Why did the Early Church grow?

Resources selected by Alan Kreider

1. WORSHIP WAS NOT SEEKER-SENSITIVE – DEACONS BAR SEEKERS FROM SERVICES:  Let the deacon be such as this, so that he may appear with fear and reverence.  With regard to fervour of spirit, let him have a perfect manner of life.  Let him observe and look at those who come into the house of the sanctuary.  Let him investigate who they are, so that he may know if they are lambs or wolves.  And when he asks, let him bring in him that is worthy, lest, if a spy enter, the liberty of the Church be searched out, and his sin be on his head.  Testamentum Domini, 1.36 (Asia Minor, late 4th century)

2. NO PUBLIC PREACHING – A PAGAN DESCRIBES THE CHRISTIANS: [The Christians] are a gang of discredited and proscribed desperadoes . . . They have gathered together from the lowest dregs of the populace ignorant men and credulous women – and women are naturally unstable – and have formed a rabble of impious conspirators; at their nocturnal gatherings, solemn fasts, and barbarous meals, the bond of union is not any sacred rite but crime . . . [They are a] secret tribe that lurks in darkness and shuns the light, silent in public, chattering in corners.   Pagan critic Caecilius, quoted in Minucius Felix, Octavius, 8.4 (Carthage, ca 200)

3. NO EASY CONVERSIONS:  THE DIMENSIONS OF CONVERSION – JUSTIN:  [The demons] struggle to have you as their slaves and servants, and . . . they get hold of all who do not struggle to their utmost for their own salvation — as we do who, after being persuaded by the Word, renounced them and now follow the only unbegotten God through his Son.  Those who once rejoiced in fornication now delight in self-control alone; those who made use of magic arts have dedicated themselves to the good and unbegotten God; we who once took most pleasure in the means of increasing our wealth and property now bring what we have into a common fund and share with everyone in need; we who hated and killed one another and would not associate with men of different tribes because of [their different] customs, now after the manifestation of Christ live together and pray for our enemies and try to persuade those who unjustly hate us, so that they, living according to the fair commands of Christ, may share with us the good hope of receiving the same things . . .   The teachings of Christ were short and concise, for he was no philosopher, but his word was the power of God.  Justin, 1 Apology 14 (Rome, ca 150)

4. MEANS OF GROWTH:  INFILTRATION:  In private houses also we see wool-workers, cobblers, laundry-workers, and the most illiterate and bucolic yokels, who would not dare to say anything at all in front of their elders and more intelligent masters.  But whenever they get hold of children in private and some stupid women with them, they let out some astounding statements as, for example, that they must not pay any attention to their father and school-teachers, but must obey them . . . [T]hey alone, they say, know the right way to live… Origen, Contra Celsum, 3.55, quoting a pagan opponent, Celsus, who wrote ca 180

5. MEANS OF GROWTH:  LIFE:  We can show many examples of those who have turned from the ways of violence and tyranny persuaded by the consistent lives of their Christian neighbours, by noting the strange patience of their injured Christian acquaintances, or by experiencing the way Christians did business with them.  Those who are found not living as Christ taught should know that they are not really Christians, even if his teachings are on their lips.      Justin, 1 Apology, 16

6. MEANS OF GROWTH:  SPIRITUAL POWER:  That is why the Scripture has taught us to reject terrestrial joys, perishable and decaying, to exult in eternal joys in the Lord, as Hannah rightly spoke, ‘My heart has exulted in the Lord.’  And at that very moment when these words were spoken, one of those attending was filled with an impure spirit and cried out.  This provoked a rushing together of the people . . . For when Hannah said, ‘My heart exults in the Lord’ the hostile spirit was not able to bear our exultation in the Lord, but he wanted to change it to introduce in its place sadness and to prevent us from saying, ‘My spirit has rejoiced in the Lord.”  But we, not allowing ourselves to stop, said on the contrary more and more, ‘My spirit has rejoiced in the Lord,’ for the very reason that we see impure spirits tormented, for things like this lead many people to be converted to God, many to reform themselves, many to come to faith . . . There are in fact lots of people who do not believe in the Word and who do not receive the delivery of the teaching, but when the demon seizes them, then they become converted . . .   Origen, Homilies on Samuel 1.10 (ca 240).

7. MEANS OF GROWTH:  CHRISTIANS WITNESS TO A PERSUADING GOD BY THE WAY THEY SUFFER PERSECUTION:  God willed to save humans by persuasion, not by compulsion, for compulsion is not God’s way of working . . . Do you not see that the more of them are punished the more their numbers increase?  These things do not look like the achievements of humans; they are the power of God; they are the proofs of his presence.  Epistle to Diognetus, VII, 8-9 (mid 2nd)

8. “APOLOGIES” 1:  BEAUTY OF LIFE: We do not take our place among the dregs of the people, because we reject your official titles and purples; we are not sectarian in spirit, if in quiet gatherings as in individual intercourse we are of one mind for good; neither are we ‘talkative in corners,’ because you are either ashamed or afraid to give us an open hearing.  As for the daily increase in our numbers, that is no proof of error, but evidence of merit; for beauty of life encourages its followers to persevere, and strangers to join the ranks.  We do in fact readily recognize one another, not as you suppose by some token on the body, but by the sign manual of innocence and modesty; our bond, which you resent, consists in mutual love, for we know not how to hate; we call ourselves ‘brothers’ to which you object, as members of one family in God, as partners in one faith, as joint heirs in hope . . . We do not preach great things, but we live them . . .  Minucius Felix, Octavius 33.6-8; 38.6 (North Africa, ca 200)

