Note: This essay is part of a series that I am doing for a class on church history. This part of the series is a summary of some of the reasons the early and medieval church experienced rapid growth.
Christianity seemed to defy the odds of a start-up religion… Not only did it survive in the early years, but it thrived! There are different reasons for this rapid growth of the church at different times through history.
The Early (Post-Apostolic) Church experienced a great deal of persecution. Typically persecution would snuff out any other false religion that lacked the substance it needed to keep loyal followers. But keeping followers was only one thing. It was something entirely different to turn that persecution into new converts. What made the Christians different was their response to the persecution that they received. Not only did they keep true to Christian teaching to do things like forgive and love even their enemies, but they also considered it an honor to be tortured and even martyred for their faith.
This atypical response to persecution seemed to draw a great deal of admiration for these martyrs and the religion that they took a stand for. This admiration translated into many new converts. This dedication to the faith and response by onlookers must have been quite widespread.recognizes this in the writings of the early church fathers:
“The fathers in the second century describe in glowing terms, and not without rhetorical exaggeration, the rapid conquests of the Gospel. The number of converts in the reign of Hadrian must have been very large. Otherwise we cannot account for the enthusiastic language of Justin Martyr respecting the multitude of professing Christians. Tertullian writes in a similar strain. Irenaeus refers to Barbarians who have believed without having a knowledge of letters, through oral teaching merely.”
This rapid expansion continued from the early church period into the medieval period. Eventually the church became an accepted religion by the government which allowed the formerly persecuted Christian to come out of hiding. Emperor Theodosius then proclaimed Christianity the official state religion in 380. When these things happened, it created a favorable environment where people were able to share their faith with others without the fear of persecution. During this time Christians were able to evangelize to surrounding areas, and continued to experience great growth. In reference to this rapid extension of Christianity at the close of the early period,states:
“Missionaries and church officers were sent out from Rome with authority to plant missions, build up literature, and indoctrinate the people in the truths of Christianity. In many instances these attempts failed, the missionaries were killed, and the old heathenism of the provinces triumphed over the young Christianity. But the tide of religious truth was too strong for final resistance.”
So whether favorable or unfavorable conditions existed, the early Christian church was able to thrive and experience great growth. There were many attacks against its credibility both externally (persecution) and internally (heresy), but the Truth and the defenders of the Truth prevailed time and time again throughout history. Today’s church has much to learn from those who have gone before us and laid a foundation that we can build on as we continue to spread the Gospel message, and I pray that Christians today strive to live a life worthy of the Call. As I think about not only the great leaders, but also the multitudes of Christians who risked it all for the sake of the Gospel, I cannot help but to think of the words of the writer of Hebrews when he states, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1, ESV).