I have been profitably engaged in a reading of Philip Schaff's, "History Of The Christian Church." The establishment and growth of the church in the first three centuries is nothing short of amazing. No movement in the history of the world has been as rapid or made as significant an impact as has the growth of the church in the first centuries of her existence. The exact count at the end of that first century is not available, but some have estimated that half a million or more. Evidence suggests that the churches in Antioch, Ephesus, and Corinth were strong enough to bear the strain of controversy and division into parties. With the exception of these few larger congregations, most of the local churches were small, and perhaps consisted of only a small handful of poor people. Christian converts came mostly from the middle and lower classes of society, such as fishermen, peasants and slaves. This is why Paul wrote: "Not many wise after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble were called, but God chose the foolish things of the world, that he might put to shame them that are wise; and God chose the weak things of the world that he might put to shame the things that are strong; and the base things of the world, and the things that are despised, did God choose, yea, and the things that are not, that he might bring to naught the things that are: that no flesh should glory before God" (1 Cor 1:26-29). Yet who would deny that these poor and illiterate churches had received the greatest blessings imaginable and thus attain to the highest thoughts which could possibly challenge the attention of mortal mind?
By the time of Constantine in the beginning of the fourth century the number of Christians has been estimated to have reached between ten and twelve million, or about one tenth of the total population of the Roman Empire. Some have even estimated it higher. This rapid growth of Christianity in the face of overwhelming opposition is not only surprising, but is its own best evidence of the Supernatural power that lay behind this movement. It was accomplished in the face of an indifferent and hostile world, and by purely spiritual and moral means, without shedding a drop of blood except that of its own innocent martyrs.
Gibbon, in the famous fifteenth chapter of his "History," attributes the rapid spread to five causes, namely: (1) the intolerant but enlarged religious zeal of the Christians inherited from the Jews; (2) the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, concerning which the ancient philosophers had but vague and dreamy ideas; (3) the miraculous powers attributed to the primitive church; (4) the purer but austere morality of the first Christians; and (5) the unity and discipline of the church, which gradually formed a growing commonwealth in the heart of the empire.
It must have been grand to live in that first century and witness the rapid growth of the church in a world of skepticism and unbelief. But before we become cynical and disillusioned let us not forget that the same power that brought ancient Rome to her knees and ushered in the growth of the Lord's church at unprecedented rates is the same word that we have in our possession today. Cheer up brethren! Be busy planting the seed, and our God will give the harvest!
I'll close with the following quote from Schaff (Volume 2, Introduction) it is worth taking the time to read:
No merely human religion could have stood such an ordeal of fire for three hundred years. The final victory of Christianity over Judaism and heathenism, and the mightiest empire of the ancient world, a victory gained without physical force, but by the moral power of patience and perseverance, of faith and love, is one of the sublimest spectacles in history, and one of the strongest evidences of the divinity and indestructible life of our religion. But equally sublime and significant are the intellectual and spiritual victories of the church in this period over the science and art of heathenism, and over the assaults of Gnostic and Ebionitic heresy, with the copious vindication and development of the Christian truth, which the great mental conflict with those open and secret enemies called forth.
The church of this period appears poor in earthly possessions and honors, but rich in heavenly grace, in world-conquering faith, love, and hope; unpopular, even outlawed, hated, and persecuted, yet far more vigorous and expansive than the philosophies of Greece or the empire of Rome; composed chiefly of persons of the lower social ranks, yet attracting the noblest and deepest minds of the age, and bearing, in her bosom the hope of the world; "as unknown, yet well-known, as dying, and behold it lives;" conquering by apparent defeat, and growing on the blood of her martyrs; great in deeds, greater in sufferings, greatest in death for the honor of Christ and the benefit of generations to come.
The condition and manners of the Christians in this age are most beautifully described by the unknown author of the "Epistola ad Diognetum" in the early part of the second century. "The Christians," he says, "are not distinguished from other men by country, by language, nor by civil institutions. For they neither dwell in cities by themselves, nor use a peculiar tongue, nor lead a singular mode of life. They dwell in the Grecian or barbarian cities, as the case may be; they follow the usage of the country in dress, food, and the other affairs of life. Yet they present a wonderful and confessedly paradoxical conduct. They dwell in their own native lands, but as strangers. They take part in all things as citizens; and they suffer all things, as foreigners. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every native land is a foreign. They marry, like all others; they have children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have the table in common, but not wives. They are in the flesh, but do not live after the flesh. They live upon the earth, but are citizens of heaven. They obey the existing laws, and excel the laws by their lives. They love all, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown, and yet they are condemned. They are killed and are made alive. They are poor and make many rich. They lack all things, and in all things abound. They are reproached, and glory in their reproaches. They are calumniated, and are justified. They are cursed, and they bless. They receive scorn, and they give honor. They do good, and are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice, as being made alive. By the Jews they are attacked as aliens, and by the Greeks persecuted; and the cause of the enmity their enemies cannot tell. In short, what the soul is in the body, the Christians are in the world. The soul is diffused through all the members of the body, and the Christians are spread through the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but it is not of the body; so the Christians dwell in the world, but are not of the world. The soul, invisible, keeps watch in the visible body; so also the Christians are seen to live in the world, but their piety is invisible. The flesh hates and wars against the soul, suffering no wrong from it, but because it resists fleshly pleasures; and the world hates the Christians with no reason, but that they resist its pleasures. The soul loves the flesh and members, by which it is hated; so the Christians love their haters. The soul is inclosed in the body, but holds the body together; so the Christians are detained in the world as in a prison; but they contain the world. Immortal, the soul dwells in the mortal body; so the Christians dwell in the corruptible, but look for incorruption in heaven. The soul is the better for restriction in food and drink; and the Christians increase, though daily punished. This lot God has assigned to the Christians in the world; and it cannot be taken from them."
-- by Tom Wacaster