How Did Christianity Take Over The Ancient World? (And Could It Happen Again?)

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In AD 60 there were approximately 6000 followers of Jesus Christ on planet earth.

By AD 350 there were nearly 32 million Christians in the Roman Empire alone representing about 53% of the total population.[1]

The church went from mustard seed to majority in less than 300 years.

Could that happen again?

If it does, it will be a miracle, but it may also involve many of the same means and methods that God chose to use in the past. The following 7 warrant particular mention.

Having babies

In his book What To Expect When No One Is Expecting, Jonathan Last explored the surprising fact that in most of the world today the population is contracting, rather than expanding. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but in general the population growth of planet earth is cratering and several countries; notably Russia, Japan and most of Western Europe; are approaching the point of no return. Last concluded that in most of the world the only people reproducing at levels required to grow and sustain a healthy society are Muslims, Christians and Jews. He concludes his book by saying, somewhat tongue in cheek, “Truly the meek will inherit the earth”.

If they do, it won’t be for the first time.

In the latter days of the Roman Empire there was a great deal of confusion in the culture around issues of fertility and population. Rome was very late to identify the connection between her corrupt practices and her declining numerical and economic strength. Historian Rodney Stark puts it this way:

The primary reason for low Roman fertility was that men did not want the burden of families and acted accordingly: many avoided fertility by having sex with prostitutes rather than with their wives, or by engaging in anal intercourse.[2]

Christians on the other hand, had a remarkably high fertility rate. Christian men were directed to have sex only with their wives. This resulted in more frequent pregnancies. Christians were also forbidden to abort unwanted babies regardless of their sex.  

“You shall not murder a child in destruction nor shall you kill one just born” (Didache 2:2)

In contrast, the Roman practice of sex selective infanticide resulted in a severe shortage of women. This further compounded their growing fertility crisis. By the first century BC the Romans were offering incentives to parents who raised multiple children but it did little to reverse the cultural trend.

Paganism was committing suicide; one baby at a time. Christianity on the other hand was having and raising babies and slowly but surely, taking over the Roman world.

Adopting babies

In addition to frequent abortion the practice of infanticide was distressingly common in the Roman world. The vast majority of exposed infants were female. It was extraordinarily rare for a Roman family to raise more than one daughter. This letter from a travelling husband to his wife reveals the callous attitude of the average Roman to the practice of sex selective infanticide:

Hilarion to Alis his sister, heartiest greetings, and to my dear Berous and Apollonarion. Know that we are still even now in Alexandria. Do not worry if when all the others return I remain in Alexandria. I beg and beseech of you to take care of the little child, and as soon as we receive wages I will send them to you. If-good luck to you!-you bear offspring, if it is a male, let it live; if it is a female, expose it. You told Aphrodisias, ‘Do not forget me.’ How can I forget you? I beg you therefore not to worry.[3]

The wide spread practice of exposing infants was distressing to the early Christian community and it became very common for Christian churches to take custody of unwanted babies. Because many of these babies were female, the Christian church became the guardians of a disproportionate number of marriageable women over the course of the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. This led to a high number of what sociologists refer to as “secondary conversions” – meaning men who converted to Christianity in order to receive a bride. Some of those conversions were likely nominal in nature, but many weren’t. Many men undertook a process of catechism in order to formerly convert and became convinced of Christianity’s claims. Many husbands who were nominal converts only were later truly converted through the witness of their pious wives. These secondary conversions contributed a great deal to the rapid rise of the Christian faith within the Roman world.

Treating women well

Most people in the modern western world are completely unaware of how much early Christianity did to elevate the status of women. In the Greek world a woman was typically not even granted access to the whole of her home, she was given no choice in the matter of her husband, could be divorced by her husband or by her father with no say or recourse and could be executed without trial by her husband if she displeased him in any way. In the Roman world things were only slightly better.

Christianity however taught that women were co-equal in worth and dignity with men. Christianity commanded husbands to love and serve their wives as Christ loved and served the church. Christian men were threatened with spiritual abandonment if they treated their wives severely. The Apostle Peter commanded husbands to:

live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. (1 Peter 3:7 ESV)

Paul went a step further and said that a wife had the right to expect sex from her husband – something no Roman teacher had ever said before: “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights (1 Corinthians 7:3 ESV).”

