The History of Christianity #73
Our History of Christianity Scripture verse today is Matthew 24:14 which reads: “And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.”
Our History of Christianity quote today is from John Stott. He said: “We must be global Christians with a global vision because our God is a global God.”
Today, in the History of Christianity, we are looking at “Christian Life” (Part 10) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).
Although it is impossible to give exact statistics, the enormous numerical growth of the church in its first centuries is undeniable. This leads us to the question of what methods it used to achieve such growth. The answer may surprise some modern Christians, for the ancient church knew nothing of “evangelistic services” or “revivals.” On the contrary, in the early church worship centered on communion, and only baptized Christians were admitted to its celebration. Therefore, evangelism did not take place in church services, but rather, as Celsus said, in kitchens, shops, and markets. A few famous teachers, such as Justin and Origen, held debates in their schools, and thus won some converts among the intelligentsia. But the fact remains that most converts were made by anonymous Christians whose witness led others to their faith. The most dramatic form taken by such witness was obviously that of suffering unto death, and it is for this reason that the word “martyr,” which originally meant “witness,” took on the meaning that it has for us today. Finally, some Christians were reputed for their miracles, which also won converts.
The most famous of these miracle workers was Gregory Thaumaturgus – a name that means “wonderworker.” He was from the region of Pontus on the southern coast of the Black Sea, and had been converted through the learned witness of Origen. But upon returning to Pontus and becoming bishop of Neocaesarea, his great evangelistic success was due, not to his theological arguments, but to the miracles that he was said to perform. These were mostly miracles of healing, but we are also told that he could control the course of a river in flood, and that the apostles and the Virgin appeared to him and guided his work. Gregory was also one of the first to use a missionary method that has appeared again and again in later times: he substituted Christian festivals for the old pagan ones, and made sure that the Christian celebrations outdid the others.
Another surprising fact about the early expansion of Christianity is that, after the New Testament, very little is said of any missionaries going from place to place, as Paul and Barnabas had done. It is clear that the enormous spread of the gospel in those first centuries was not due to full-time missionaries, but rather to the many Christians who traveled for other reasons – slaves, merchants, exiles condemned to work in the mines, and the like.
Finally, one should note that Christianity spread mainly in the cities, and that it penetrated the rural areas slowly and with much difficulty. By the year 100, 64 percent of port cities in the Roman Empire had a church, as did 24 percent of inland cities. By the year 180, these figures had increased to 86 percent and 65 percent, respectively. It was long after Constantine that Christianity could claim most of the rural population of the empire. (Actually, the word paganus – “pagan” – originally had nothing to do with religion, but was used to refer to an uncouth, rural person. It was after most city dwellers became Christian that the ancient religion, which now existed mostly in the countryside, was dubbed paganism.)
Next time, we will look at The Beginnings of Christian Art in Christian Life.