Enemy of the State: Missions in the Early Church

Basic Theology, Podcast Episodes

As we get close to the end of the early church series, we learn how persecution played a role in the spread of the gospel and how today’s American culture parallels Ancient Rome.

For more on the history of missions in the first 500 years, see this article: https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=cgm_hist


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Welcome to Verity podcast. I’m your host, Phylicia Masonheimer, and I am here to teach you how to know what you believe, to live it boldly, and to communicate it graciously to the world around you. I believe that women are ready to go deeper in their faith than ever before and they don’t have to go to seminary to do it. I am so glad you’re here and I hope you’ll join me on this journey because every woman is a theologian. 

Hello, friends, and welcome back to Verity podcast. Thank you for your patience as we took an unexpected break through all of January as I was working on the research to complete our early church series in this church history expedition that we are on. I am so excited to be back with you. And today, we’re gonna be talking about missions in the early church as we get closer to the end of this section of our study.

So before we begin into this journey talking about missions in the early church, I wanted to talk a little bit about missions in general. I think sometimes when we think about missions in our Western American context, anyway, our mind can default to the concept of a short term mission trip. And while I think that these can serve a purpose, especially if they’re relieving the missionaries on-site and giving them a break in some way or accomplishing a task that otherwise could not be accomplished, like a building being constructed, as long as it’s not stealing from the local economy or becoming some kind of field trip for American white people, then I think they can be really positive. But when we’re looking at missions as a general rule, especially in history, we’re talking about something more than a short term mission trip. We’re talking about a lifestyle of evangelism and discipleship. And, of course, we’re not doing an entire series on missions here, although that would be really awesome. It would be super cool to do a series and interview missionaries from around the world. That might be something we could do someday.

For now, I wanna talk about the idea of missions in the Bible and how that played out in the early church. Now I have a book called Missions in the Plan of the Ages by Carver. This is one of my vintage theology books that I keep on my shelf. I absolutely love this collection. William Owen Carver had a theology degree, a doctorate of theology, and was at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky and wrote this book a long time ago. It was actually written in 1909. And so one of the reasons I enjoy reading older books like this is because I think that they give us a picture of how the gospel really hasn’t changed over the years. We’ve just had to learn how to preach it in different contexts, both around the world and in our own cities.

And so this book is broken out into several sections about what the meaning of missions is, what Jesus said about missions, what the missionary message and plan and power and work all are. But what I’m going to share with you is a little section where he was specifically talking about the goal of missions and how that played out in the early church, which is what we’re studying. Here’s what he says. Quote, the origin of missions is ultimately to be found in the heart of God. His are the redemptive purpose and plan. No thought of God is true to his revelation of himself that does not rest on the fact that he so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that by believing in him, the world should be saved through him. It was God that was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not reckoning their trespasses unto them, and not so reckoning for the reason that this love sent son is the propitiation for the whole world. This attitude of God is eternal and is determinative in all his dealings with men.

He is ever working towards the end that they who have not heard may have the glad tidings preached unto them, and that they who were no people may come to be a people of God’s own possession. So it is that when people come to be God’s ambassadors on behalf of Christ, they must go to all ignorant and erring men, beseeching them to be reconciled to God, End quote. This whole book is absolutely beautiful and amazingly written, but I particularly love the beginning and his heart for people meeting the love of God. And that’s really what was happening in the early church and in missions. So if you have this idea of missions, that’s the short term missionship, or even the height of Baptist and Methodist missions, which would have been in the 1800s, in the early 1900s, When you read about people like the Judsons or Amy Carmichael or Gladys Aylward, there was mission work happening all through church history. And that’s why in each section of this, I really want to focus on how missions were happening in those sections. When we get to the medieval era, I think that’s one area where we often think that missions just weren’t happening, but they were. And in the early church, we forget that the missionary movement was like the crux of everything, like everything was a missionary movement in the early church.

And so to understand this, I want us to look again at the persecutions that were happening in the first 500 years. So at this point in the series, if you’ve listened through the other episodes, you know that there were multiple persecutors of the church. I wanna do a quick review on these persecutors and what was happening. I may mispronounce a couple of these names. I didn’t have time to look up every single one of them before I was reading, so give me grace in that department. So the first persecution was obviously the Jewish persecution. This was the very first one. Jesus was killed by the Jewish leaders who were persecuting him, and then out of that began to persecute his followers.

The apostle Paul was one of the chief persecutors of the church before his conversion and his miraculous encounter with Christ. And so you have these Jewish leaders who are persecuting the Christians. And at first, the Romans thought that Christians were just a subsect of Judaism. That was why they weren’t bothered by them. Jews were protected under Roman law. And so people like Pilate and the emperor, they’re all looking at this and going, okay. Y’all are just constantly fighting among yourselves, And I can’t right now deal with that. So until it disrupts the peace, we’re just not going to deal with it.

