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Book Review: The Patient Ferment of the Early Church

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If you've been around me the past month or so, you've heard me talk about Kreider's book.  This church history is absolutely relevant to the American Church in the 21st Century.  The first three centuries of the Christian Church and the American/Western Church increasingly have something in common: on the societal level, there is little to no shared Christian worldview, belief or understanding of humanity.

So if this is the case, there might be a logical question that follows: we as Christians are called to make disciples and to share the Good News of Jesus.  How do we do so today?  If our world is more and more like the ancient Roman Empire of old, what can we glean of evangelism and method from the early church?  After all, the early church in the first three centuries, generally speaking, grew by 10% or so every decade.  What can we learn from them?  How did they talk and train their congregants on evangelism and mission?  How did they treat new guests that came to their church?  How did they invite new guests?  And on and on our questions can go.

 

UNEXPECTED FINDS

As Kreider studied what he calls the 'improbable rise of Christianity" in the Roman Empire, he asked this question.  After surveying the available data (which, admittingly, is not vast), he surprisingly learned that “according to the evidence at our disposal, the expansion of the [early] churches was not organized, the product of a mission program; it simply happened” (pg. 9).  Even more surprising was the realization that among all the essays and treatises written in the first three centuries of the church, “they did not write a single treatise on evangelism” (pg. 10).  Other unexpected finds:

 

  • “Church did not use their worship services to attract new people” (pg. 11)
  • In fact, worship services were closed to outsiders for fear of spies, especially in stronger seasons of persecution
  • They did not have formal training of evangelism or how to share the Gospel
  • Yet the early church grew and grew and grew.

 

These are just a few reasons why we can call this growth ‘improbable.’  So how, then, did it grow?

 

Kreider summarizes part of his thesis in the early pages,

 

“They proliferated because the faith that these [early Christians] embodied was attractive to people who were dissatisfied with their old and cultural and religious habits, who felt pushed to explore new possibilities, and who then encountered Christians who embodied a new manner of life that pulled them toward what the Christians called ‘rebirth’ into a new life.”

 

And, importantly, Kreider remarks, “Surprisingly, this happened in a patient manner.”

 

THE LACK OF PATIENCE AMONG THE MODERN CHURCH

            The current ‘church model’ is relatively obsessed with growth.  How can we grow?  How can we add more numbers?  The success of pastors over their churches are largely analyzed through this grid.  Behind this hunger is a lack of patience.  Getting attendance higher, and as quickly as possible, is often the consistent narrative behind success stories of churches when we talk about a flourishing church.  “We were down in attendance, but after five years we had doubled!”

            Of course, people matter, and attendance matters because people matter.  But there is an important nuance behind this modern narrative of ‘successful churches’ that we must address – that Kreider’s book directly addresses – and it is the questions of how we are growing as churches, of what means we are growing, and our understanding of shaping followers of Jesus after they meet him.

            For the early church, the answers to these questions were marked by something we’re missing today: patience.  Patience.  Patience.

 

THE PATIENT GROWTH OF THE EARLY CHURCH – Evangelism as a way of life

            After examining the ministries of many of the early church fathers, we learn that people learned of Christianity not through formal mission or evangelism programs, but through the habits and Jesus-formation of the Christian community.  Therefore, witness began by neighbors “brushing shoulders with Christians in the marketplace.”  Again there are some contextual things to keep in mind – most people in Rome were very skeptical of the early church.  Christians were often persecuted, often accused of secretly having orgies (due to their ‘kiss of peace’ and what they called ‘love feasts’) or even secretly living as cannibals (the Eucharist), and their claim of a single God and their Messiah who was crucified would complicate a straightforward evangelism in the likes of how we think about it today.

            Nevertheless, they grew.  As the Roman way of life continually left more and more people disenfranchised, more and more people, upon brushing shoulders with Christians and hearing some of the actually true rumors of the new way of life among the early Christians, more people were drawn to the Christian Church.

            For example, as Kreider points out, it was normal for a wealthy Roman man of the house to have a wife and female servants.  Many women, if they were to work, were servants of such men.  It was a normal way of Roman life for the man to sleep with all the women in the house, regardless if they consented or not.  More so, if one were to get pregnant and it was an unwanted child, the man was free to ‘expose’ the child in the local garbage dump – an ancient form of abortion.

            Christians, however, did not do this.  This is one reason why, according to archeological finds, there were probably larger amounts of women than men converts in the early church, because women were drawn to a community that would not mistreat them or abuse them or expose their children.  Naturally, the question for such women trapped in this awful Roman way of life would follow: “Christians, why do you live like this?”  Hence the evangelistic process would occur.  Many examples follow: classes of the rich and poor serving and loving one another and worshipping together, Christians tending to the sick at the cost of their lives during times of pandemic, when no one else was caring for them – this plus more clashed with the Roman way of life, and little by little the disenfranchised were drawn to this way of life and met Jesus in the process.  It should remind you of what Jesus once said, that through our way of life and our love of one another that our identity as disciples of Jesus would be exposed (John 13:35).

