Review: How the early church grew

19 October 2021

Church history is not everybody’s cup of tea. But some grasp of it, however weak, is better than none and prevents us from becoming rootless Christians. This fascinating book focuses on the first four centuries of the Christian era. It is

The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire by Alan Kreider (Baker Academic, 2016)

It builds its case around the words ‘patient’ and ‘ferment’. The early church never got up-tight about evangelism; it focused on living in line with Jesus’ teaching and example, and patiently trusted God to add to its numbers automatically. And he did just that! The ‘ferment’ idea is that of quiet change going on at the heart of things, like yeast in dough. And that, too, was a notable feature of the early church’s development and influence.

The word ‘habitus’ crops up a lot. It refers to the way of life of the believers in Jesus: their actions and reactions based on their convictions about what it means to live in a truly Christian way. Patience was a key element, in its broad sense that includes aspects like non-retaliation and the acceptance of societal pressure. In an age when violent persecution arose regularly, this was vital.

Their behaviour naturally posed a threat to a society based on military force and where people were entertained by watching gladiatorial combat. The Christians refused to take up arms or to attend the shows in the local amphitheatre. Their quiet resistance to these social pressures both annoyed their neighbours and attracted them.

It will surprise some modern Christians to know that, in these early days of the church, a three-year process of instruction and catechism was required, with many checks, before a would-be Christian was allowed to be baptised and participate in the Eucharist. This meant that the subsequent drop-out rate was low: people knew what they had signed up for. The book looks in some detail at the content of the catechism, then goes on to examine how the Christians worshipped together, once baptised and in full fellowship.

Huge changes touched the church, of course, when the Emperor Constantine became sympathetic to Christianity, early in the fourth century. For believers, respectability now replaced persecution. The book looks at the wide-ranging effects of this change for local churches across the Empire.

Kreider’s book is extremely well documented, with prolific references to the writings of early Christian leaders like Justin, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Tertullian, Augustine and others, some of whom wrote long treatises on the subject of Christian patience.

We can learn many lessons from the early church, and this book will highlight some of them. At the same time, our twenty-first century world is different in many ways, and we would not want to apply all of those lessons slavishly as the only way forward.

This is one of the most fascinating and thought-provoking books I have read for a long time. If you are in any form of church leadership you will find it particularly helpful.

Here’s a selection of quotations, with page numbers.

The Christians believed that God is patient and that Jesus visibly embodied patience. And they concluded that they, trusting in God, should be patient—not controlling events, not anxious or in a hurry, and never using force to achieve their ends.  (p1)

When challenged about their ideas, Christians pointed to their actions. They believed that their habitus, their embodied behavior, was eloquent. Their behavior said what they believed; it was an enactment of their message. And the sources indicate that it was their habitus more than their ideas that appealed to the majority of the non-Christians who came to join them.  (p2)

According to the evidence at our disposal, the expansion of the churches was not organized, the product of a mission program; it simply happened.  (p9)

In 256 Cyprian wrote a treatise of encouragement for his people. “Beloved brethren,” he wrote, “[we] are philosophers not in words but in deeds; we exhibit our wisdom not by our dress, but by truth; we know virtues by their practice rather than through boasting of them; we do not speak great things but we live them.”  (p13)

Tertullian urges Christians, who live by Jesus’s precepts, to wear their oppressors out with patience: “Let wrong-doing grow weary from your patience.”  (p23)

French reflexive sociologist Pierre Bourdieu points us to another motivator that he believes is deeper which he calls habitus. Bourdieu contends that the knowledge that truly forms us is more profoundly a part of us than our intellectual knowledge. It is “corporeal knowledge,” a “system of dispositions” that we carry in our bodies.  (p39)

The Christian leaders recognized that, even after catechesis and baptism, there were profound continuities in the social reflexes of their people. Their wiring was almost hard. But not quite. Change was…not impossible.  (p41)

The worship of the Christian community, repeated week by week, shaped the worshipers’ habitus by giving them kinesthetic as well as verbal habits.  (p51)