Well, pretty quickly, It became apparent that the Christians were actually in conflict with the Jews. So they clearly weren’t the same. They weren’t in the same religion or religious structure. So the Romans began to pay more attention and the persecution shifted. Under Nero. We know that Nero persecuted the Christians. He blamed them for the fire, the great fire of Rome. And then as we move further into history, we have.

Domitian and Pliny Marcus Aurelius. He was brutal to Christians, Septimius Severus, Maximinus, Trajan, Valerian, Diocletian, and Licinius. And when you look at history, you kind of see an increasing hostility towards Christians under these leaders and emperors. Up to the point of Marcus Aurelius, it was kind of like, if a Christian won’t recant and won’t worship the emperor, then yes, we execute them. But it was kind of a concession. They didn’t want to do it. But under Marcus Aurelius, things really shifted. And he particularly went after the Christians because he saw them as disrupting the peace of his kingdom.

They were divisive because they refused to give their allegiance to the state. They were supposed to give their allegiance to Caesar and to the state to worship him as a god. And if they would not do that, then they were disruptive to the social order. I mentioned this in previous episodes, but this is a big parallel to modern day America. Lots of parallels between ancient Rome and modern day America from our worship of sports. And if you look at the parallels between the sports culture and the gladiator games, very, very similar. Even the structure and you look at these massive stadiums, they’re modeled after the stadiums that were in ancient Rome. When you look at our culture of how what we will sacrifice in terms of time and attention to give ourselves to these sports, to give our allegiance to the state and with the things that the state wants from us in American culture, this is very normative.

And as we continue forward, and as history continues to form, I think we will actually see a lot more parallels back to ancient Rome, including this idea that if you hold to a Christian worldview, you are an enemy to the social order. And that is what was happening under Marcus Aurelius and then, of course, under Severus and Trajan. You started to see this shift, and the word that they actually would use for Christians was that they were atheists. Now you might think that’s crazy. They obviously believed in God. Why would these emperors call the Christians atheists? Well, it’s because the Christians would not affirm the the Roman gods, the Greek and Roman gods. They denied those gods as real. And they believe in one living God.

And so because they refused to give their allegiance to Caesar, and to the Greek and Roman gods, they were viewed as atheists, unbelievers. And this is kind of like a mind bender a little bit, at least it is for me when I think about it. I’m like, I cannot imagine a society that’s like the Christians are the atheists. But if you think about their worldview as, like, their god is the state and Caesar and this pantheon of constantly changing gods and goddesses who must be appeased, just replace those things with whatever is the god in today’s culture. So if a Christian says, I serve a God who says I should honor the family, and I should honor marriage, and I should not seek to get revenge, and I should honor the unborn and the life of the unborn and the elderly. If the the person whose God is personal freedom or their own sexuality or a society that does not have young babies and inconvenient old people or the disabled, then yes, the Christian is an enemy of that because they are an enemy of the gods of the age. And that’s what was happening in ancient Rome. And so they were persecuted and treated as atheists killed as atheists because they were disruptive to the social order.

That was always the claim. And I think this is something that we should consider and be prayerful about as we think about what it means to be a missionary in today’s society. Because you’re teaching a gospel that is inherently offensive to the sensibilities of at least Western American society, where you are saying you must leave the gods of our age and our culture to follow the one true God. It got to the extent that the emperor Hadrian executed 11,000 soldiers accused of being Christian in 117 AD. So he lost a massive amount of soldiers simply because they were seen as a threat. They couldn’t be trusted to have an allegiance to the state because they were willing to follow Christ first. And, you know, in a Christianity, we admire this. We’re like, yeah, Christ first.

But if you think about it from a pagan perspective, they know you cannot have an allegiance both to Christ, and to the gods of the age. And that is why they were persecuted and killed. So why are we talking about persecution? Because persecution is what spread the gospel. That is what spread the gospel in the early church. Persecution led to the church scattering. If we go to acts 81, it says Saul approved of Stephen’s execution. He was the 1st martyr, and there arose on that day, a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem. So this was the Jewish persecution.

And they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria except for the apostles. So this is Acts 8:1. This is the beginning of the scattering. And as we know, as the 1st century unfolds, the apostles actually go out as well. So at first they aren’t scattered, but by the end of the book of acts, they are scattered. And James becomes the Bishop of Jerusalem. Eventually, Paul goes to Rome, but he does 3 missionary journeys on the way. We know that Mark becomes the patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, so he is believed to stay in that eastern area, Constantinople kind of area.

We have some that went down to Africa since, say, Philip went down to Ethiopia. So you have the beginnings of this missionary movement that’s happening all because of the persecution. So let’s look at some of the missionary spread in these 1st 500 years. So we know that obviously Judea was first the place of missionary concentration. And then as Paul went out on his missionary journeys, he’s going into Turkey and Gaul or France, Crete, Greece, and then eventually up into Rome. Some people believe that the apostle Paul actually went to Britain as a missionary. Others believe that it was Joseph of Arimathea. We don’t have evidence of either of those things, but we know that very early, there were churches already in Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales by about 2 50 AD.

