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red and green apples painted by Paul Cèzanne

The Church That Grew without Trying

Alan Kreider

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We tend to forget how surprising the growth of the early church was. Nobody had to join the churches. People were not compelled to become members by invading armies or the imposition of laws; social convention did not induce them to do so. Indeed, Christianity grew despite the opposition of laws and social convention. These were formidable disincentives. In addition, the possibility of death in persecution loomed over the pre-Constantinian church, although few Christians were actually executed.footnote In many places baptismal candidates sensed that “every Christian was by definition a candidate for death.”footnote

The expansion of the churches was not organized – it simply happened.

Nevertheless the churches grew.footnote Why? After AD 312, when the emperor Constantine I aligned himself with Christianity and began to promote it, the church’s growth is not hard to explain. But before Constantine the expansion is improbable enough to require a sustained attempt to understand it. The growth was odd. According to the evidence at our disposal, the expansion of the churches was not organized, the product of a mission program; it simply happened. Further, the growth was not carefully thought through. Early Christian leaders did not engage in debates between rival “mission strategies.” The Christians wrote a lot; according to classicist Robin Lane Fox, “most of the best Greek and Latin literature which remains [from the later second and third centuries] is Christian.”footnote And what they wrote is surprising. The Christians wrote treatises on patience – three of them. But they did not write a single treatise on evangelism. Further, to assist their growing congregations with practical concerns, the Christians wrote “church orders,” manuals that provided guidance for the life and worship of congregations. The best treatment of how a second-century Christian should persuade a pagan to become a believer was published in London in 1970!footnote

Most improbable of all, the churches did not use their worship services to attract new people. In the aftermath of the persecution of Nero in AD 68, churches around the empire – at varying speeds in varying places – closed their doors to outsiders. By the end of the second century, most of them had instituted what liturgical scholars have called the disciplina arcani, the “discipline of the secret,” which barred outsiders from entering “private” Christian worship services and ordered believers not to talk to outsiders about what went on behind the closed doors.footnote

The early Christians attributed the church’s growth to the patient work of God.

Fear motivated this closing – fear of people who might disrupt their gatherings or spy on them. By the third century, some churches assigned deacons to stand at the doors, monitoring the people as they arrived. It is not surprising that pagans responded to their exclusion from Christian worship by speculation and gossip.footnote The baptized Christians, on the other hand, knew how powerful the worship services were in their own lives – early fourth-century North African believers said simply, “We cannot go without the Lord’s Supper.” They knew that worship services were to glorify God and edify the faithful, not to evangelize outsiders.footnote

And yet, ­improbably, the movement was growing. In number, size, and geographical spread, churches were expanding without any of the probable prerequisites for church growth. The early Christians noted this with wonder and attributed it to the patient work of God.footnote Teaching catechumens in Caesarea around AD 240, Origen observed that throughout history God had been faithful to Israel, sending them prophets, turning them back from their sins.

See how great the harvest is, even though there are few workers. But also in another way God plans always that the net is thrown on the lake of this life, and all kinds of fish are caught. He sends out many fishers, he sends out many hunters, they hunt from every hill. See how great a plan it is concerning the salvation of the nations.footnote

The churches grew because the faith that these fishers and hunters embodied was attractive to people who were dissatisfied with their old cultural and religious habits, who felt pushed to explore new possibilities, and who then encountered Christians who embodied a new manner of life that pulled them toward what the Christians called “rebirth” into a new life.footnote

“We do not speak great things but we live them.”
–Cyprian

Twenty-first-century Christians must live with this heritage. We will not do things precisely as the early Christians did, but the early believers may give us new perspectives and point us to a “lost bequest.”footnote As we rediscover this bequest, we will not make facile generalizations or construct how-to formulas. Instead, we will say with Cyprian and other early Christians: “We do not speak great things but we live them.”footnote


Kreider, Alan. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2016. Used by permission.

red and green apples painted by Paul Cèzanne

Insights from the Early Church

Christianity is not a matter of ­persuasive words. It is a matter of true greatness as long as it is hated by the world. 
 –Ignatius, Letter to the Romans 3:2 

The Church…was created before all things; therefore she is old, and for her sake the world was formed.
 –Hermas, The Shepherd 8:1

Therefore prepare for action and serve God in fear and truth, leaving behind the empty and meaningless talk and the error of the crowd, and believing in the one who raised our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead and gave him glory and throne at his right hand.
 –Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians 2:1

Image: Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Seven Apples

Footnotes

  1. Apostolic Tradition 19.2; Cyprian, To Quirinius 3.16–18; Didascalia apostolorum 5.6.2. Footnotes are abridged in this excerpt; for the full notes, see Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (Baker, 2016).
  2. Gustave Bardy, La conversion au christianisme durant les premiers siècles (Aubier, 1949), 170.
  3. For an overview, see The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Studies, ed. Susan Ashbrook Harvey and David Hunter (Oxford, 2008), 283–386.
  4. Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (Harper & Row, 1986), 270.
  5. Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church (Hodder & Stoughton, 1970), chaps. 3, 5–6.
  6. Edward Yarnold, The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation (St. Paul, 1971), 50–51.
  7. Minucius Felix, Octavius 9.3.
  8. Acts of the Abitinian Martyrs 12.
  9. Norbert Brox, “Zur christlichen Mission in der Spätantike,” in Mission im Neuen Testament (Herder, 1982), 207.
  10. Origen, Homilies on Jeremiah 18.5.3, trans. J. C. Smith.
  11. Justin, First Apology 61.3–4, 10; Cyprian, To Donatus 3–4.
  12. Roger Dowley, Towards the Recovery of a Lost Bequest (Evangelical Coalition for Urban Mission, 1984).
  13. Cyprian, On the Good of Patience 3.
Contributed By Alan Kreider Alan Kreider

Alan Kreider (1941–2017) was professor of church history and mission at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. This article is adapted from his book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire (Baker, 2016). See the review.

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