It was not primarily what the Christians said that carried weight with outsiders; it was what they did and embodied that was both disconcerting and converting. It was their habitus—their reflexes and ways of life that suggested that there was another way to perceive reality—that made the Christians interesting, challenging, and worth investigating.  (p51)

What the outsiders saw was not their worship. It was their habitus. According to Tertullian, the outsiders looked at the Christians and saw them energetically feeding poor people and burying them, caring for boys and girls who lacked property and parents, and being attentive to aged slaves and prisoners. They interpreted these actions as a “work of love.” And they said, “Vide, look! How they love one another.” They did not say, “Aude, listen to the Christians’ message”; they did not say, “Lege, read what they write.” Hearing and reading were important, and some early Christians worked to communicate in these ways too. But we must not miss the reality: the pagans said look! Christianity’s truth was visible; it was embodied and enacted by its members.  (p61)

Christians were uncomfortably aware that pagans often attributed problems to the presence of Christians: “Many are complaining and are blaming us because wars are arising more frequently, because the plague, famine are raging.” This analysis could lead to persecution.  (p64)

[Re the plague]  As Cyprian wrote, some Christians were upset when they observed that “the power of this disease attacks our people equally with the pagans.” Cyprian would have none of this; in his sermon he simply reminds the people that Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, had said that God sends the rain on the just and the unjust, and by extension the plague could also descend on everybody without distinction.  (p66)

Christians followed their business opportunities or the imperatives of their jobs by moving from their home areas to new areas as merchants, artisans, doctors, prisoners, slaves, and (by the third century) soldiers. As they traveled, they often moved in existing networks of family, profession, and faith (not least communities of Jews). Taking their faith with them, in new places they founded Christian cells. One scholar has called this process “migration mission.”  (p75)

As the worldwide Christian movement gained in membership, women played an indispensable part in the story.  (p82)

The significance of women in the early centuries was not in their institutional leadership but in their sheer number. It may be hard to prove this, but I am convinced that from an early date the majority of Christians were women.  (p83)

Christian catechists and writers in other parts of the ancient world also gave prominence to the “swords into plowshares” text. According to Gerhard Lohfink, this is the prophetic passage the early Christian writers cited more often than any other.  (p92)

Michael Green, assessing the apologetic writings for their evangelistic success, has concluded that there is “no example of an outsider being converted to Christianity by reading an Apologetic writing.”  (p93)

In the ancient world, when Christians were at their best, they sensed a dynamic interplay between indigenizing and being pilgrim, between affirmation and critique. They lived in existential tension between being at home and being strangers.  (p98)

Nothing did more to make the Christian communities distinctive than their sheer heterogeneity. Not only were women and men together; so also were children and old people.  (p102)

Even into the third century, their meetings, although structured, seem to have been characterized by emotional intensity and unpredictability.  (p105)

Ancient writers…more often mention exorcism than anything else as a cause of conversion to Christianity.  (p112)

According to Henry Chadwick, “The practical application of charity was probably the most potent single cause of Christian success.”  (p117)

Justin asserted that the church’s growth was a product of the Christians’ distinctive approach to enemies. Why do Christians love and pray for and persuade their enemies? So the enemies will become brothers: “so that they [our enemies], living according to the fair commands of Christ, may share with us the good hope of receiving the same things [that we will] from God, the master of all.”  (p118)

By the late second century many Christian communities had decided that outsiders—non-Christians—could not be admitted to their worship services.  (p134)

It was not Christian worship that attracted outsiders; it was Christians who attracted them, and outsiders found the Christians attractive because of their Christian habitus, which catechesis and worship had formed.  (p135)

Typically the earlier churches held their primary meetings in the evenings, but by the first half of the third century most had their main services in the morning. The churches had moved from being a meal society to being a worship assembly, and their primary meeting had moved from dinner to breakfast.  (p136)

The true prophets were not those who said inspiring things; they were those who “behave like the Lord.” The Didache notes, “It is by their conduct that the false prophet and the [true] prophet can be distinguished.”  (p140)