In addition the church appears to have moved women very rapidly into some sort of professional ministry experience. While Paul forbids women to teach in the public assembly, he appears to make reference to some sort of paid deaconate in 1 Timothy 5:

Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work. (1 Timothy 5:9–11 ESV)

From this it seems clear that the church put widows on the payroll if they met a certain character test and were willing to do basic visitation and congregational care. Calvin understood the passage this way, explaining that:

The church would help them because they were destitute, and for their part, they would minister to the poor, insofar as they were able.[4]

History certainly testifies to the central role that women played in the benevolent ministries of the early church. No similar opportunities existed within Roman paganism. Scholars and historians agree that this was an important factor in the explosive growth of the Christian church over the course of the first 3 centuries.

Building congregations

Roman paganism was not very engaging. Pagan temples were little more than eating clubs for the privileged class. If an Emperor wanted favour in an upcoming military campaign he would commission a sacrifice and a feast. If a rich man wanted to expand his business or see his son or favourite servant cured of a disease, he might endow some sort of statue. There was very little zeal and no communal life.

Rodney Stark says:

There was no congregational life, because there were no congregations…nor did the pagan priests need (or want) the support of congregations. They charged substantial fees for all their services and were, in any event, usually well funded by the state.[5]

Christianity was altogether different. The early Christians met on Sunday (the Lord’s Day) for worship and they came together multiple times throughout the week for smaller meetings. They cared for the sick and the aged and they maintained a common purse to alleviate cases of severe need.

Roman paganism offered nothing comparable and the Roman government quickly recognized the threat to Roman life that these new congregations represented. The earliest Roman efforts to suppress Christianity did not forbid private belief or expression, rather they targeted the right of free association. In a society as mixed and fractured as the Roman Empire the church offered a place of belonging and common identity. The church became an attractive alternative to the isolation, vulnerability and tribalism of the Roman world.

Serving sacrificially

Roman paganism did not encourage mercy or mutual service. Mercy was seen as a weakness and charity was thought to encourage indolence. Christianity on the other hand was built around the example and teachings of Jesus Christ who said of himself:

For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45 ESV)

Greatness in the Christian faith came through service. This value enabled the church to engage in costly and remarkable acts of ministry.

The Roman world suffered through two remarkable plagues in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. In each case about 1/3 of the population was completely wiped out.

Except among the Christians.

The Christian survival rate was significantly higher than the pagan rate and this was mostly due, so the historians say, to the care that they extended to the sick. Even basic nursing increases survival rates during a plague by as much as 60%. The risk to those providing the nursing, however, was extreme. Pagan physicians and priests abandoned the major cities during both significant outbreaks while Christian deacons and deaconesses stayed behind.

This made a massive impression on the general population.

In the minds of many it proved that Christianity was in every way superior to Roman paganism. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, emphasized that very point:

How suitable, how necessary it is that this plague and pestilence, which seems horrible and deadly, searches out the justice of each and every one and examines the mind of the human race; whether the well care for the sick, whether relatives dutifully love kinsmen as they should … whether physicians do not desert the afflicted.[6]

The average Roman tended to agree with the Bishop’s assessment. Roman paganism did not exactly cover itself in glory during the two great plagues. Some pagan priests were beaten to death when they tried to return to their temples. Before the plagues, the church existed on the margins but after the plagues she took her place confidently in the heart and centre of Roman society.

Suffering spectacularly

Few things give a religious claim more credibility than the faithful suffering of its adherents. It is hard to dismiss the beliefs of a man or a woman who dies cheerfully for their convictions. The periodic outbreaks of persecution against the Christian church proved to be very unsuccessful from the Roman perspective. Far from discrediting the faith or discouraging conversion, the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church.

Perhaps the most famous Christian martyr of this era was Polycarp the Bishop of Smyrna. He was 24 years old when his church received a warning from Jesus to expect formal and fatal persecution in the days ahead.[7] When he was 86 years old Roman soldiers came and arrested him on the charge of being a Christian. They put him in a chariot and drove him towards the arena where they meant to force him to offer incense to the Emperor as a god. In the chariot the soldiers advised him to deny Christ and to worship the Emperor. When he refused they began to mock him and beat him and they kicked him out of the chariot and he tumbled out onto the road and broke his leg. But this 86 year old pastor rose to his feet, lifted his head and limped on his own steam into the stadium.

