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The Spread of the Early Church

How did the early Christian church survive when the odds were all stacked against it?

Updated Aug 18, 2023
The Spread of the Early Church

How did the early Christian church survive? Humanly speaking, the odds were all stacked against it.

It was unthinkable that a small, despised movement from a corner of Palestine could move out to become the dominant faith of the mighty Roman Empire, an empire steeped in fiercely defended traditional pagan religions. The spread of the Christian church in its earliest centuries is one of the most amazing phenomena in all of human history. The church was considered a religio prava, an illegal and depraved religion. Wave after wave of persecution was unleashed to squash it. At least two of the persecutions were empire-wide and intended to destroy the church. So how did this young fledgling movement make it?

More than a building

The earliest Christians did not have church buildings. They typically met in homes. (The first actual church building to be found is at Dura Europos on the Euphrates, dating about 231.) They did not have public ceremonies that would introduce them to the public. They had no access to the mass media of their day. So how can we account for their steady and diverse expansion over the first three centuries?

After the Apostle Paul, we do not run across many "big names" as missionaries in the first few hundred years of Christian history. Instead the faith spread through a multitude of humble, ordinary believers whose names have been long forgotten.

To the cities!

Early Christianity was primarily an urban faith, establishing itself in the city centers of the Roman Empire. Most of the people lived close together in crowded tenements. There were few secrets in such a setting. The faith spread as neighbors saw the lives of the believers close-up, on a daily basis.

And what kind of lives did they lead? Justin Martyr, a noted early Christian theologian, wrote to Emperor Antoninus Pius and described the believers: "We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity; before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything, but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ, we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies and try to win over those who hate us without just cause."

In another place Justin points out how those opposed to Christianity were sometimes won over as they saw the consistency in the lives of believers, noting their extraordinary forbearance when cheated and their honesty in business dealings.

Word games with "Our Father"

Perhaps we can better understand the remarkable spread of the faith by remembering what a jolt it must have been to the Roman world for the early Christians to come teaching about God as "Our Father." In that world, people felt, like so many do today, they were at the mercy of fate, victims of chance, dependent on luck, their destiny determined by blind astrological forces. By contrast, Christian believers witnessed to a personal God who could be approached as "our Father." This radical idea liberated those who were captive to fatalistic resignation.

An indirect testimony to the importance of this is perhaps found in this mysterious Latin word square that has been found in many places from England to Mesopotamia. Two were found at Pompeii which would have to date back to before 79 AD when the city was destroyed. See how the words can be spelled forwards and backwards in any column or line.






The letters can be rearranged in a cross to Paternoster ("Our Father" in Latin) twice with "A" and "O" left over. These are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet - Alpha and Omega, a New Testament designation of Christ














Care and Prayer

Christians became known as those who cared for the sick. Many were known for the healing that resulted from their prayers. Christians also started the first "Meals on Wheels." By the year 250, they were feeding more than 1500 of the hungry and destitute in Rome every day.

When Emperor Julian ("the Apostate") wanted to revive pagan religion in the mid-300s, he gave a most helpful insight into how the church spread. This opponent of the faith said that Christianity "has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers and through their care of the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar and that the [Christians] care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help we should render them."

On the surface, the early Christians appeared powerless and weak, they were an easy target for scorn and ridicule. They had no great financial resources, no buildings, no social status, no government approval, no respect from the educators. And after they became separated from their first-century association with the Jewish synagogues, they lacked institutional backing and an ancient tradition to appeal to.

But what finally mattered is what they did have. They had a faith. They had a fellowship. They had a new way of life. They had a confidence that their Lord was alive in heaven and guiding their daily lives. These were the important things. And it made all the difference in laying a Christian foundation for all of Western civilization.

Our own amazing times

In many ways the spread of Christianity in our present generation is as amazing as in the first three centuries. For example, over the past 40 years the church under the communist regime in China has multiplied many times over. Despite official opposition, they have developed a rapidly spreading network of house churches that is reminiscent of the early church. This success is mirrored in many other places around the globe.

