For centuries the City of Rome stood out as the bright shining light of the world. It was the seat and center of commerce, politics, religion, and philosophy for the Roman Empire. For Christians of the late 4th and early 5th centuries, it was especially so as the pinnacle of Christianity’s triumph and witness.
It was of course a gut-wrenching blow to Christians when news of Rome’s sacking by the Visigoths spread to the reaches of the empire. One of the great treatises of Western civilization, Augustine’s The City of God was penned in the wake of this devastating news, and lead to a recalibration of his and the Western Church’s theology in many ways—a warning to Christians that this world is really not our home.
The big question is how did this condition become the case? This is precisely the question that sociologist Rodney Stark seeks to answer in his book The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries. It is an amazing shift to consider. Stark himself observes that by the beginning of the 4th century, a little over half of the Roman Empire was Christian, and these were the parts concentrated in cities. Essentially within three centuries, Christianity went from being a backwater folk religion of a couple thousand adherents at the resurrection of Christ to over 30 million followers and became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Christianity took Rome, peacefully through the Gospel.(1)
The Present Challenge
The present problem is that in many ways, the Church in the west is waning. It is not getting stronger, but weaker. The behavior and culture of the early church present an instructive example from which to look. We of course cannot recreate the exact same conditions. But speaker and business coach Brian Tracy has observed that if you want to be successful at something, then look at someone who already succeeded at it, and then just do what they did. (2) So perhaps the early Church has some insights that we can successfully apply to the culture we are in.
I. Open and Exclusive
One of the chief observable characteristics of early Christianity was its intentional presence but simultaneous distinction from the larger Greco-Roman culture. The early Church found a balanced tension between openness and exclusivity. It was not nearly as exclusive as some of the secretive mystery religions like Mithraism, or as culturally and ethnically exclusive as Judaism. In fact the apostolic Church won immediate converts of the many “God-fearers” who wanted to worship the God of Israel but could not scale the cultural and ethnic wall of Judaism. We see this in Acts in the conversions of Cornelius and Lydia (Acts 10 & 16).
On the other hand, the Church was not so “open” that it did not have principles and beliefs like the gods of the Greek and Roman pantheon. The inclusivity of mainstream paganism was such that you could call yourself the worshipper of any and all God’s. Moreover there was no standard held up how one was supposed to act. Unlimited inclusivity leads to a morphing and melting away of a religion—unlimited exclusivity to isolation and irrelevance. The amorphous blob of classic Paganism did not have the structural integrity to stand against a highly principled religion like Christianity that has a social and moral skeletal structure.
An Open Community
By “open” we mean inclusive. The Church offered a message that was available to all regardless of their ethnic, social and economic stature. Moreover they actively invited people into it well before conversion. inclusion in and among Christians created a social context for conversion.
But why is this so? An open community that offered access to its members creates relationship and a context for conversation. Christianity is a religion of the Word. God spoke the word; God gave his word to mankind in the form of the Bible, and the word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). Moreover, Christianity is advanced through the foolishness of preaching (1 Cor. 1:21). Where there is community and word, it leads to conversation, and conversation is the greased tracks of evangelism and disciple-making.
A great deal of research has been done by sociologists today about conversion processes. At the heart of the conversion process are networks of relationships. People begin to identify with a people group first. Once that rapport is gained, it opens the door to dialogue about beliefs.
This has been precisely my experience here pastoring in the Northeast. One example from my own ministry was a young man who started coming to Church with his wife. He even began referring to our Church as “his Church” even though he admitted later that he thought religion was only for “bad people” like criminals to help reform their lives, and not for good people like him. Then one day the lights went on, but it was only after spending a significant period of time with us. He identified with the group first, then conversation lead to deep reevaluation of beliefs and life practices.
II. An Exclusive Community
“Exclusivity” is not a popular word these days. The reigning word is “inclusivity.” Christianity in large part succeeded by how it was inclusive of and cared for the lives and souls of those that were not Christian. It offered an eternal hope. But it believed people would not inherit that hope unless they repented before this life came to a close. And so Christians went out into the world and share their message. But they came preaching an entirely exclusive message. While welcoming all people regardless of their race, wealth, or social pedigree, there was still only one name given among men by which a person may be saved from their sins (Acts 4:12).