           

JESUS-LIKE BEHAVIOR AS IMPORTANT AS RIGHT BELIEF
           
This is where I feel the conversation becomes even more important for the current evangelical church that I was raised in, trained in, and where I currently pastor.  For centuries, out of necessity, Protestantism has been defined by what we believe, up and against corruptions of proper belief.  Protestantism began through Luther’s attempt at doctrinal correction of the Catholic Church – the 95 Thesis.

            Ever since, we have written untold volumes of correct doctrine.  In a largely Christianized Western world, this was welcomed.  We had time to argue the finer points of systematic theology because Christianity had been largely embraced.  This isn’t a bad thing, of course.

            However, like most everything, I believe the pendulum swing needs to be corrected.  Kreider sought in his work to find examples of  how the early Christians were trained and discipled once they became Christians.  In modern times, we’re accustomed to baptism as quickly as possible, citing many examples found in the book of Acts.

            Kreider found that in the vast majority of cases, from the 2nd century until Constantine in the early 4thcentury, unless you were a Jewish convert to Christianity, the baptismal process would last anywhere from six months to two years. He argues that, according to a mostly shared ethical framework between Jews and Christians, the conversion process from Jewish to Christian was a bit easier, and mostly focused on points of belief and practice concerning how one was to know God.

            However, there was a much larger gap for the Roman pagan convert.  After their confession of Jesus and faith in the Good News, they were ushered into a long process of catechism training.  Early church documents such as The Apostolic Tradition, the Didache, and others testified to the belief among the early church that “the habit[us] of the Didache’s community was what they did, and the Didache is insistent of the importance of practice” because “the [church leaders knew] that the community must live the gospel if outsiders [were] to find the gospel credible” (pg. 146).  He continues, “How could the Christians undercut this approach to mission?  By admitting new people too quickly whose behavior compromised the Christian’s distinctive attractiveness” (pg. 149).

            I find it interesting, as I went on a following rabbit hole, that our current and more modern catechisms of modern times are almost entirely focused on getting doctrine correct (i.e. New City Catechism), whereas Christian behavior (a direct implication of correct doctrine, of course) gets less attention (and for the record, we use the New City Catechism with my kids almost daily). This is in distinction to the best surviving examples of early catechism from the centuries before Constantine, which almost entirely deal with correct Christian behavior.

            The process of bringing a convert to baptism was similar, according to Kreider, to a sponsorship of an addict within our 12-step programs.  These former pagans needed not just a radical reorientation of doctrinal belief, but training on an entirely new way of life.  Kreider finds that the Gospels and the Sermon on the Mount were among the most popular texts quoted continually (and remember, these are pre-printing press days.  Memorization by hearing and catechism were among the most accessible ways to learn the Scriptures). 

            I do believe that good doctrine matters.  Of course it does.  But perhaps for too long we’ve focused on doctrinal minutia and baptized many very quickly, while not taking as seriously the consideration of discipleship: are those who confessed Jesus truly embodying the witness of the presence of the Spirit in their lives?  Especially in Origen’s ministry, exorcism was a crucial part of the evangelistic process, showing just how strong demonic forces were in controlling these early converts, and stories abound of radical deliverance during the sponsorship process leading up to baptism.

 

CONCLUSION

            I left out much of Kreider’s book, and I highly encourage you to read it.  When I think back on how many people the churches I’ve pastored or helped to pastor in the past, and all the people we baptized – and I realize how few of them are actually still to this day confessing Jesus and find themselves as an active and dependent member of his Church, I wonder – what have we done wrong?

Has the Church been affected by what I like to call the “Amazon effect” – church growth by whatever means we can, baptizing as quickly as we can as soon as someone says the right prayer, and celebrating baptisms as trophies on a shelf to show of our successes?  Have we lost the way in which we talk about correct Christian ‘behavior’ in fear of swinging a moral hammer against others who "drink and smoke and chew and date girls that do”?  I think we need to bring renewal and refreshment to these categories, and begin rethinking how we talk about it all – and live in it.   

The reality is this: somewhere we must find a modern day witness of the church of embracing and living out the Jesus-way of life, without being overly-morally righteous against those around us.  Like the early church, we must realize that our increasingly-post-Christian world will eventually (and I believe, very quickly) potentially leave an entire generation very disenfranchised.  What we teach and say must be revealed by how we live.  I fear that often times the gap of these two things are very wide in the modern American Church.  I think there is much to learn from what Kreider calls the “patient ferment of the early church.”  Perhaps it will not lead to a quickly, sky-rocketing growth in a church.  But it just might lead to more resilient disciples, and a growth that is deep and rich, even if slow. Perhaps something along these lines should be how we think about “church growth” in 2021 and beyond.