Christians have renounced their old habitus and entered an alternative, life-giving habitus in each of the four areas: in sex, continence; in place of magic, dedication to God; in wealth, “bringing what we have into a common fund and sharing with everyone in need”; in violence and xenophobia, “living together and praying for our enemies, and trying to persuade those who unjustly hate us.” This new habitus, Justin contends, is rooted in the teachings of Christ, “whose word was the power of God.”  (p143)

Unlike many churches today, the third-century churches described by the Apostolic Tradition did not try to grow by making people feel welcome and included. Civic paganism did that. In contrast, the churches were hard to enter. They didn’t grow because of their cultural accessibility; they grew because they required commitment to an unpopular God who didn’t require people to perform cultic acts correctly but instead equipped them to live in a way that was richly unconventional.  (p149)

Non-Christians were at times attracted by the Christians and interested in exploring Christianity further. The Christians could not take them to Sunday worship services—these were off limits to people until they had been catechized and baptized. But the Christians could invite their friends to go with them early on a weekday to meet the church’s “teachers.”  (p149)

Church leaders of a later age might have said, “Let’s admit them as they do their current jobs and eventually, when they have ‘heard the word,’ they will think their way into a new life.” The church of the Apostolic Tradition says in effect, “No, our approach is the opposite. We believe that people live their way into a new kind of thinking.”  (p151)

The theologian Origen likened the catechumens’ experience to the Israelites’ crossing the Red Sea; in this, they had left their bondage in Egypt but had not yet crossed the Jordan. Like the Israelites, the catechumens were in the wilderness, a place of unlearning and learning, of testing and deciding. In this liminal place, the catechumens had to choose—did they want to go back to their old life, or did they want to take the risk of being immersed in a new life?  (p153)

The catechists knew that people are profoundly formed by the stories they tell; therefore, many catechists made it a priority to present to the catechumens the Bible’s narrative, which would replace the pagan stories as their primary fund of memory.  (p157)

[Re Cyprian on catechesis]  Catechumens are to be nonviolent in their attitudes, words, and physical bearing; they are to be humble, to accept oppression, to overcome anger, to refuse to curse and slander, to accept martyrdom, and to forgive others.173 In five of his precepts, Cyprian specifically enjoins Christians to live with patientia.  (p168)

In North Africa, according to Tertullian, the bishops did allow candidates to discuss theology—at the right time. The right time was the weeks prior to baptism.  (p181)

[Re Origen on those just baptised]  And then for the first time they take part in the Eucharist, in which they receive milk and honey as well as bread and wine. They have entered the promised land.  (p183)

Christians claimed that through their worship services God changed them and strengthened them to cope with the precarious realities and daunting problems of daily living.  (p186)

Christians did not worry that absence of the pagans from their services constituted a lost opportunity. Their worship was not evangelistic; it was not “seeker sensitive.” Their intent in worshiping was to glorify God rather than to attract outsiders.  (p189)

There was encounter with the Bible and teaching by leaders with whom there could be interaction.  (p194)

According to Hermas, prophetic perception and exhortation were a normal part of the evening worship services of the Roman Christians, not the vocation of only one prophet.  (p196)

The early Christian writers gave exceptional attention to prayer, vastly more than to the sermon.  (p204)

There is no explicit record of the Lord’s Prayer being used in eucharistic services until the late fourth century.  (p206)

Origen in Caesarea saw it as natural that believers, rich and poor, would stand so close together in prayer that they would overhear each other; and because of what they heard, they could engage in acts of mutual aid, meeting each other’s needs… A doctor “is standing by one who is sick and is praying for health; . . . it is manifest that he would be moved to heal the one who prays.” A wealthy person “hears the prayer of a poor person who lifts up an appeal to God on account of his necessity. It is obvious that he will fulfill the prayer of the poor person.”  (p206)

