Ordinary Saints at First Church

PAGANS AND JEWS converting by the thousands after hearing the preaching of the apostles. Apologists, using logical and passionate argument, convincing elite Romans to believe in Christianity. These are the images once elicited in histories of evangelism in the early church.

But typical converts in the early days of Christianity probably did not hear about the faith from an apologist or at a public rally. More likely, their introduction came through “everyday evangelism"—through the ongoing life in the local church, the witness of individual Christians, and specialized “parachurch” ministries.

Mission-Sensitive Churches

Organized communities of faith deserve chief credit for evangelizing the Roman Empire, both before and after Constantine. Imitating a model crafted by Paul, early Christians planted churches, nurtured them, and made them centers for attracting and enlisting converts.

Churches were founded in almost every way possible. Sometimes a bishop, presbyters, or deacons were sent to evangelize and organize a new church. For example, in the mid-third century, Cornelius of Rome was reputed to have sent seven bishops to Gaul (modern France) to plant churches. Other times, churches that had spontaneously formed through lay evangelism asked for a bishop to instruct them.

Most churches had the same goal: evangelism.

“Enlighten those in darkness,” intones an early liturgical prayer from Egypt. “Raise up the fallen, strengthen the weak, heal the sick, guide all, good Lord into the way of salvation and into thy holy flock.”

Some converts learned about the faith through friendship with church members. Others saw or heard about exorcisms or healings. Some witnessed the arrest of a Christian or even a martyrdom. Others lived in Christian households as slaves or indentured servants. By the end of the third century, Christians had built formal churches near pagan temples across the empire.

However pagans heard about Christianity, they came to the church out of curiosity and stayed because it offered security in an age of anxiety. Visitors heard Christian teachers claim the church was the people of God. They were told of promises of immortality and escape from eternal punishment, and of assurances of salvation. And they heard about, and sometimes witnessed, the power of two ceremonies, baptism and the Eucharist.

The example of Christians’ high moral standards and their practice of offering charity to all, regardless of social status, also made a deep impression on unbelievers. Galen (129-199), the Greek physician, in commenting on those “people called Christians,” wrote, “They include not only men but also women who refrain from cohabitating all through their lives, and they also number individuals who, in self-discipline and self-control in matters of food and drink, and in their keen pursuit of justice, have attained a pitch not inferior to that of genuine philosophy.”

Classes and the Sacraments

Once inquirers displayed an interest in the Christian faith, the catechetical process (something akin to today’s confirmation or new members classes) probably provided the chief means for drawing them into the fold. As depicted by Hippolytus around 217, these classes, which led to baptism, began with a preliminary inquiry by skilled teachers, engaging their students in a dialogue designed to point the way to conversion.

Churches carefully sifted out candidates not likely to make the serious commitment, which was critical during periods of persecution. Before enrolling them as “hearers,” Hippolytus wrote in The Apostolic Tradition, teachers were to examine candidates about their lives and their reason for embracing the faith. The Christians who brought the “hearers” were asked to “testify that they are competent to hear the word.”

Hippolytus wanted to exclude people in certain professions—panderers, sculptors or painters of idols, actors or pantomimists, teachers in pagan schools, charioteers, gladiators and others connected with the shows, priests in other cults, military commanders or civil magistrates, harlots or licentious persons, enchanters, astrologers, diviners, soothsayers, and the like—unless they changed their occupations. He would not let magicians even make an inquiry about the faith.

The rest of the initiation process, which took about three years (or as many as six in some places), primarily sought to secure an authentic commitment. In the fourth century, Augustine outlined the typical procedure for instructing people to faith. After scrutinizing the candidate’s motives, the catechist (teacher) would present the message of salvation history, from Creation to the Second Coming. The catechist often had to deal indulgently and patiently with slow or stubborn candidates, repeating and prodding them on.

Catechumens could participate only in the instructional (preaching) service. After instruction the catechist prayed for the candidates, laid hands on them, and dismissed them. (The Ite! Missa, meaning “Go! You have been dismissed/sent,” is thought by some scholars to be the source of the word Mass.)

Catechumens were not allowed to participate in the Eucharist, which followed the preaching service. No doubt, the great mystery surrounding this rite, (as well as reports of its efficacy) kept many straining at the leash to receive baptism and post-baptismal instruction.

The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper had powerful appeal in the ancient world, where mystery cults (which were full of mysterious rites) prospered.

In the Eucharist, for example, seekers were told, one could partake of heavenly manna of an “unbloody sacrifice"—not the costly offerings of bulls and goats and other plants and animals, which pagans were used to. Referring to a Dionysian ritual, Clement of Alexandria wrote, “Come, O madman, not leaning on the thyrsus, not crowned with ivy. Throw away the mitre, throw away the fawn-skin.” Then, referring to Christ and the Eucharist, he said,"Come to your senses! I will show you the Word and the mysteries of the Word.”

Ordinary saints and country hicks

Formal traveling evangelists played a key role only during the second century.”Casual” evangelism, on the other hand, was important throughout the early period.

Responding to criticism that Christians were just a bunch of country hicks, Origen agreed that common folks accounted for Christianity’s spread. The planting of Christianity in Georgia (former Soviet Union), for example, resulted from the witness of a captive woman named Nino.

The most famous example of individual witness, though, is Justin. He was eventually martyred for his faith around 165, and he credited his conversion to two sources: first, to the fearlessness of Christians in the face of death. Second, he had a conversation with an old man.

It occurred during his years of spiritual searching, when he was reading philosopher after philosopher to understand the meaning of life. One day while strolling on a beach in Ephesus, Justin met an old man, who engaged him in a discussion about philosophy. It was but one conversation, and Justin never saw the man again. But this one conversation kindled in him, he said, a love for the prophets and for “friends of Christ.” Not long after that conversation, Justin converted.

Parachurch Schools

Scholars are not sure how evangelistic/philosophical schools came into existence. Most likely they began with private initiative like many of the other philosophical schools in the ancient world. Certain teachers established a reputation and gathered followers. Pantaenus launched the school in Alexandria made famous by Clement and Origen. Justin established a school in Rome where he could present Christianity as “the true philosophy.”

How did such teachers discharge their tasks? One of Origen’s most famous students, Gregory Thaumaturgus, described his story.

Gregory and his brother Athenadorus crossed paths with Origen by chance on a trip to Caesarea, and Origen did his best to effect a deep and genuine friendship with them.

Once he had persuaded them to remain in Caesaria, he taught them the physical sciences, then philosophy and ethics, and finally the Scriptures (which he considered the queen of all learning).

But it was his embodiment of what he taught, Gregory judged, that most impressed him and his brother. “And thus, like some spark lighting upon our inmost soul,” Gregory later wrote, “love was kindled and burst into flame within usa love at once to the Holy Word, the most lovely object of all, who attracts all irresistibly to himself by his unutterable beauty, and to this man, his friend and advocate.”

As a result, Gregory became the fabled evangelizer, the “Wonder Worker” of Cappadocia.

And so it went: countless converts, by their lives and witness, brought the good news to others on a very personal level, whether in church or in conversation.

By E. Glenn Hinson

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #57 in 1998]

E. Glenn Hinson is a professor at Baptist Theological Seminary, Richmond, Virginia. He is author of The Evangelization of the Roman Empire (Mercer University, 1981).
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