Why did early Christianity grow so quickly?
THE RELIGIOUS GUY’S RESPONSE:
New religions are popping up all the time, nowhere more than in the United States, but very few ever achieve prominence and permanence. Christianity is a rare and dramatic case of a faith that has triumphed. The story is told in Rodney Stark’s classic “The Rise of Christianity” with this descriptive subtitle in the 1997 paperback edition (still on sale): “How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries.”
Sociologist Stark is now retired as co-director of Baylor University’s esteemed Institute for Religious Studies. The book treats its subject as a riddle to be explained by objective social science scholarship and does not consider whether Christian teachings are true.
Although we lack reliable census data, Stark’s best estimate was that only 7,530 Christians existed at the end of the Apostolic era in 100 AD. [which conflicts with Acts 2:41]. He said the total exceeded 1 million in 250 when systemic persecution by the Roman Empire was at its peak. The Edict of Milan in 313 allowed the faith to exist without harassment, and by 350 there were 33.9 million Christians. Stark estimated this to be a majority of 56.5% of the population. Inevitably, in 380, this became the official creed of the empire.
What happened? Stark’s screenplay drew on over 300 works as well as his own original research and made extensive use of economic theory of the market. Let’s review some of what he concluded.
Stark believed that the main advantages of Christianity included the spread of Greek-speaking Jews throughout the Greco-Roman world which provided a base to build on, the failures of rival paganism, attractive charitable endeavors (especially during ruinous epidemics ), innovative respect for women, high birth rate, good organization, close camaraderie, exacting and upheld moral standards, the inspiring example of martyrs willing to die rather than renounce their faith, and positive doctrines that appealed to new city dwellers confronted with chaos and misery.
As far as the Jews were concerned, the apostle Paul and other pioneer missionaries could set out from a town’s synagogue but encountered strong resistance. Keep in mind that many Gentiles were “God-fearing” involved in the Jewish community who believed in one God but did not convert or fully observe ritual law. According to Stark, Jews influenced by Greek culture, less strict than those of the Holy Land, “provided the initial basis for church growth” in the 1st and early 2nd centuries, but then continued as “a source large number of converted Christians” until the 4th Century and into the 5th.
As for paganism, instead of one God, it had too many gods in a confusing pantheon of deities, as well as varied beliefs and practices, and was ill-equipped to establish a unified, culture-forming religion. Worse still, the pagan gods were fickle, sometimes immoral in their behavior, and indifferent to the plight of humans, though they might bestow favors – or not – if properly appeased.
This left spiritual ground wide open for worship through a consistent belief in a moral and benevolent God and a community that produced charity and nursing during epidemics that were offered even to pagans. Stark wrote, “Christians can only please God if they love one another. Indeed, as God demonstrates his love through sacrifice, humans must demonstrate their love through sacrifice for one another” and this operates “beyond the ties of family and tribe.”
“These were revolutionary ideas.”
Pagan priests deserted their cities in times of trouble. And paganism was funded by the state and wealthy donors, while Christians built a stronger popular base of supporters. And “simply put, pagan cults weren’t able to get people to do much” while an “exclusive” church had more spiritual and social power, thus offering “the best deal” on the spiritual market.
Then there is this. Rome had built a single, unified culture with reliable transportation networks around the Mediterranean, which helped spread the new belief. And despite the persecution, the regime “provided a greater level of religious freedom than was seen until after the American Revolution.”
However, we assess the current debate in Catholicism over whether to ordain women deacons, we know that women provided significant leadership and support to early house churches, and often married influential pagan men whom they drawn into Christian conversion. This happened because Christian teaching remarkably elevated women from virtual slave status to spiritual equality.
Stark devoted a large section to abortion, which used extremely dangerous methods and was usually demanded by promiscuous men, and the widespread practice of infanticide which killed newborn females. Like the Jews before them, early Christians abhorred these practices and the automatic result was higher birth rates and therefore church growth.
Although his book does not advocate Christian beliefs, the research convinced Stark that “higher theology” was often “of immense importance” – indeed”the ultimate factor in the rise of Christianity” – and berated other social scientists who downplayed or ignored his power. “The central doctrines of Christianity engendered and supported attractive, liberating and effective social relationships and organizations” [the italics are Stark’s]. As a result, this rising religion became “one of the most radical and successful revitalization movements in history”.
Greco-Roman paganism must have been confused by the teachings that “God so loved the world”, that the deities “would care how we treat each other”, and that “God loves those who love”. In a culture that viewed mercy as a character flaw, the Gospel insisted that “Christians cannot please God unless they love each other” and also love non-Christians.
Faith was “a cohesive culture that was entirely devoid of ethnicity,taught that “slaves and nobles” were equal in the community, and brought about “liberating social relations between the sexes and within the family.” In “a world saturated with capricious cruelty and an indirect love of death”. what “Christianity gave to its converts was nothing less than their humanity”.
Is this a formula for religious success in the 21st century?