What Made the Early Church So Effective?

(The following is a transcript of the video above)

The church that turned the world upside down was a healthy, vibrant church. You could describe them as a well church. They were in good health. And so I'm going to use that word well as an acronym. W-E-L-L. Aren't you impressed I can spell the word well? And here's what it's an acronym for. They were a worshiping church. They were an evangelistic church. They were a learning church. They were a loving church. Every one of these principles was in play in the church that changed the world. So that's for the sake of helping you to remember it. But now I'm going to change the order and follow the pattern as laid out by Acts 2. So let's start with they were a learning church. Verse 42. They continued steadfastly in the Apostles' doctrine. This is a principle that we can employ to summarize the book of Acts.

It is the Spirit of God working through the Word of God in the hearts of the people of God. Again, the Spirit of God working through the Word of God in the hearts of the people of God. These folks were empowered by the Spirit, and the way they showed it was by studying the Bible. A Spirit-filled church will be a Bible studying church.

Okay, number two, there were a loving church. Look at verse 42. They continued steadfastly in fellowship. This word fellowship comes from the Greek word koinonia. It's a very hard word to translate, quite honestly. It can be translated partnership, communion, fellowship. It is a word that is quite expansive. But the idea that is being communicated here was as they were being taught the Word of God, they wanted to share it with others. I don't know about you, but when I find a good restaurant, I want to take people there.

Hey, check this out. And not only should you go to this restaurant, but order this. This is the thing to order. And you like to see them discover it as well. Well, I think when you really are being blessed and being taught the Word, you'll want to share it with others. Fellowship is more than just socializing. I mean, you can socialize around a lot of things. You can go to a car show and talk about cars, and you can go to a gun show and shoot each other. I don't know, talk about guns, and a lot of things you can talk about. But when we come to church, we will talk about all kinds of things, but our primary reason is to talk about the things of God, right?

Point number three, they were a worshiping church. They were a worshiping church, verse 46 and 47. So continuing dealing with one accord in the temple and breaking bread from house to house they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. This phrase, gladness and sincerity of heart literally means with unaffected joy. So there was joy, there was vibrancy, but there was also reverence because verse 43 tells us fear came upon every soul and wonders and signs were done through the apostles. So those are elements that should be in our worship. There should be reverence and joy. The Spirit-filled church will be a worshiping church. The Spirit-filled Christian will be a worshiping Christian.

So let's review. They were a learning church. They were a loving church. They were an evangelistic church. Verse 47, the Lord added to the church daily those that were being saved. The world watched this and was amazed, these Christians learning and loving and caring and worshiping and praying, and it just drew people in.

And there was continual evangelism happening in the early church and there was no apology for it. And that's what should happen in any church that is doing it the way God wants us to do it. Because new believers are the lifeblood of the church. I've said before, if you show me a church that doesn't have a flow of new believers coming in, I will show you a church that is stagnating. And why is this? Because new believers will help us older believers stay our feet spiritually. You see, the Great Commission is not to just go out and preach the gospel. It's to go out and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to observe all things that Christ has commanded, and lo, He is with us even to the end of the age. It's to go and make disciples. What does that mean? It means you go out to the best of your ability, you seek to lead a person to Christ and help them to grow up spiritually.

Take them under your wing, help them grow in their faith. They're going to ask you questions about things you've forgotten. They're going to get you studying your Bible like never before. That's why older believers need newer believers. And of course, newer believers need older believers to temper them and to keep them strong. Help them get a good foundation. Think about somebody else and share the Word of God with them and encourage them, and you'll find that God will replenish you in the process. The early church understood this and they gave out and they helped young believers grow in the faith. This is the church that turned their world upside down.

("How Did the Early Church Manage to be Effective?" by Greg Laurie, published on on August 18, 2011)


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