By the end of the Apostolic age (100 A.D.) the Church had pretty much been established in all parts of the Roman empire and the Mediterranean world. It is indeed true that “the small mustard seed of the upper room at Pentecost had grown into a mighty tree. And that by the power of Christ Who gathers His church by His Word and Spirit.” (cf. Rev. C. Hanko’s article in the previous issue). In this article we shall attempt to trace the history of the growth and spread of the church in the four centuries immediately following the death of the last Apostle, John, in A.D. 100.
This is in many ways a most fascinating chapter in the history of God’s church. It was an age marked by many and diverse phenomena. During this period we find the birth and growth of Asceticism, the forerunner of the monasticism of the Middle Ages. This was a period of persecution such as the church has never experienced since. From Nero (A.D. 64) to the year 305 the church endured the “fiery trial” of which Peter speaks in I Peter 4:12. A great many heresies and false teachers made their appearance in these years. And during this period four of the seven great ecumenical councils of the church met (Nicea 325, Constantinople 381, Ephesus 431, and Chalcedon 451) and developed the truth positively over against various departures. And all during this time the church enjoyed a rather remarkable growth throughout the world, making inroads as far westward and northward as Spain and the British Isles.
Much, of course, could be written about all of this but our purpose is simply to trace the history of the spread of the church. Even then, however, we can only hope to give the barest sketch of the history. We treat the history in two periods from A.D. 100-300 and from 300 to 500. The reign of Constantine the Great (306-337) is the dividing point. Under Constantine the persecution ceased and Christianity was given the official approval of the government. About this and its effects we shall have more to say later.
Concerning the pre-Constantinian period we may say in general that although the records are scanty they suffice to show that by the year 180, Christianity was found in all the provinces of the Empire and in Mesopotamia. From 180 to 306 the church enjoyed a remarkable growth as is evidenced by the fact that the emperors generally regarded the church as a public menace and attempted to exterminate it by means of persecution.
Our story begins in Palestine. Here the church was never large. Although the church continued for centuries to preach the gospel to the Jews, very few converts were added to the church.
The faith was somewhat stronger in Phoenicia. We know that Christians were found here at a very early date (cf. Acts 11:19, 21:2-4, 7; Acts 27:3). There was an especially strong church established at Tyre. It appears, however, that for the most part the church was found among the Greek-speaking, urban population particularly along the coast.
Antioch in Syria was the second home of the Church. Here it will be recalled the disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). For years this city continued to be a prominent Christian center. The church was predominantly Greek speaking and spread throughout much of Syria. The fact that no less than 20 bishops from Syria were present at the Council of Nicea indicates the presence of the faith in many towns and cities in several different parts of the region.
In Asia Minor the church was well established. Here was Ephesus, an early stronghold of the faith, as well as the churches mentioned in the Apocalypse. Of the missionaries who labored here subsequent to the Apostle Paul we know little, except for the account of Gregory Thaumaturgos or “Worker of Wonders.” This man, a son of prominent, wealthy parents, was a native of Pontus. In the course of his studies he came into contact with Origen who was instrumental in introducing the young man to the Christian faith. In the year 240 he was made Bishop of his native city and with the aid of his brother, Athenodorus, bishop of another city of Pontus, he set out to preach the gospel to the pagans of his region. It is said that when he ascended the Episcopal see only seventeen Christians were there while thirty years later at his death only seventeen pagans remained. The historian Latourette is no doubt correct when he says: “Such numbers are probably more rhetorical than accurate.” (A history of the Expansion of Christianity, vol I, p. 89) Nevertheless, this man was instrumental in the spread of the gospel in Asia Minor.
The church at Rome also continued to grow in this period. In fact the growth was quite rapid. Generally in these years its membership was from the poorer classes of people. This rapid growth is partly to be attributed to the1 large number of Christians who converged on Rome from other parts of the Empire. By A.D. 166 the Christians had surpassed the Jews, and Adolph Harnack estimates the number of Christians at 30,000 by the year 250. Others place the figure even higher. Evidence of the spread of the faith in other parts of Italy are fragmentary. We know only that Italy had approximately 100 bishoprics by the middle of the third century.
Growth was slow in Gaul (France) and Spain. Irenaeus (c.130-c.200) speaks of using both the Celtic and Latin languages, which would indicate that the church had gone beyond the Romanized people of the cities to the less educated tribal natives. The greatest growth was found in the southern part of what is now France. By the end of the third century many churches and bishoprics had been established in Spain. The Spiritual quality of the Spanish Christians is disappointing. In general they compromised with idolatry and adultery and murder. We hear also of bishops who left their church duties to engage in commerce. Another of the bishops apostatized during the Decian persecution (A.D. 250) and later after the danger had passed resumed his office!
