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The Early Church If anything can be learned from the history of the early church, one can learn that a church without seminaries, church growth seminars, elaborate youth programs, or large campuses can still grow and change lives at a phenomenal rate. There are many sociological, political, and spiritual factors that contributed to the spread of the gospel.
The first century indeed was a “fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4) moment for Jesus to enter the world. One cannot deny the benefits of a common language, the Pax Romana, safety of travel, etc. in providing a beneficial environment for church growth. Beyond these external factors, the early Christians lived in such a way that caused the world to stand up and take notice, for they had a distinctive lifestyle that could not be ignored. They were followers of Christ, and as followers of Christ they would seek to follow in his steps— living as he lived, loving as he loved, caring as he cared and if the ultimate price was to be paid, they would pay that price and be welcomed into the company of Jesus himself and those who have gone before. Much can be learned from the growth of the early church.
Early Christians were captivated by the gospel and profoundly influenced by the teachings and values of Jesus Christ. One can assume from their actions that they were changed by Jesus and consumed with the values of the kingdom of God. They were more than salt and light in their communities. They were the “soul” of their communities. In the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus dated around A.D. 150, Mathetes writes about the distinctive lifestyles of the believers. A truncated version of his letter follows where the
distinctive lifestyle of believers is highlighted:
For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity.… But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities… and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life.
They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.
They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all…. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers…. In a word, what the soul is in a body, the Christians are in the world.1 Whereas many churches today have withdrawn from their communities and lost the skill of being a part of life and conversation of the community,2 the early church was far from Epistle from Mathetes to Diognetus; available from http://www.ccel.org/fathers2/ANF-01/anf01-08.htm#P668_121134; Internet; accessed 14 January 2007.
being isolated from its community. When charged that Christians were “infructuosi in negotiis (“of no use in practical affairs”), church leader and apologist, Tertullian (155answered, How so? How can that be when such people dwell beside you, sharing your way of life, your dress, your habits and the same needs of life? We are no Brahmins or Indian gymnosophists, dwelling in woods and exiled from life…we stay beside you in this world, making use of the forum, the provision-market, the bath, the booth, the workshop, the inn, the weekly market, and all other places of commerce. We sail with you, fight at your side, till the soil with you, and traffic with you; we likewise join our technical skill to that of others, and make our works public property for your use.”3 The believers of the second and third centuries were far from being recluses. They were engaged in life, side-by-side with their neighbors. They shared in areas of common ground with their neighbors but there was more to their lives. They were captivated with the gospel.
To be absolutely captivated by the gospel allowed these early Christians to freely act differently to go against the flow of the culture. In a society that devalued children, the early Christians fashioned themselves after Jesus who welcomed little children.
Describing the place that children had in early Roman and Greek societies, Rodney Stark, writes, Far more babies were born than were allowed to live. Seneca regarded the drowning of children at birth as both reasonable and commonplace…. It was common to expose an unwanted infant out-of-doors where it could, in principle, be taken up by someone who whished to rear it, but where it typically fell victim to the elements for to animal and birds. Not only was the exposure of infants a very common practice, it was justified by law and advocated by philosophers. Both Plato and Aristotle recommended infanticide as legitimate state policy.4 Harnack, 216.
Stark notes that in 1991 “a gruesome discovery in the sewer that ran under the bathhouse. The sewer had been clogged with refuse sometime in the sixth century AD.
When we excavated and dry sieved the desiccated sewage, we found the bones…of nearly 100 little babies apparently murdered and thrown into the sewer.” Stark, 118.
In a city where children were abandoned and left to die, the followers of Christ would comb the city for abandoned babies and raise them and love them as their own. They deplored both abortion and infanticide and swam against the cultural tide by raising their own children and rescuing those children abandoned by others.
Tertullian writes of how Christians looked out for the needs of others.
Each of us puts in a small amount one day a month, or whenever he pleases; but only if he pleases and if he is able; for there is no compulsion in the matter, everyone contributing of his own free will. These monies are, as it were, the deposits of piety.