Tertullian voiced another concern—the believers’ experience that the God to whom they passionately prayed did not always answer immediately. The church, he wrote, is like the little ship in Matthew 8:24 in which Jesus’s disciples are being tossed about by waves (persecutions and temptations), and the Master does not respond: “In his patience [he] is as it were asleep.” Tertullian urged believers to be patient. At the right time, in response to the prayers of the people, the Master would awaken, “calm the world and restore tranquility to his own.”  (p209)

Scholars have noted in bewilderment that the early Christians did not spend a lot of time praying for the conversion of outsiders.139 Instead, energized by the power of God that they experienced in worship, many of them lived interesting lives. And the rumors got out. Christian worship was a place of empowerment.  (p211)

The kiss of peace also shaped Christian witness. Believers, many of them poor, emerged from worship with the exhilarating knowledge that they had kissed unequals on the level. I, a struggling stoneworker, have kissed a decurion! Whatever others might say about them, the believers knew that they were people of worth, brothers and sisters in Christ. They knew this in their bodies. Outsiders would look at them and wonder what had happened to them in worship that gave them dignity and confidence.  (p220)

The Didascalia’s authors were not particularly concerned about mission. They assumed the churches were growing but didn’t write much about growth. Significantly, they didn’t urge the clergy or laity to evangelize. According to their understanding, spreading the message was God’s work, and it was their calling to be “helpers for God.”  (p226)

Late in the second century the church reached a tipping point. According to Georg Schöllgen, the church’s numbers had grown to the point that their patterns of order and behavior were no longer working well and needed to be changed.  (p231)

[Re the Roman emperor Constantine]  In my view, Constantine became a Christian, but not until just before he died. And his conversion did not come in a moment but was the culmination of a process of conversion. Constantine became a Christian when he, like the Christians for centuries before him, submitted himself to catechesis and baptism.  (p251)

[Re the views of Lactantius]  Religion cannot be promoted by compulsion. The advocates of a religion must make their case by patience. When people seek to defend a religion by bloodshed and torture, the religion is “polluted and outraged.”  (p259)

Constantine was saying to the “saints” that because he wanted life to be governed by reason, there must reasonably be more than one habitual way to be Christian—and that it would be legitimate for some Christians to kill judicially and in battle.  (p262)

These examples indicate an emperor with a short fuse and unreconstructed habitus; he was still reflexively in the thrall of dignitas and violence. So it’s not surprising that in 326, whatever offenses his son Crispus and his wife Fausta may (or may not) have committed, Constantine responded not by forgiving them but by contriving their execution. If Constantine had experienced a conversion of lifestyle and habitus, he could have responded differently to these agonizingly broken relationships—and given a moving Christian witness to the empire.  (p264)

Constantine did not approach religious policy as a baptized believer in the Christian tradition. Instead, he approached it as a traditional Roman with Christian affinities who was convinced that the religious cult played a central role in unifying society.  (p267)

Constantine’s use of state power was not to root un-Christian behavior out of the church but rather to root heresy out of society. This was the aim of the council at Nicaea to which Constantine summoned the bishops in 325, and whose creed and canons he backed up by banishings.  (p268)

The move to crush illicit Christian groupings was rooted in Constantine’s anti-heresy edict of 330, which according to Stuart Hall was “an imperial assault on voluntary Christianity.  (p276)

For earlier Christians patience had been the “highest virtue”; for Augustine it has become an ambivalent virtue: it “might be bad—if not directed to a just cause—or good, if it was.”  (p282)

As Augustine preached his sermons, always open to dialogue, the people repeatedly interjected “their usual cry, ‘One is free to believe or not to believe. With whom did Christ use force? Whom does he compel?’” Augustine knew how to respond to this usual cry. He pointed to Christ who used force, who coerced Paul into conversion by blinding him, as a result of which “the Church, then, imitates its Lord in forcing the Donatists.”  (p288)

Augustine confronted the apparent effectiveness of force; what he repeatedly called exempla—experiences, facts—demonstrated that a just impatience works!66 In light of the evidence, Augustine was convinced that he should turn away from the traditional Christian missional approach that was saturated in patience. His On Patience rationalized his turning.  (p295)


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