There is no certain information concerning the introduction of Christianity in Britain. The only certain fact is that in 314 Britain was represented at the Council of Aries by the bishops of York, London, and a third unnamed see.
As for the beginnings of the faith in Egypt, it may again be said the evidence is scanty. That the church was here at an early age is quite certain. Alexandria was an especially strong center, producing such Christian thinkers as Clement (c.150-c.215) and Origen (c.185-c.254). There is also evidence indicating that the church spread beyond Alexandria into the desert regions, where we find the “Desert Fathers.”
There was rapid growth further west in what is today known as Tunis and Algeria. The churches here were the first Latin speaking churches. And out of them flowed some of the great Latin Christian literature, as e.g. Tertullian and Cyprian, to be followed later by the famous St. Augustine.
This brings the history to the reign of Constantine and in the words of Stephen Neill: “. . . we may say that by the end of the third century there was no area in the Roman Empire which had not been penetrated by the Gospel. But distribution was very uneven. The areas of strongest development were Syria, Asia Minor, Egypt, and North Africa, with some other notable centers such as Rome, and Lyons in the south of France. The church for the most part spoke Greek and Latin, and the village people were as yet to a large extent untouched.” (A History of Christian Missions, pp. 38, 39).
All of this growth took place while the church was being frowned upon by the Empire and subjected to chronic opposition and persecution. In the beginning of the 4th century this situation changed. Constantine was emperor and under him the Christian faith received the sanction of the government. He had his children educated in the faith, erected many churches and enlarged others, and “adopted measure after measure increasing the privileges and prestige of that faith which in the days of his immediate predecessors had been so severely persecuted.” (Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, vol I, p. 173). The result was a complete change in the situation of the Christian’ Church! Crowds literally entered the church. Christianity became fashionable and the majority of men found it expedient to follow the fashion! This had its effects both good and bad. It allowed the church to move with freedom, to emerge from the catacombs into the open. This under the providence of God prepared the way for the tremendous spread of the faith even beyond the borders of the Empire in the succeeding years. Nevertheless, we must agree with Neil1 when he writes: “In all this there were great dangers. Faith became superficial, and was identified with the acceptance of dogmatical teachings rather than with a radical change of inner being. As the Church became rich, bishoprics became the objects of contention rather than instruments of humble service. With a new freedom, the Church was able to go out into the world; at the same time, in a new and dangerous fashion, the world entered into the Church.” (A History of Christian Missions, pp. 46, 47).
As was noted, the gospel spread even beyond the borders of Empire from A.D. 300-500. Some of the names connected with its spread are: Martin, Bishop of Tours, Ufilas, Patrick, Ninian, Clovis of the Franks. Martin, Bishop of Tours, trained men in the monasteries who served as missionaries laboring in Gaul. Ufilas, though he was Arian, was a great missionary to the Barbarians laboring particularly among the Goths beyond the Danube. He is known for his translation of the Scriptures into the language of the Goths in which he omitted the warlike books of Kings, on the ground that the Goths knew quite enough about fighting anyway! (cf. Neill, p. 55). Patrick brought the Gospel to Ireland around 430 and Ninian brought it to Scotland. Clovis leader of the Franks was converted after winning an important battle and was baptized on Christmas Day 496, together with 3,000 of his soldiers.
In conclusion what accounts for the tremendous spread of the Gospel in these years? Latourette cites the following: 1) The sanction of Constantine, 2) The disintegration of pagan society and culture, 3) The close knit organization of the Christian community, 4) The inclusiveness of the faith, it attracted all races and classes. 5) The fact that Christianity was both intransient and flexible, it refused to compromise with paganism but adapted itself to the times (this latter, however, not true-R.D.) 6) The moral qualities of Christianity. (cf. A History of The Expansion of Christianity, vol. I, pp. 163-167) Latourette concludes that the answer is complex.
The real reason, however, is very simple. No doubt God used and even directed and determined the events and affairs of those days just as He does now, causing all things to work together for the good of His church. But the reason why the Church grew and spread is simply due to the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Indeed we see in this period of the History of God’s Church a marvelous evidence of Christ gathering His Church out of every nation, tribe, and tongue by His Spirit and Word. So our Lord continues His work throughout the ages and when He is finished we shall see Him on the clouds coming in all the glory of the new heavens and earth.