To whom do we give our loyalty? The early Christians teach us that the choice changes everything.

Most of the writings that survive from the first three centuries of Christianity are what one twentieth-century scholar of religion called “death-cell philosophy”; that is, they represent the kind of thinking that is done under extreme pressure, when what you say or think has a genuine life-or-death importance. Gregory Dix, an Anglican monk writing eighty or so years ago about the worship of the early church, imagined what it would be like to attend the Lord’s Supper in second-century Rome by recreating the experience in terms of twentieth-century London. He takes the descriptions of worship from texts like the so-called “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” the Didache, probably the most ancient account of worship outside the New Testament, and the Apostolic Tradition from the third century, and translates them into the landscape of modern England. A grocer from the unfashionable suburbs slips through the back door of a wealthy brother’s house in Kensington at the crack of dawn to share in the breaking of bread in the drawing room – a brief, quiet event, overshadowed by the knowledge that if they would be discovered they would face at least penal servitude for life, and very likely worse. Any Christian in this period knew that, even if things were relatively peaceful, it was always possible that a suspicious government would crack down. Dix describes how the “deacons,” the ministers who looked after the doors, were charged with scrutinizing everyone who came in very carefully; you’d need to know who your companions were if your life depended on them.

The suspicions were well founded in one sense. If you look at the eyewitness accounts of martyrdom in these early centuries – ­documents like the wonderful record of the martyrs of Scilli in North Africa in AD 180 – you can see what the real issue was. These Christians, most of them probably domestic slaves, had to explain to the magistrate that they were quite happy to pray for the imperial state, and even to pay taxes, but that they could not grant the state their absolute allegiance. They had another loyalty – which did not mean that they wished to overthrow the administration, but that they would not comply with the state’s demands in certain respects. They would not worship the emperor, and, as we know from some other texts, refused to serve in the Roman army. They asked from the state what had been very reluctantly conceded to the Jews as an ethnic group – exemption from the religious requirements of the empire. What made their demand new and shocking was that it was not made on the basis of ethnic identity, but on the bare fact of conviction and conscience. For the first time in human history, individuals claimed the liberty to define the limits of their political loyalty, and to test that loyalty by spiritual and ethical standards.

To speak of Jesus as “Lord of Lords” was to say that his decisions could not be overridden by anyone.That is why the early Christian movement was so threatening – and so simply baffling – to the Roman authorities. It was not revolutionary in the sense that it was trying to change the government. Its challenge was more serious: it was the claim to hold any and every government to account, to test its integrity, and to give and withhold compliance accordingly. But it would be wrong to think of this, as we are tempted to do in our era, in terms of individual conscience. It was about the right of a community to set its own standards and to form its members in the light of what had been given to them by an authority higher than the empire. The early Christians believed that if Jesus of Nazareth was “Lord,” no one else could be lord over him, and therefore no one could overrule his authority. We use the word “Lord” these days mostly in a rather unthinking religious context, as a sort of devotional flourish; for a Roman, it meant the person who made the decisions you had to abide by, from the master of a slave in the household to the emperor himself. To speak of Jesus as “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” was to say that his decisions could not be overridden by anyone. You might have to disobey a “lord” in our society in order to obey the one true Master of all – the one who used no violence in enforcing his decisions but was all the more unanswerable an authority because of that. He alone needed no reinforcement, no temporal power, to overcome external threats or rivals.