How the Gospel Grew
Here is an exerpt from a paper I wrote called "How the Gospel Grew" which highlights some of the writings of Rodney Stark in The Rise of Christianity.
The teachings of the early leaders emphasized the importance of love and service to others. The ecclesiastical writer, Tertullian wrote in around 215 “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of lovingkindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Only look’ they say, ‘look how they love one another!’”[i] Writing of how Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage instructed his flock around the year 250, his biographer Ponianus wrote:
The people being assembled together, he first of all urges on them the benefits of mercy…. Then he proceeds to add that there is nothing remarkable in cherishing merely our own people with the due attentions of love, but that one might become perfect who should do something more than heathen men or publicans, one who, overcoming evil with good, and practicing a merciful kindness like that of God, should love his enemies as well…Thus the good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith. [ii]
Now imagine being a third century believer. Your mind is saturated with the teachings of Jesus regarding his love and compassion for others. Evangelism is incarnation as much as it is proclamation. You are captivated by the story of the Good Samaritan and of Lazarus and the Rich Man. Your life is guided by Jesus’ precepts of the blessedness of giving over receiving, doing unto others, as you would have them do unto you, loving your neighbor as yourself, being merciful just as God is merciful. You imagine yourself standing in front of Jesus one day in judgment, where the test will be, “Whatever you did to the least of these my brothers, you did unto me.” Your faith is not just a belief system to give you comfort in times of distress but it is also your marching orders. Your faith apart from deeds would be dead. So how do you act when adversity strikes?
Stark notes that there were at least two great plagues in the first three centuries (160 and 250 AD) that actually were instrumental in the nascent church’s incredible growth rate, which he estimates at 40% per decade. When the plagues came, those who were able fled the city but not the Christians. They stayed and ministered to the sick and dying--Christians and non-Christians alike. Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, writing of how believers responded to the plague of 250 observes:
Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…. The best of brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning height commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.[iii]
Writing of the response of those who were not followers of Christ, Dionysius continues. “The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt…”[iv] Stark observes that just giving basic care of food and water to those too weak to care for themselves would greatly reduce the mortality rate of the victims. He estimates that 80% of Christians survived the plagues compared to only 25-50% of the general population. So when the plagues subsided, the believers were a substantially higher portion of the population. Beyond this differential in mortality, when non-Christians were nursed to health by believers, many of them, through being recipients of such love, became Christians themselves. When those who fled the city returned to find their loved ones still alive and kicking, it only increased their admiration of the believers and many of them became ardent followers of Christ. People remember how they were treated in the worst of times.
This type of love cannot be manufactured. It can’t be faked. In the year 362, the Emperor Julian wrote to the high (pagan) priest of Galatia “that the recent Christian growth was caused by their ‘moral character, even if pretended,’ and by their ‘benevolence toward strangers and care for the graves of the dead.’”[v] In a letter to another priest he wrote, “The impious Galileans (Christians) support not only their poor, but ours as well, every one can see that our people lack aid from us.”[vi] These observations caused Julian to launch a campaign to institute pagan charities “but for all that he urged pagan priest to match…Christian practices, there was little or no response because there were no doctrinal bases or traditional practices for them to build upon.”[vii] Stark concludes that it was the gospel’s overwhelming growth and influence that caused Emperor Constantine to acknowledge the triumph of Christianity rather than cause it.
“Then did they show themselves to the heathen in the clearest light. For the Christians were the only people who amid such terrible ills showed their feeling and humanity by their actions. Day by day some would busy themselves with attending to the dead and burying them (for there were numbers to whom no one else paid any heed); others gathered in one spot all who were afflicted by hunger throughout the whole city and gave bread to them all. When this became known, people glorified the Christians’ God and, convinced by the very facts, confessed the Christians alone were truly pious and religious.” Eusebius on how Christians displayed self-denying love in the great plague which occurred in the reign of Maximinus Daza (p. 214)
Implications for today
The early church was a church with its sleeves rolled up. If we can learn from the early Christians we may discover that the gospel is most fertile where human needs and the calling of Jesus intersect. Today, in each of our communities, we may not be ravaged by fatal plagues, but we face many situations of human need that loving, compassionate followers of Christ could address. Good deeds can be the bridge over which the good news flows. In Augustine’s words, Christians are to “preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” We don't serve to convert. We serve because we are converted. Tutoring, mentoring, sheltering the homeless, caring for children of the incarcerated, providing school supplies, and welcoming immigrants are powerful evangelistic tools. “Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful” is not a dispensational truth to be ignored but may be the best strategy for church growth and church health.
[i] Ibid, P 87
[ii] Ibid, P. 87
[iii] (At the height of the second great epidemic, around 260, in the Easter letter from Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria. In some cities 2/3 of the population died. At the height of the plague of 251 AD, 5,000 people a day were dying in Rome.
[iv] Ibid, P. 83
[v] Ibid, P.84
[vi] Ibid, P. 84
[vii] Ibid, P. 88
Author: Eric Swanson works with Leadership Network (www.leadnet.org)