The early church had no political power. She emerged at a time when Rome was master and Caesar was Lord. The church couldn’t appeal to Caesar to allow them to continue to use the word “Allah”. Neither could they put pressure on Rome to stop those who wanted to redefine normal marriage to include gay marriages. Yet within three hundred years the church of Jesus Christ had won over most of the Mediterranean world and had spread beyond that. And she eventually “conquered” Rome with the conversion of Constantine in 312 AD. Maybe it’s time to take a look at how the early church grew so rapidly. Some of us will see a divine hand at work. But historians do point to a number of factors that helped the early church to grow so fast. They include:
1. The testimony of their transformed lives.
Justin Martyr, a noted early Christian theologian, wrote to Emperor Antoninus Pius and described the believers: “We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity; before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything, but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ, we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies and try to win over those who hate us without just cause.” (Ken Curtis, “The Spread of the Early Church,”Christianity.com)
The power of their message was seen in how it had changed their lives.
2. The attractiveness of an inclusive community.
Roman society was a very hierarchical society with the emperor at the top and the slaves at the bottom. In the family of God all were equally valued and loved.
Now the Christian community, as we have it particularly in the letters of Paul, begins with a formula that is a baptismal formula, which says in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free. This is a sociological formula that defines a new community. Here is a community that invites you, which makes you an equal with all other members of that community. Which does not give you any disadvantages. On the contrary, it gives even the lowliest slave personal dignity and status. Moreover, the commandment of love is decisive. That is, the care for each other becomes very important. People are taken out of an isolation. If they are hungry, they know where to go. If they are sick, there is an elder who will lay on hands to them to heal them. (Helmut Koester, “A New Community,” The Great Appeal, From Jesus to Christ, PBS Frontline)
3. Practical expressions of love.
Bruce L. Shelley reminds us:
. . . the practical expressions of Christian love was probably among the most powerful causes of Christian success. Tertullian tells us the pagans remarked: “See how these Christians love one another.” And the pagan’s words were not irony; he meant them. Christian love found expression in the care of the poor, of widows and orphans; in visits to brethren in prisons or to those condemned to a living death in the mines, and in acts of compassion during a famine, earthquake, or war. (Bruce L. Shelley,Church History in Plain Language, 2nd edition [Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995], 35.)
It must be noted that these practical expressions of love were not directed exclusively to those within the Christian community. They were extended to all who had need, Christian or not.
When Emperor Julian (“the Apostate”) wanted to revive pagan religion in the mid-300s, he gave a most helpful insight into how the church spread. This opponent of the faith said that Christianity “has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers and through their care of the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar and that the [Christians] care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help we should render them.” (Ken Curtis, “The Spread of the Early Church,” Christianity.com)
Transformed lives, an inclusive community, and practical expressions of love for all — these factors would seem to be timeless evidence of the reality of our faith, and the reality of the presence of God in our midst, precisely because they are so elusive. It is so hard for people to change, many groups are elitist and exclusive, and genuine humble expressions of love are in short supply. So while we may want to appeal to the official institutions of the land to help the cause of Christ, and believers are not in full agreement as to whether we should do this or how we should do it, all followers of Jesus should be in full agreement that we must be outstanding in the call to demonstrate transformed lives, inclusive communities, and practical expressions of love. The church in Singapore, Malaysia, and indeed worldwide, should be asking tough questions as to how we are doing in these three areas.
Transformed lives — are followers of Jesus any different from their fellows who are not?
Inclusive communities — are our church communities truly inclusive, not discriminating between her members on the basis of gender, race, or social status?
Practical expressions of love — are Christians known for their generous expressions of love to all who need help?
I fear we are not doing too well in all three areas and that that undermines our other efforts.
Shelley also mentions another reason why the church grew — persecution.
. . . persecution in many instances helped to publicise the Christian faith. Martyrdoms were often witnessed by thousands in the amphitheatre. ((Bruce L. Shelley, Church History In Plain Language, 2nd edition [Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995], 36.)
This is a factor we can’t work on but we can be prepared for. It seems the church does better when we function from a position of “weakness” rather than from one of strength.
This is a tough time for the church in many parts of the world. The church in Singapore and Malaysia are also facing challenges. We are not shaken because our trust is in a Lord who died and rose again. But it is a time when we need much wisdom as to how we should live and perhaps more importantly, how we should love.