The Gospel of Jesus Christ spread throughout the culture of the Roman Empire much because of the identifying characteristics that the culture saw in the early church.
The early church was misunderstood by Roman Culture: Now on the one hand believers were suspect to the culture that day. They had practices like a secret supper where they supposedly ate the flesh and drank the blood of some man named “Jesus”; so the Romans asked if they were cannibals? They called each other “brother & sister”; did that insinuate incest? They didn’t worship the Roman gods; so were Christians atheist? Though there was confusion and distrust, and even false accusations about the Christians, and persecution from the establishment, there were also observations and a growing admiration for the early church as well.
In AD 112 a letter written from the Governor of Asia Minor to the Emperor Trajan states:
“many of all ages…every level of society…male & female… (free or slave) in towns & villages…& throughout the country…” Were becoming “Christians” and he feared; “the shrines of the Roman gods were becoming deserted”
As Paul said in Galatians 3:28 There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Because of the dignity and equality expressed in the early church, Christianity appealed to women, to the poor and to slaves, but also to some who had means. The message that Christ came and died for all of them spoke with significance. The Christians also treated all with dignity and love. So we see these characteristics within the Ancient Church:
High Convictions, High Love, and Practical Expression-
1. High Convictions: They actually believed in something. They believed enough in something that often they were willing to die for what they believed. They believed that THE EVENT had happened, that the God of the Universe had invaded space and time, that God came down from heaven and became man. He had come powerfully to redeem men from sin, evil, and darkness-
“Let me illustrate this further. Who is powerful enough to enter the house of a strong man like Satan and plunder his goods? Only someone even stronger–someone who could tie him up and then plunder his house.”- Mark 3:27
As St Ignatius (2nd century) summed up “The son of God became a man so that men could become the sons of God.” He had come to make all things right, He’d begun this process and would one day soon complete it. As 2nd Corinthians 5:19 says “For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them…”
They actually believed in something, and they believed enough in something that often they were willing to die for what they believed. The early church was known for their high convictions that guided their life and actions, even to the point of going to the arena, being burned alive, or thrown to the beasts.
2. High Love: God’s grace and love directed the believer outward to the needs of his fellow men, or in Jesus’ words-
“You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless.” –Matthew 5:13 And also “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” –John 13:35
Tertullian wrote, in the early 2nd century “The pagan’s remark ‘See how the Christians love one another’…” Oh that it were true now, it can be, but we must reorient our hearts.
The high convictions and high love we see in the ancient church produced a practical expression of love within the community of the day.
3. Practical Expression: They took the words of Jesus, and of the disciples, seriously and lived them out in practical expression-
“I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.”- Matthew 25:36,
They took seriously James’ exhortation of caring for the widows and orphans in James 1:27. So, in the early church we see an activism which took care of widows and orphans, which visited the sick and the prisoners, that loved the poor and the slaves, that took children in who had been left on the street to die, that buried the discarded dead because they were the image of God, and they were known for their open-handed generosity.
In our time the culture will have a problem with the church’s high convictions which should go against the grain of the culture whenever the culture is against the grain of Jesus’ teachings, and what God has revealed in the Bible, for God has not been silent.
But the church’s love and activism and expression, not divorced from its convictions, should also be such that bear witness to a world in need of hope.
(kudos to Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language, and Robert Webber’s Ancient Future Faith)