The Spread of the Early Church

  • Ken Curtis, Ph.D.
  • 2010 3 May
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.