiness of losing the Christian mores that informed them. By looking to the early church, we see a vison that resonates with Peter’s exhortation. It begins with fearing God, honoring the emperor, loving the church, and honoring all people. Like Polycarp before the proconsul and the jeering crowd, it won’t convince everyone. Nevertheless, like Polycarp, we walk in faith, and live as people who are free.

  1. The Martyrdom of Polycarp 10. All translations of the Apostolic Fathers are from Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007). 

  2. Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 406. 

  3. While 1 Peter 2:17 follows the order “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor,” I arranged my commentary to follow the order of the spiritual life, beginning with the fear of God. Augustine does something similar with Isaiah 11:2–3 in On Christian Doctrine 2.7.9–11. 

  4. Irenaeus, The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, trans. John Behr (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press), 6. 

  5. Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 211. 

  6. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.24.2 (ANF 1:552). 

  7. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.24.3 (ANF 1:552). 

  8. Tertullian, Apology 33 (ANF 3:43). 

  9. Tertullian, Apology 30 (ANF 3:42). 

  10. Epistle of Diognetus 6. 

  11. Epistle of Diognetus 6. 

  12. Aristides, The Apology of Aristides the Philosopher 15 (ANF 9:277). 

  13. Epistle of Diognetus 5. 

  14. Epistle of Diognetus 5. 

  15. Tertullian, Apology 36 (ANF 3:45). 

  16. Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 14 (ANF 1:167). 

serves as the Senior Fellow for Religion and Public Life at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy and Associate Professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His book Cultural Sanctification: Engaging the World Like the Early Church (Eerdmans) is scheduled to be published in March 2024.