In the first two hundred years after the death of the Lord Jesus, the nascent Church he left behind faced many obstacles in its attempts to spread the news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They were small in number and scattered across a vast empire. The majority of early believers were poor and had little training or education. Most of the early Christians were amateurs, theologically speaking.
In the first two centuries following the life of Christ, pluralism was the dominant worldview in the Roman Empire, which was increasingly showing evidence of decadence, cruelty, and greed. There was also growing cynicism throughout the empire toward any gods to whom men and women were accountable. The satires of Juvenal highlight this, in which the writer speaks of a priest who was contemptuous of the Roman religion. Wherever we live in the world today, our experience resonates with this catalogue of difficulties, so we should be both encouraged to know that the early Church grew in such a situation, and eager to learn how it was that a small, disorganised band of believers grew into a significant body of people who were following Jesus by the time of the Emperor Constantine in the mid-fourth century.
In more than thirty years of student ministry, I have found two books particularly helpful in understanding how the early Church grew: Evangelism in the Early Church by the Anglican evangelist Michael Green1 and The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark2. Together, these books give complementary insights into the reasons for the growth of the Church in the first three centuries, with all its implications for how we engage in taking the gospel of Christ to a lost world in the twenty-first century.
So How and Why Did the Early Church Grow?
Green argues that the early evangelists had several distinct, if not unique, advantages, which made for a more ready dissemination of the gospel message. Several divine providences had prepared the world for the advent of Christianity. First and foremost was the Pax Romana. The spread of Christianity would have been inconceivable at such a rate had Jesus been born half a century earlier, as the Roman Empire during Jesus’ time entered a time of peace unparalleled in history. One hundred years of civil wars had followed the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC; however, under Caesar Augustus (otherwise known as Octavius), a period of extensive peace was ushered in.
In addition, in this time of peace the development of the road system went on apace. One oft-quoted inscription found in Hierapolis in Asia Minor on the tomb of a merchant records that he travelled to Rome no less than seventy-two times. He needed no passport anywhere in the Empire.
The use of the Greek language also made a signal contribution to the spread of Christianity. It was spoken from the Black Sea to the Bay of Biscay. This obviously made communication much easier across ethnic and tribal divides.
All these have echoes in our own situation today, with the development of global technology, the widespread use of the English language, widespread travel, and the migration of peoples—all of which contribute to the expansion of the gospel in our own time.
In addition to these favourable providences, Green and Stark highlight three factors which particularly contributed to the ready expansion of the gospel, which may have implications for us today.
The Nature of the Messengers and the Message They Proclaimed
The early evangelists and gossipers of the gospel were thrilled with this new message. They lived at a time when the Greek sophists had as great a power over the common people as the Reformation preachers had in their time. Their ridicule of the gods must in no small degree have prepared the way for the Christian message. It has been well said of the Greeks that it was not that men became so depraved that they abandoned their gods, but rather that the gods became so depraved that they were abandoned by men.
In this context, the early preachers found a message that promised to deal with guilt. Greek thought had deeply impressed upon it the truth that wrongdoing must be punished. Writers like Virgil and Seneca evidence a real sense of sin.
In addition, the quest for security was even greater than the search for cleansing. The world was a dangerous place, as we can read in the Epistles of Paul to the Romans, Galatians, and Colossians, or any of the apologists, to see how gripped people were by fear of spiritual forces which influenced their lives. The new Christian message also offered immortality, a hunger of the human heart, to which the state religion had nothing to say, and which refused to be silenced.
In addition to the fertile ground for reaching pagans, the Christian faith found acceptance most readily on Jewish soil. The spread of the Jews, their monotheism, their ethical standards, their synagogues, and their scriptures were major factors in the advancement of the Christian faith.
Flexibility in the Proclamation of the Gospel
This led to evidence of flexibility in the proclamation of the gospel. In Acts 2, for example, we see how Peter quoted extensively from the Old Testament in his attempt to portray Christ as the Messiah. In Acts 17 at Mars Hill, however, Paul—knowing as he did that the pagans knew little of the Old Testament—did not quote directly from the Old Testament at all. Instead, he quoted two of their own poets—Eratus and Epimenides. This had echoes in Calvin’s argument, “I take honey even if I find it in the lion’s mouth.”
The early preachers saw nothing wrong in quoting contemporary thinkers and using the perspectives of these thinkers to create an opportunity for the proclamation of the gospel, in order to answer the needs of their contemporary hearers.
Methodologically, they also demonstrated great flexibility. The main approaches they used included: the public proclamation of the gospel; the use of the home or small group; the role of a reasoned defence, or apologia, of the Christian message; working in teams; and living godly and prayerful lives. In their preaching, they aimed to satisfy the mind, prick the conscience, challenge the will, and move the emotions. They were concerned for the whole person.
I once asked the great Welsh preacher Martin Lloyd-Jones what are the hallmarks of great preaching. He said, “First, you must speak to the mind, which is the seat of the understanding. Then, you need to apply the message to the conscience (leading to repentance). Then, go on to challenge the will, calling people to repent. Finally, there are the emotions.” He argued that two classic mistakes evangelists make are to: (1) start with the mind and stop there or (2) go straight to the emotions, which often leads to a spurious response if people have not fully understood what they are being asked to respond to.
More on the lessons we can learn from the early Church in part two.
1. 1970. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
2. 1996. Princeton, New Jersey, USA: Princeton University Press.