In a recent piece at the “Huffington Post” historian Douglas Boin challenges a popular narrative describing the early years of Christianity.

According to this familiar account the story goes that Christianity started as a tiny persecuted religious sect on the fringes of the Roman Empire. After two hundred years as social outcasts suffering and dying for their faith, Christians from outside the dominant culture of their day were able to convert large parts of the Roman Empire to faith in Christ. The assumption at the centre of this story, Boin explains is that

In ancient Rome, once you were touched by a Christian, you turned into a Christian.

But Boin argues, much social change occurs, not as a result of “conversion” but through “conversation.” And, remarkably he contends

that’s what new research has showed about the history of the Christian church. 

Christians were not the marginalized outcasts from society they are so often pictured as having been in the ancient world. In fact, Boin argues,

Christians went to the race track, where Rome’s gods were honored. They went to the baths, where the gods were honored, too. They even participated in civic sacrifices, the very thing hordes of modern scholars continue to insist “the Christians” did not do, blinded by their own religious biases (or their bigotry). Yet the picture is clear: many of Jesus’ followers lived hyphenated lives.

Not all Christians were social pariahs and died as martyrs. There were Christians in antiquity who lived quietly and respectfully within the bounds of the dominant non-Christian culture.

By the mid third century A.D., even two bishops in Spain took part in a local celebration–exactly the sort of festivity the “martyrs” shunned. We know because the two men earned the wrath of another bishop, in North Africa, who tried to convince his listeners that such a despicable act of identity juggling “had been predicted to happen at the end of the world!”

Of course, the Roman Empire never came to an end just because some Christians had learned to do two things at once. Just the opposite, in fact. Within two generations, all of Jesus’ followers would win the right to worship as they pleased.

So, Boin concludes,

Maybe there really is no mystery to how or why Christians triumphed in Rome. By virtue of their creative ability to do two things at once, many of them had showed their friends and family to see Christianity in a less threatening light.

It is an appealing vision. Perhaps Christians are more effective agents of social change when they stay quietly within the dominant culture living effective loving lives, rather than standing on the outside and hurling invective at the evils of society outside the Christian community. If “conversation” rather than “conversion” is the way cultures change, we must be in relationship with those cultural structures we might hope to see change. Conversation requires connection.

It may be that the true social revolutionaries are those who continue to work with faithfulness, authenticity, compassion, and wisdom within the established institutions of our day, rather than those who attempt to preserve their purity by withdrawing from mainstream social life and lobbing insults over the wall at the depraved culture they have forsaken. Possibly the truly transforming thing Christians might do is to find the light and life in the dominant culture of the world offering respect and cooperation where we are able in order to remain in conversation even with people with whom we may disagree.