As he drew near the Roman Proconsul, he was ordered to deny Christ and to acknowledge Caesar as Lord: “Swear and I will set thee at liberty, reproach Christ!”[8]

Polycarp replied, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury; how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

The Proconsul threatened to burn him at the stake if he refused to curse Christ and to name Caesar as Lord. The old pastor answered defiantly saying:

Thou threatenest me with fire which burneth for an hour, and after a little while is extinguished, but art ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly.  But why tarriest thou? Bring forth what thou wilt.

And so they did. They burned him at the stake. He refused to be nailed to the stake and assured them that he would gladly stand his ground.

And so he did.

The watchers said that the flames seemed to try very hard to avoid him and so finally to end the spectacle, a soldier was commanded to pierce his side with a sword and thus he died.

Deaths like that tend to make an impression.

And so they did.

Time and again the Roman Emperors tried to stamp out Christianity by publicly shaming and torturing her leaders and teachers and time and again they failed.

The brutal Galaerius issued an edict banning all Christian assembly, authorizing the destruction of Christian churches and the burning of Christian Scriptures. He presided over many trials and tortures of individual believers. Nevertheless, “Rapid Christian growth continued”.[9]

On his deathbed in 311 AD he revoked the edict and asked the Christians to pray for his recovery.

Persecution didn’t work. Instead it tended to make the church stronger by removing weaker, nominal members and leaving behind a vibrant body of true believers willing to suffer for the justice of their cause.

Maintaining doctrinal standards

Part of what surprises historians and sociologists as they evaluate the 300 year rise of the Christian church is that they were able to largely maintain their vitality over such a considerable span of time. If the Old Testament makes anything clear it is that religious intensity is hard to pass on from one generation to another.

After the passing of Joshua for example, the Bible says:

And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel. (Judges 2:10 ESV)

Most religious movements plateau and decline after a generation or two of enthusiasm.

But not Christianity.

It grew and grew and grew.

Starting from that initial 6000 in AD 60 historians estimate that there were over 100,000 Christians in the Roman Empire by the year 180. There were 200,000 by the year 200. There were 1,000,000 by the year 250. There were 5.9 million by the year 300. There were 8.9 million by the year 312. And there were more than 31 million by AD 350.

That is remarkably consistent growth.

How did it happen?

How did the church maintain its vitality?

Part of the answer has to do with the church’s commitment to theological orthodoxy.

Stark observes, “So long as leadership positions in a sect are restricted to those who are committed to the original standards, a sect can maintain a relatively high level of intensity.”[10]

Christianity had a very specific set of beliefs rooted in a highly developed textual tradition.

Paganism had nothing of the sort.

Paganism had myths and stories – but they were not rooted in historical events as were the crucial events of Christianity. Paganism had priests and values but it did not have Scripture. Christianity was a religion of the book.

Its vitality, attractiveness and consistency owed a great deal to this underappreciated fact.

Is Back The Way Forward Once Again?

The Protestant Reformers understood themselves as restoring the church to her original foundation and purity. One of the rallying cries of the Reformation was ad fontes – to the sources! The Reformers were convinced that back was the way forward.

Whether this is the end or a new beginning, obviously, resides in the Sovereignty of God. But retreat isn’t always a prelude to defeat. Sometimes a retreat is an opportunity to reflect, remember and retrench. Perhaps in the wisdom of the Lord we are being pruned and prepared for a great and future end times harvest.

If that is the case, then perhaps our history does holds the key to our future.

Maybe there is a way forward to be found in the study of our past.

There is every reason to hope for a great and glorious future for the people of God. The Bible says that:

It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” (Micah 4:1–2 ESV)

May the Lord make it so in our day!

Even still, come Lord Jesus!

 

SDG

Paul Carter

To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes.

N.B. A previous version of this article was released by the same author under the title “How To Take Over The World in 300 Years”.

 


[1] Rodney Stark, The Triumph Of Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), 157. The number for AD 60 comes from his previous work The Rise Of Christianity.

[2] Ibid; 131.

[3] http://www.stoa.org/diotima/anthology/wlgr/wlgr-privatelife249.shtml

[4] John Calvin, 1 & 2 Timothy & Titus The Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998), 85.

[5] Stark, The Triumph Of Christianity, 10.

[6] Cyprian of Carthage as quoted by Stark in The Rise Of Christianity, 116.

[7] Revelation 2:10.

[8] This entire narrative is based on The Martyrdom Of Polycarp as found in The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Peabody: Hendricksen Publishers, 2004), 37ff.

[9] Rodney Stark, The Triumph Of Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 2011), 146.

[10] Ibid; 39.

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