Exclusive Beliefs and Practices
The Christian Gospel was presented to the world as the only way for a man to obtain salvation from the one and only God. The Church’s exclusive message gave a missionary focus and force to the Church’s preaching—the result was always confrontation. This was a confrontation achieved by her very presence in the world. As relationships were naturally established, the claims of the Gospel inevitably became the elephant in the room.
Moreover the Church, in spite of her quiet presence within society, she shared an exclusivity of practice. While building relationships, serving, and having compassion on non-Christians, her worship and community practices were exclusive. In the earliest centuries, one could not participate in a Christian worship service at all until one was baptized. The Lord’s Table or “the thanksgiving” (eucharist) was only for the baptized and so on. Full inclusion and participation in the Church and her rites were held close to the chest. Her great mysteries not just “open to the public” The Church had the backbone to say “no.” There were clear lines drawn in the sand.
This created a powerful tension. On the one hand the non-Christian was welcomed to come and see, to be loved, to receive acceptance and compassion. On the other hand, there were clear lines that one must cross before full participation could be experienced. And at the heart of that line was the commitment to not only believe the Gospel message, but to believe it enough to obey and be accountable.
III. The Moral Difference
Perhaps the most exclusive characteristic of the early church was its moral position. While paganism did not have a true moral standard, Christianity thrust upon the world the question of right and wrong in a new way. Led by the ten commandments, they came preaching a Gospel that required men to repent of their sin. The moral depravity of all people was a fundamental assumption of Gospel preaching—sinners need a savior. Paul said that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).
The Church stood up to immorality of all sorts, fornication, adultery, abortion, exposure of unwanted newborns, the gladiatorial games, human trafficking, and the list goes on.
Recently Al Mohler has called the Church to accept her position as a “moral minority” in the cultural sphere. In his article Keeping the Faith in A Faithless Age: the Church as a Moral Minority outlines the necessity of the Church to stand upon unshakable biblical moral truth he writes:
The church is to be a community of character. The character produced by a people who stand under the authority of the Sovereign God of the universe will inevitably be at odds with a culture of unbelief.
This is precisely where we find ourselves. This is precisely where the earliest Christians found themselves. But there is one difference. They were advancing, and we seem to be declining. As Mohler admonishes, the Church needs to accept this role. Adapting and capitulating to the culture will not work. Sociologist Peter Berger has said:
To put it simply, experiments with secularized religion have generally failed; religious movements with beliefs and practices dripping with reactionary supernaturalism… have widely succeeded.(3)
A religious group with “beliefs and practices dripping with reactionary supernaturalism” is a pretty good way to describe the early Church. Does that describe us? In only three centuries, a backwater Galilean Jesus movement peacefully sacked Rome with the grace of God. By the 4th century Rome was indeed a “city set on a hill” where the Gospel was disseminated to the rest of the world (Matt. 5:14)
IV. A People of Character and Peace
I think there is a fundamental contrast in our daily public approach from that of the early Church: The early Church trained members (1) to be morally obedient, and (2) to be a quiet but persistent presence in the public sphere. What this means is that they were highly present, highly interactive, but not public loud-mouths. This gave them credibility to speak when someone asked for a reason of the hope that is in them (1 Peter 3:15). In contrast, I think the Church in the west today seems (1) that we are failing to train her ranks to be really morally upright in most mundane moral affairs, and (2) we do seem to train the church to be very publicly loud in the public sphere. In my opinion it seems to undercut our credibility as the Church. No I am not saying that we be silent. Not at all. Our job is to proclaim! But we should begin with that “quiet and peaceable life” that Paul spoke of that is the foundation of public moral engagement (1 Tim. 2:2).
The Church needs to reassume its role as a moral minority as Mohler has admonished. We have proof it has been done before. The early Church didn’t have that advantage. But it did not stop them. They knew whom they believed and and were persuaded that he was able to overcome if they were quietly and consistently faithful. That is how Christianity sacked Rome with grace.
(1) Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, (New York, Harper One, 1996
(2) Brian Tracy, Focal Point, (New York, AMACOM, 2002), 60.
(3) Peter Berger, “The Desecularization of the World: A Global Overview,” in The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1999), 4.