They are expended upon no banquets of drinking-bouts or useless eating-houses, but on feeding and burying poor people, on behalf of boys and girls who have neither parents nor money, in support of old folk unable now to go about, as well as for people who are shipwrecked, or who may be in the mines or exiled in islands or in prison--so long as their distress is for the sake of God’s fellowship, and they themselves entitled to maintenance by their confession.…5 The teachings of the early leaders emphasized the importance of love and service to others. Tertullian, writing in around 215 said, “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of lovingkindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Only look’ they say, ‘look how they love one another!’”6 Writing of how Cyprian, the Bishop
of Carthage instructed his flock around the year 250, his biographer, Ponianus, wrote:
The people being assembled together, he first of all urges on them the benefits of mercy…. Then he proceeds to add that there is nothing remarkable in cherishing merely our own people with the due attentions of love, but that one might become perfect who should do something more than heathen men or publicans, one who, overcoming evil with good, and practicing a merciful kindness like that of God, should love his enemies as well…Thus the good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith. 7
Early Christ-followers were externally focused. Yes they loved and did good to all. They embodied the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount.
Stark notes that there were at least two great plagues in the first three centuries (in 165 and 251 A.D.) that actually were instrumental in the nascent church’s incredible growth rate, which he estimates at 40 percent per decade.8 The plagues were severe, wiping out one-fourth to one-third of the population of the Roman Empire, with an estimated five thousand people a day dying in Rome.9 When the plagues came, those who were able fled the city, but not the Christians. They stayed and ministered to the sick and dying—Christians and non-Christians alike. Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, writing of
how believers responded to the plague of 250 observes:
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 neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…. The best of brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning height commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.10 Writing of the response of those who were not followers of Christ, Dionysius continues.
“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…”11 Stark observes that just
giving basic care of food and water to those too weak to care for themselves would greatly reduce the mortality rate of the victims. He estimates that 80 percent of Christians survived the plagues compared to only 25-50 percent of the general population. So when the plagues subsided, the believers constituted a substantially higher portion of the population. Beyond this differential in mortality, when non-Christians were nursed to health by believers, many of them, through being recipients of such love and grace, became Christians themselves. When those who had fled the city returned to find their loved ones still alive and well, it only increased their admiration of the believers, and many of them also became ardent followers of Christ. People tend remember how they were treated in the worst of times.
This type of love cannot be manufactured. It cannot be faked. In the year 362, the Emperor Julian wrote to the high (pagan) priest of Galatia “that the recent Christian growth was caused by their ‘moral character, even if pretended,’ and by their benevolence toward strangers and care for the graves of the dead.”12 In a letter to another priest he wrote, “The impious Galileans (Christians) support not only their poor, but ours as well, every one can see that our people lack aid from us.”13 These observations caused Julian to launch a campaign to institute pagan charities “but for all that he urged pagan priest to match…Christian practices, there was little or no response because there were no doctrinal bases or traditional practices for them to build upon.”14 Stark concludes that it was the gospel’s overwhelming growth and influence that caused Emperor Constantine in
313 A.D. to acknowledge the triumph of Christianity rather than cause it. It was the selfforgetting conduct of believers that attracted people to the Christian’s God. Church historian Eusebius wrote, Then did they show themselves to the heathen in the clearest light. For the Christians were the only people who amid such terrible ills showed their feeling and humanity by their actions. Day by day some would busy themselves with attending to the dead and burying them (for there were numbers to whom no one else paid any heed);
others gathered in one spot all who were afflicted by hunger throughout the whole city and gave bread to them all. When this became known, people glorified the Christians’ God and, convinced by the very facts, confessed the Christians alone were truly pious and religious.15 Theologian and Christian thinker Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430) argued against a self-serving church as he “insisted that the church was not a refuge from the world but existed for the sake of a world that was hurting.”16 Through its clear thinking and practice, the early church set the DNA for all time forward what the church could be and what the church should be in relation to the community. This DNA was what historian Thomas Cahill calls “the substance of the original gospel,” and it was essential for the survival and replication of the gospel. Cahill writes, Through the history of the West since the time of Jesus, there has remained just enough of the substance of the original Gospel, a residuum, for it to be passed, as it were, from hand to hand and used, like stock to strengthen, flavor, and invigorate new movements that have succeeded again and again—if only for a time—in producing alteri Christi, men and women in danger of crucifixion. It has also produced repeatedly and in the oddest circumstances, the loving-kindness of the first Christians.17
Early Medieval Times After the fall of Rome in the fifth century and the collapse of the Roman Empire, Western Europe entered what is sometimes is referred to as the early medieval or dark ages, which lasted from approximately A.D. 476 to 1000. Literature and the arts for the most part went dormant in the West but Christianity continued to spread along the trade routes and many of the barbarian conquerors adopted the Christian faith. Time does not allow for a thorough treatment of the church’s role in distributing mercy during this epoch, but I do want to note that the church’s light, though dim, was not extinguished.
One historian notes: “In the absence of law and order, citizens tended to look to the bishops for civic leadership. In some cities, the bishop served as mayor and magistrate.