Paganism as a word comes from a Latin term which roughly translates to redneck. It was a way for the city folk to sound superior to the great unwashed out in the country. The history of how it became known as a way to describe those men and women who believe not in the God of the Bible is a little convoluted. However, it will be worth our time to learn a bit of it as it teaches us much about the worth of continuing to use it for our purposes today.
Early Christianity was a faith which began to spread first in the cities of the Mediterranean, as told to us in the Book of Acts. The main reason was because that is where the synagogues were. As Paul notes the gospel was for the Jews first, and then the Greeks. As the community of faith grew it was largely confined in the population centers as the folks out in the hollers surrounding Ephesus held on to the old ways. Partly that came from the fact for many there was such a tight connection between Jupiter and Mars and their identity as Romans. To attack the strong gods was to delegitimize the patriotic spirit of the nation. The cult was the culture. Ties to the past matter, at least they should matter. In our talk on the eighth commandment last Thursday there was commentary on the warning given in Proverbs 22:28 about the removing of ancient landmarks. Our fathers placed monuments to help their grandchildren to remember the hard-fought victories of the past and to honor the sacrifices of those who came before.
For a “new” religion to come and try and overthrow what these people had received as an inheritance was no small ask. It is central to why care and consideration, to listen, to what the unbeliever has to say is important in the work of evangelism. To make pagans into Christians is desiring not just that a person would go from one belief system to another, but to move them to abandon everything which made them who they were before. Those of us born into the faith can sometimes underestimate the totality of what Jesus asks in Luke 9:62. Even for the Jews of the first century that meant giving up the ceremonies of which they had grown accustomed, yet they had an advantage on the pagans in that they were keeping the same God. The first commandment is complete in its ask. The reason why this is important to understanding the word pagan is that when we use it, we are not attempting to belittle or be rude in any way. It is a helpful way to honor that as those who rest in body and soul we are bringing to bare not a competing way of thinking, but an entirely different world and life view. As someone who would have been a pagan in the days of Irenaeus there is a personal desire on my end to in a sense stand up for those who may be looked at as outside the normal bounds of safe society.