Once, in college, I attended an inter-denominational Christian event. Students were asked to introduce themselves and the church tradition they represented. One girl laughed and said, “I’m a Christian,” and left it at that. (She was probably a 4.) This left an impression on me, as parsing the nuances between traditions had become something of a hobby of mine. But the simplicity of that remark is easily lost in today’s clashing world where there are political Christians, evangelical Christians, Sundays-only Christians, and “grace-based” Christians. So I was grateful for the following section of Tom Holland’s Dominion, which contextualizes the way that, in its earliest form, Christianity dissolved the distinctions everyone else thought so important. This excerpt comes from Chapter 4, “Belief.”

‘I AM A CHRISTIAN.’ So a prisoner from Vienne arrested in 177 had replied to every question put to him by his interrogators. Rather than tell them his name, or where he had been born, or whether he were slave or free, he had instead repeatedly insisted that he had no status save that of a follower of Christ. Such obduracy, to his judges, was baffling as well as infuriating. The refusal of Christians to identify themselves as belonging to one of the familiar peoples of the earth—the Romans, or the Greeks, or the Jews—branded them as rootless, just as bandits and runaways were. Their delight in posing as aliens, as transients, made a boast out of what should properly have been a cause of shame. ‘To them, a homeland is a foreign country, and a foreign country is a homeland.’ And yet, for all that, Christians did believe they belonged to a common ethnos: a people. The bonds of their shared identity spanned the world, and reached back across generations. When the martyrs of Lyon and Vienne embraced death for the sake of their Lord, they knew themselves bound in fellowship with others who had suffered a similar fate: in Jerusalem, in Asia Minor, in Rome. They knew themselves as well to stand in a line of descent from those martyrs who had gone before them: Polycarp, and Ignatius, and Paul. They knew their citizenship to be that of heaven.

The feat of Irenaeus, labouring in the wake of their deaths, was to give substance and solidity to these convictions. Already, within his own lifetime, his achievements and those of Christians who thought like him were becoming apparent even to hostile observers. They led an organisation that, in its scale and scope, was not merely one among a crowd of churches, but something altogether more imposing: the ‘Great Church.’ Never before had there been anything quite like it: a citizenship that was owed not to birth, nor to descent, nor to legal prescriptions, but to belief alone. (116-117)