9. “APOLOGIES” 2:  CHRISTIANS REJECT ALL KILLING:  What, then, are these teachings in which we are reared?  ‘I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven, who makes his sun to shine on the evil and on the good, and sends his rain on the just and on the unjust . . . Who [of the pagan philosophers] have so purified their own hearts as to love their enemies instead of hating them; instead of upbraiding those who first insult them (which is certainly more usual), to bless them; and to pray for those who plot against them? . . . With us, on the contrary, you will find unlettered people, tradesmen and old women, who, though unable to express in words the advantages of our teaching, demonstrate by acts the value of their principles.  For they do not rehearse speeches, but evidence good deeds.  When struck, they do not strike back; when robbed, they do not sue; to those who ask, they give, and they love their neighbours as themselves . . . We . . . cannot endure to see a man being put to death even justly . . . We see little difference between watching a man being put to death and killing him.  So we have given up [gladiatorial] spectacles . . . What reason would we have to commit murder when we say that women who induce abortions are murderers, and will have to give account of it to God? . . . But we are altogether consistent in our conduct . . . Athenagoras, Legatio 11, 34-35 (Athens, 175)

10. “APOLOGIES 3”:  THE CHARACTER OF CHRISTIANS: “The Churches of God which have been taught by Christ, when compared with the assemblies of the people where they live, as ‘as lights in the world’.  Who would not admit that even the less satisfactory members of the Church and those who are far inferior when compared with the better members are far superior to the assemblies of the people?”  Origen, Contra Celsum, 3.29 (240s)

11. “APOLOGIES 4”:  A BIG VISION – THE FUTURE RECONCILIATION (ISAIAH 2/MICAH 4) IS HAPPENING NOW.  Jesus Christ alone was really begotten as Son of God, being his Word and First-begotten and Power, and becoming man by his will he taught us these things for the reconciliation and restoration of the human race . . . When the prophetic Spirit speaks as prophesying things to come, he says:  ‘For the law will go forth from Zion and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem, and he shall judge in the midst of the nations and rebuke much people; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’  We can show you that this has really happened.  For a band of twelve men went forth from Jerusalem, and they were common men, not trained in speaking, but by the power of God they testified to every race of mankind that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the Word of God; and [now] we who once killed each other not only do not make war on each other, but in order not to lie or deceive our inquisitors we gladly die for the confession of Christ.  Justin, 1 Apology 23, 39

12. A RICH MAN ATTRACTED BY THE CHRISTIANS’ FREEDOM. While I was still lying in darkness and gloomy night . . . and remote from truth and light, I used to regard it as a difficult matter, and especially as difficult in respect of my character at that time, that a man should be capable of being born again . . . and that a man quickened to a new life in the laver of saving water should be able to put off what he has previously been . . . ‘How,’ said I, ‘is such conversion possible, that there should be a sudden and rapid divestment of all which, either innate in us has hardened in the corruption of our material nature,  or acquired by us has become inveterate by long accustomed use?  These things have become deeply and radically engrained within us.  When does he learn thrift who has been used to liberal banquets and sumptuous feasts?  And he who has been glittering in gold and purple, and has been celebrated for his costly attire, when does he reduce himself to ordinary and simple clothing’ . . .   But after that, by the help of the water of new birth, the stain of former years had been washed away, and a light from above, serene and pure, had been infused into my reconciled heart, – after that, by the agency of the Spirit breathed from heaven, a second birth restored me to a new man; – then, in a wondrous manner, doubtful things at once began to assure themselves to me . . . What before had seemed difficult began to suggest a means of accomplishment, what had been thought impossible, to be capable of being achieved.  Cyprian, Ad Donatum 3-4 (North Africa, about 250)

13. THE WITNESS OF A WOMAN:  Who, indeed, would permit his wife to go about the streets to the houses of strangers, calling at every hovel in town in order to visit the brethren?  Who would be pleased to permit his wife to be taken from his side, when she is obliged to be present at evening devotions?  Or, to take another example, who would not be concerned when she spends the whole night away from the house during the Paschal solemnities?  Who, without feeling some suspicion, would let her go to assist at the Lord’s Supper, when such vile rumours are spread about it?  Who would suffer her to slip into prison to kiss the fetters of a martyr?  Or, for that matter, to salute any one of the brethren with a kiss?  Who would allow her to wash the feet of the saints?  To ply them with food and drink?  Who would permit her to desire such things – or even to think of them?  If one of the brethren, in travelling, stops at her house, what hospitality will he receive in the house of a pagan?  If someone is in need of assistance, the granary and pantry are closed and locked . . . when an infidel [woman] is called to the practice of heavenly virtue, by an act of the divine condescension, this very fact inspires a feeling of awe in the heart of the spouse who remains a pagan.  As a result, he will be less violent in his attacks on the faith, less threatening, less suspicious.  He has been brought into touch with the miraculous, he has ocular evidence of the truth, he sees that his wife is changed into a better person and thus, through reverential awe, he himself becomes a seeker after God.” Tertullian, To His Wife 4, 7

For further study, see Alan Kreider: The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: the improbable rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire (Baker Academic, 2016).

Related Resources