How did Christianity Spread?
How did Christianity spread? What happened to turn a group of 120 Jews into a movement 30 million strong – and including men and women of every known nationality – in just 350 years?
This past February’s ‘Book of the Month’ was Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity, and though I didn’t get around to posting much about my reading, it did spark a lot of thoughts. So I’m using it as a sort of jumping-off-point to discuss Christianity’s rise and growth over the past 2,000 years. Today we’re going to zero-in on 3 reasons that the early church saw such phenomenal growth.
So, how did Christianity spread? Let’s find out.
“Blessed are the merciful…”
If you think living in a modern city is bad, go visit the first century. Ancient Greco-Roman cities were crowded, unsanitary, and prone to disaster.
Some estimates put Rome’s density at “302 people per acre (compared with 122 in modern Calcutta and 100 in Manhattan).” With this in mind, imagine the quality of life (or the smell) in one of these cities. There were no building codes (Rome “was constantly filled with the noise of buildings collapsing”). No sewer systems (people dumped their chamber pots “in the open ditches running down streets”). No police force (“Night fell over the city like the shadow of a great danger, diffused, sinister, menacing. Everyone fled to his home, shut himself in, and barricaded the entrance.”). And no hospitals (“…the majority of persons living in Greco-Roman cities must have suffered from chronic health problems that caused them pain and some degree of disability, and of which many would soon die.”).
And the cherry on top of it all was the fact that most people weren’t fans of charity. In fact, “mercy was regarded as a character defect.”
So life was awful and nobody cared.
But then Jesus came along. And he said something revolutionary: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7).
And he didn’t just talk about mercy – he lived it. He healed and touched and encouraged the dregs of society. He went places no respectable person would.
And his disciples followed suit.
What a difference mercy made! In fact, one study based on tombstones shows that “early Christians outlived their pagan neighbors.” Why? They cared for one another. They showed mercy.
At a time when there was no social safety net, Christians invented one. “All congregations had deacons whose primary job was the support of the sick, infirm, poor, and disabled.”
At a time when getting sick (especially if you caught the ‘plague’) would get you thrown into the street, Christians “met the obligation to care for the sick rather than desert them.” And why? Because they knew that even if they caught the disease and died, they had eternal life waiting for them.
Stark notes that “it is entirely plausible that Christian nursing would have reduced mortality by as much as two-thirds!”
Christians lived longer and better lives because of their commitment to mercy and acts of charity. And longer, better lives meant a greater opportunity for the gospel to spread.
How did Christianity spread? Through acts of mercy.
“…there is neither male nor female…”
Non-Christian Women in the Ancient World
It’s a little-known and too-little-discussed fact that Paul sends personal greetings to fifteen prominent women in his letter to the Romans. Contrary to popular belief, Paul was not anti-woman. And neither was Christianity. In fact, Christianity made unprecedented room for women in a number of ways.
Before looking at how women fared in Christianity, it would make sense to consider how they fared under paganism.
Greco-Roman women were married off at very young ages (“often before puberty”) to older men and had little to no say in the matter. They had limited (or no) property rights. They were sometimes semi- or outright secluded. And they could easily be divorced and left with nothing.
Even within Judaism, women were often treated like second-class citizens. One rabbi famously wrote that it would be better to “burn the Torah than teach it to a woman.”
Women in Early Christianity
But Jesus didn’t follow the popular advice of his day. He had women disciples and interacted with women on a regular (sometimes scandalous) basis. And when Jesus rose from the dead, the first evangelists commissioned were women (see Matthew 28:1-7).
Contrary to popular opinion regarding certain statements Paul made, there is a tremendous amount of evidence that shows women held major leadership positions within the early church. Phoebe was called a deaconess (see Romans 16:1-2). Junia was likely considered an apostle (see Romans 16:7). And Priscilla – along with her husband Aquila – privately corrected Apollo (see Acts 18:26). Not only that, but Pliny the Younger, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen all acknowledge the presence of women leaders in the early church. One scholar sums up the evidence by writing, “Both in terms of their position in the larger society and in terms of their participation in the Christian communities, then, a number of women broke through the normal expectations of female roles.”
But it wasn’t just leadership roles. Christian women were less likely to be murdered as babies (one Roman wrote, “you should bear offspring, if it is a male, let it live; if it is a female, expose it.”). They were married at much older ages than their pagan counterparts – and they often had a say in their marriages. Likewise, divorce within Christianity was far less common because of Jesus’ harsh condemnations of it.
Again, Jesus’ teachings made the difference. Christianity was a much more desirable religion for women of the ancient world. And this contributed significantly to its early growth.
Women were drawn to Christianity. And they often converted their husbands. But even when their husbands remained as they were – the children were usually raised as Christians.
So how did Christianity spread? By elevating women.
“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness…”
Persecution Under the Fist of Rome
Sporadic empire-wide and local persecutions fill the pages of early Christian history. Nero famously turned Christians into living candles during the first century. Domitian had a number of Christians murdered. As did Marcus Aurelius, Decius, and Valerian.
During this time, edicts banning churches were passed. The government tried to force Christians to make pagan sacrifices. And Scripture was burned.
And yet… Christianity continued growing.
In fact, “in 303 when the ‘Great Persecution’ began, at least 10 percent of the whole empire had become Christian, and Christians probably were a majority in the major cities.”
How did Christianity spread in the face of such persecution?
Finding Peace in Persecution
I believe it – once again – goes back to Jesus’ teaching. He had told his disciples, “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).
But he didn’t just preach it. He practiced it. As Jesus faced his own imminent death, he did so with grace and peace. And thus, he set an example for all Christians to follow.
And they did. We read about Stephen’s martyrdom early in the book of Acts and find striking similarities between it and Jesus’ own death. They both forgave their attackers. They didn’t fight back. Both of them exemplified a humble submission.
Martyrdom played an important role in the growth of early Christianity for a couple of reasons. First, it encouraged others to press on and keep the faith. Seeing (or hearing about) a fellow believer who was unswerving in devotion inspired those who were facing similar fates. And though there were Christians who denied the faith to save their lives, martyrs reminded all believers that faithfulness was possible.
As Rodney Stark puts it, “of all the proofs and all of the testimonials, nothing approaches the credibility inherent in martyrdom.” When we read the stories of those early martyrs – some undergoing tortures we can’t even imagine – and hear of their peace, what other conclusion can we come to but that something supernatural was sustaining them?
And this fact didn’t escape the pagan Romans. The ancient physician Galen noted that the Christian’s “contempt of death…is patent to us every day.”
How did Christianity spread? Ironically enough, through persecution.
What was the secret ingredient?
In The Triumph of Christianity, Stark notes several other factors that contributed to early Christian growth. But I believe they can all be traced back to one thing. Or rather, one person: Jesus.
Jesus’ teachings and example put the Church on track to grow in ways that no other religion ever had. Think about it. In AD 40, there likely fewer than 5,000 Christians. By AD 350 – only 300 years later – there were over 30 million. And none of that growth took place through battle or conquest. It happened one soul at a time – through mercy and love. And in spite of much opposition.
Stark dismisses the idea that Christianity needed a supernatural boost for its growth. But I disagree. It not only needed one, it had one.
And his name is Jesus.
If you’d like to learn more about the growth of Christianity, check out Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion.
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