Christianity Has Always Been the Third Way

It was known as the “Third Way.”

The phrase comes from the early Christian period. To my knowledge it first appeared in a second-century letter written to a Roman official, a certain Diognetus.

The author—we don’t know his name or identity—wanted to describe the peculiar nature of Christianity to a member of the Roman elite. He commended Diognetus’s curiosity and assured him that he would do his best to answer his questions about Christianity. He then referred to the Christian movement as a “new race” or “third race,” which I have chosen to identify as the Third Way.

The Greek word the author uses—genos—Is difficult to translate. It could be rendered “race,” “tribe,” “clan,” “stock,” “family,” “life,” or even “people.” It implied a deep kinship connection, a sense of belonging to a people and, as a people, living in a distinct way, which Diognetus and other Roman officials had observed to be true of Christians. The Christian movement was forming a new community of people who claimed to believe in a new kind of God and to follow a new way of life.

I have chosen to use “Third Way” for two reasons: first, because it strikes me as less charged than “race” or “clan” or “tribe”; and second, because early on, Christians were known as followers of “the way.” This translation fits well enough, but only if we understand it as conveying a larger meaning than merely following a new and trendy way of life that is here today and gone tomorrow. The early Christian movement was anything but that.

Diognetus was familiar with the phrase, implying that it might have been coined by the Romans themselves to categorize three distinct and different religious ways of life: Roman, Jewish, and Christian. The author warned Diognetus that he was going to be surprised by what he learned. He exhorted him to clear out his old thoughts about religion. “You must become like a new man from the beginning, since, as you yourself admit, you are going to listen to a really new message.”

THE FIRST WAY

Of course a third way implies a first and second way. The first, as Diognetus would have known, was the Roman way, which organized life around Greco-Roman civil religion and was the most ubiquitous and popular of the three.

Civic life and religious life were virtually inseparable in the Roman world. Public officials were responsible for managing the religious affairs of a community, including maintenance of temples and performance of various rituals. People worshiped and sacrificed to the gods; they visited temples, shrines, and monuments; they participated in pagan feasts and festivals; they kept and cared for household deities at the family altar; they experimented with and sometimes joined mystery cults. Above all, they swore allegiance to the emperor as a god. They observed these and other rituals largely to secure Rome’s prosperity, and their own as well.

Rome’s religious system was largely transactional. Romans honored the gods and goddesses, and they expected those gods and goddesses to respond in kind. Their religion was based on ritual observance more than doctrinal belief and ethical behavior. Worship was supposed to bring benefits, especially to the empire. Rome was tolerant, pluralistic, and syncretistic. It exhibited an amazing capacity to absorb new religions into its pantheon, assuming that adherents, whatever they believed and however they lived, would be subservient to Rome and swear allegiance to the divine status of the emperor. It had the most trouble with the religions that demanded exclusive commitment to one God and to one way of life. Most religions of this kind, especially Christianity, were considered by definition anti-Roman.

In the end, Rome’s religion was Rome itself.

THE SECOND WAY

The second was the Jewish way. Rome respected Judaism because the religion was ancient and enduring. Jews had survived opposition for over a thousand years and, in spite of that opposition, had spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. Rome even showed favor to the Jews. For example, Roman authorities did not require Jews to venerate the gods (say, through sacrificial offerings in local temples) or to serve in the military, and Romans viewed and used at least some local synagogues as civic centers, which implies that Judaism served the larger Roman public, however modestly. Jews were far more integrated into Roman society than it might at first appear.

Still, there were reasons why Judaism was known as the second way, distinct from the first way. Jews worshiped one God, Yahweh, to whom they were exclusively devoted; followed a rigorous set of ethical and religious practices; and refused to participate in pagan rituals and festivals. They observed a way of life that set them culturally apart. The Jewish rite of circumcision kept Romans who were attracted to Judaism from wholesale conversion. Jewish kosher laws required that Jews shop in their own stores, their dress codes made them noticeable, and their commitment to marry only fellow Jews prevented them from assimilating into Roman culture.

Such relative cultural isolation made it easy for Roman officials to identify Jews, thereby diminishing the threat or, short of that, allowing Romans to keep an eye on them, as sports enthusiasts might when eyeing fans wearing the jersey of a rival team.

However respected by the Romans and integrated into the larger Roman society, Jews were different enough to be classified as the second way.

THE THIRD WAY

And then there was Christianity, the Third Way. Christians appeared to live like everyone else. They spoke the local language, lived in local neighborhoods, wore local styles of clothing, ate local food, shopped in local markets, and followed local customs. “For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or custom. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life.” At a surface level Christians appeared to blend in to Roman society quite seamlessly.

Yet they were different, too, embodying not simply a different religion but a different—and new—way of life. “They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.” They functioned as if they were a nation within a nation, culturally assimilated yet distinct at the same time. “Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth.”

They constituted a new race of people—hence the Third Way. Rome could not so easily monitor and control this group.

What made Christians different? What was this Third Way?

Christians believed in the reality of another and greater kingdom over which God ruled. It was a spiritual kingdom—not of this world, but certainly over this world as superior and supreme, for this world’s redemption, and in this world as a force for ultimate and eternal good.

Far from being “resident aliens,” Christians thus viewed themselves as “alien residents,” members of the true and universal commonwealth, but still living within the Roman commonwealth. They believed that God’s kingdom, though transcendent over all, impinged on this world and would someday subsume it, as the rising sun overwhelms the light of moon and stars.

Early Christians confessed that this kingdom was concealed, seen only through the eyes of faith, though that faith was both informed and formed by God’s involvement in human history, a history that culminated in the coming of Jesus. But what was concealed would someday be gloriously revealed, and God would rule in mercy and justice over the entire created order.

The Third Way was like a resistance movement, both subversive and peaceful, bearing witness to God’s coming kingdom. But rather than following a strategy of violent revolution, as, say, the zealots did, Christians immersed themselves in the culture as agents of the kingdom. Christians aspired to follow another way, Jesus’ way. They prayed for the emperor but refused to worship him.


Content taken from Resilient Faith by Gerald L. Sittser ©2019. Used by permission of Baker Publishing www.bakerpublishinggroup.com.

Gerald L. Sittser (PhD, University of Chicago) is the bestselling author of Water from a Deep Well, A Grace Disguised, and The Will of God as a Way of Life. He is professor of theology at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, where he also serves as senior fellow and researcher in the Office of Church Engagement. He specializes in the history of Christianity, Christian spirituality, and religion in American public life. Sittser has written for numerous publications, including Christianity Today, and has spoken at numerous churches, conferences, retreats, and colleges.