There is much we can learn from the early believers in Christ. Faced with a catalogue of difficulties not unlike our own, this small, disorganised band of believers grew into a much larger, significant band of Christ-followers by the mid-fourth century. What can we learn from the early Church to apply to our situation today?
In part one, we learned of the impact of several external factors, including a relative time of peace in the Roman Empire, during which time roads were built that significantly increased opportunities for travel and sharing the gospel.
More importantly, though, were factors related to the message and the messengers and their compelling proclamation of the gospel which fell on fertile ground.
The Use of the Home in the Early Church
It is also important to note that the use of the home was widespread in the early Church. In fact, some writers argue that apart from synagogues, there were very few church buildings before the time of Constantine in the fourth century.
Most worship occurred in homes. We can see this in Jason’s home (Acts 17:5), the home of Justin (Acts 18:7), and elsewhere (Acts 21:8). The emphasis on evangelistic Bible studies, or the use of the home-based small group, is not a peculiarity, therefore, of the twentieth century. In fact, the Puritan Richard Baxter wrote in the sixteenth century, “I find more signs of success in this work [the formation of home Bible studies] than in all my public preaching.”
A Clearly Reasoned Presentation of the Gospel
Many Christians have been brought up in an environment where they have been encouraged to “stop thinking, and only believe,” without asking any questions. Many people do not understand that a clearly reasoned presentation of the gospel is necessary, not as a rational substitute, but as a basis of ground for faith—not as a replacement for the Holy Spirit’s working, but as a means by which the objective truth of God’s word can be made clear so that people will heed it as a vehicle of the Holy Spirit (see Acts 17:2-3, 16-31; 18). Apologetics is valuable, because it can be used to demolish apparently rational arguments against Christianity so that the evangel can be heard.
In addition, the early Church evidenced some great apologists, including Justin Martyr, Origen, and Athanasius. In fact, Adolf von Harnach, the great German historian, argued that the Church grew primarily for two reasons: (1) it outlived the pagans and (2) it out-argued them. This, perhaps, is especially important today in responding to the hostility of people who think that to become a Christian is to commit intellectual suicide.
On the other side, some people tend to think that Christianity is exclusively rational. However, there are also moral considerations—and the moral always overshadows the intellectual in terms of a decision of faith. Reasoning alone will never pin people down. Faith, prayer, and love are needed. We must not pander to people’s intellectual curiosity; instead, we are to give them a basis for believing.
Whichever question we start off by seeking to answer in our apologetic approach, we must ultimately present people with two things: (1) the objective person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ and (2) our own personal subjective testimony of our experience of him. It is true that the Christian faith goes beyond reason, but that does not mean that it is against reason. After all, following his resurrection, Jesus challenged Thomas to believe without seeing, not to believe without thinking!
So we can see from the early evangelists that the message:
- was communicated by words, either written or oral;
- was related to the theological understanding of the people;
- was taken to the people where they were;
- was both spontaneous and planned; and
- involved, at some point, a call for a specific practical response.
Michael Green1 argues that in all the sermons in Acts, no matter where the evangelists started from (whether Acts 2 or Acts 17), they all communicated the same three things at the end of their discourses:
- There is only one God, who has created us and to whom we are accountable.
- He raised Jesus from the dead.
- We must, therefore, repent or face judgment.
This message was proclaimed to Jews and to intellectual pagans alike. Surely, it has implications for how we communicate the gospel today.
Character and Environment of the Early Church
Rodney Stark2 argues (not so much as a theologian, but as a sociologist) that much of the early Church was made up not so much by the mighty, noble, or wise, but that converts were drawn in an overwhelming majority from the lower classes of society. Granted, there were some individuals of substance in the early Church, including Erastus, the city treasurer in Corinth, or some Christians among the aristocracy in Rome in the second half of the first century, but the vast majority of believers were from a poor background.
In this context, Stark argues that particular growth in the Church occurred during times of two major epidemics: (1) probably a smallpox epidemic from 165-180 AD and (2) a measles outbreak in 251 AD.
At its height, perhaps five thousand people a day were dying in Rome. In the first plague, so many people died that cities and villages in Italy and the provinces were abandoned and fell into ruin. It was in these circumstances that the believer’s testimony was particularly powerful. At the height of the second great epidemic, around 260 AD, Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria, wrote a lengthy tribute to the local Christians:
Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves, and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbours, and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many in nursing and curing others transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead….the best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner….The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead, and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.3
Such a testimony angered pagans such as the Emperor Julian, who wrote in a letter to the High Priest of Galatia in 362 AD: “I think that when the poor happen to be neglected and overlooked by the priests, the impious Galileans observed this, and devoted themselves to benevolence…the impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”
Surely, the testimony of the early Christians in reaching out to the sick, dying, and infected—even offering their own lives in an attempt to save the lives of unbelievers—has implications for our Christian ministry in the world today. Should we not also seek to hold together on the one hand a bold verbal proclamation of the gospel with, on the other, a compassionate concern for the needy, the sick, and the dying? It surely has significant implications for the treatment of AIDS patients, the poor, the distressed, and the needy.
The Gospel Message and Women
Stark also argues that the early Christian message was especially attractive to women. In the first centuries following Christ, infanticide and abortion were commonly practised; however, these were prohibited by the early Christians. Men greatly outnumbered women in the Greco-Roman world. In his classic work, J.C. Russell (1958) estimated that there were 131 males per 100 females in the city of Rome, and 140 males per 100 females in Italy, Asia Minor, and North Africa—likely as a result of tampering with human life.
Exposure of unwanted female infants and deformed male infants was legal, morally accepted, and widely practised across the Greco-Roman world. In a letter written by Hilarion, a Roman soldier, to his pregnant wife Alis, we see the contrast between his concern for his wife and hoped-for son, and coldness toward the birth of a possible daughter: “Know that I am still in Alexandria…I beg you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I receive payment, I shall send it to you. If you are delivered of a child (before I come home), if it is a boy, keep it, if a girl, discard it. You have sent me word. ‘Don’t forget me.’ How can I forget you? I beg you not to worry.”4
The status of Athenian women was very low. Girls received little or no education. Males could divorce by simply ordering a wife out of the household. In contrast, among the Christians, women were cared for. Widowhood was highly respected, and remarriage was, if anything, mildly discouraged.
A well-to-do Christian widow was enabled to keep her husband’s estate. The Church stood ready to sustain poor widows, and allowed them a choice as to whether or not to remarry. Women were apparently given prominent positions in the church (e.g., Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2). Deacons were of considerable importance and assisted at liturgical functions and administered the benevolent and charitable activities of the Church. Women were appreciated, affirmed, given dignity, cared for when alone, and offered responsible roles.
These things contributed to the gospel message being attractive to women in the first few centuries, and thus were a cause of many women coming to faith in Christ and into the body of the Church. Although there was clearly an order in the early Church, and we could argue about the rights and wrongs of women as elders or bishops, it is clear that Christian women were afforded greater dignity and value than their contemporaries. I will leave you to work out the implications of all of that for the Church today!
1. 1970. Evangelism in the Early Church. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
2. 1996. The Rise of Christianity. Princeton, New Jersey, USA: Princeton University Press.
3. Ibid, 82.
4. Ibid, 97.