My 120 AD Christians were already being found in Romania and Moldavia. And by 190 AD, there was widespread Christianity in North Africa, as well as Kurdistan and Hindu Kush. So you have a North African Christian population that’s actually quite strong. By the time of Augustine, there’s a strong Christian presence there, and this is naturally happening because of the land bridge that Israel is between Northern Africa and Europe. So it was a prime location for the spread of the gospel into Africa and then of course further south into Ethiopia some of the oldest churches that exist are in Africa. So at the time of the early church, this is according to Barrett and Johnson, the world is 2.4% Christian, 9.3% evangelized with scriptures translated into 7 languages and a total number of 177,000 martyrs, which is about 1.5% of all Christians. This is at the rate of 1200 per year. In 225 AD, Persia was already penetrated by the Christian missionaries and had over 20 resident bishops, which is really exciting as well.

So you have the spread of Christianity from Israel in a span of about 200 years, reaching all the way down into Africa, over into Persia, upward into Europe, Gaul and into the British Isles, and then over as well into Russia, starting to reach up into Russia, modern day Russia. So it’s fascinating to see how quickly the persecution drove Christians to scatter and to share the gospel. If you remember from our discussion of the Nestorian controversy, there were missionary movements into China and other parts of Asia, due to the spread of an historian church, and that lasted until they were eradicated by the Muslims. So you have a really strong missionary presence in the first 500 years of the church. So what caused this spread? Well, one of the things is the Roman road system. The Roman road system made it very easy to get around. They had created these phenomenal layered roads that you can still walk today because they’re constructed with such excellence. It’d be really cool if you can look up a picture of a Roman roads.

You get a picture of what they were doing, how they were built. But this system extended through their entire empire. And I think this is an amazing testament to how a really brutal, divided, violent kingdom was used by God to spread the gospel. So you have this road system all throughout Europe into Africa, and it made it easy for Christians to travel, especially the Apostle Paul who was a Roman citizen. The second thing is they had a common Greek language. So yes, you have a Roman Empire and you have a Roman road system, but you have a Greek language that was spoken by almost everybody. So this common language allows you to communicate much more easily, even when you’re crossing into a different territory. Thirdly, there was the logic and philosophy that was inherent to Greek culture, and this would have been well known to the Romans as well.

This Greek culture emphasized arguing for your point, arguing for what you believed, giving a defense for the hope within you, essentially. When we look in the book of acts at the scene in Mars Hill where Paul is talking to these philosophers and he’s saying, look, I’m trying to explain to you the living God and how to understand him. This is in Acts 17 22-31. You see the Apostle Paul explaining using Greek philosophy and logic, how to understand the Jewish Messiah. And this is just amazing. One of the other reasons that Paul was so well equipped for what he was doing as a Roman citizen who’s classically trained and is a lawyer in the Jewish tradition, he was well equipped to have these conversations with these people and even asking them questions, which was a strong fundamental of Greek philosophy and debate. If you were classically trained, if you ever studied classical education, asking rhetorical questions and leading into debates of ideas is vital to that structure in that educational system. And Paul used that to his advantage.

So Greek philosophy and logic played a big role in the spread of the teaching of the gospel. The 4th way that the missions movement spread was through awareness of Jewish monotheism. So even though this is Christianity, the Jewish Messiah is being proclaimed, and most of the cultures Greek and Roman and is polytheistic, you still have this understanding of Jewish monotheism, understanding Jewish religion. And so they knew a little of what was being spoken about by the apostles. There was some understanding of the Jewish religion and an awareness that their God was not visible. So he didn’t have an idol, and he was only one God. And so when the Christians came and spoke about this, they would have had at least some acquaintance with the system. Finally, there was dissatisfaction with the pagan religions, the ancient pagan religions.

They were starting to see them as maybe barbaric or primitive. And, of course, the state religion and worship of Caesar was seen as a a higher or more intellectual option. But at the same time, to hear about a God, a living God, who comes in bodily form to redeem humanity is intriguing to a lot of people. Now, it also was mocked openly because if you remember this idea that God would be just one God and come in bodily form as a perfect man who’s not manipulating like Zeus. Because, like, Zeus came in a bodily form, but he manipulated people and he used people sexually. He was always after his own desires. This God came in bodily form only once and he did it to lay himself down, to be sacrificial. And in this Roman society, you don’t lay yourself down for another person unless there’s glory involved, unless there’s something that you are gaining from it.

And to have a God lay himself down to bring people to himself is an offensive gospel. And so in many ways, the gospel they were preaching was fit for the time in which it was spreading, but at the same time, it was challenging and offensive. So it wasn’t easy to share. But it also directly met the needs and unspoken desires of the culture in which it advanced. And that is one of the coolest things about missions in the early church. So this is a little bit of a shorter episode because I just wanted to do that quick summary of what was going on in terms of missions. And I think that as we think about missions in the early church, in those first 500 years, it can give us an encouragement in the age we live in today to remember that the missions that we are accomplishing in this day and age are going into a society, at least in Western American culture, that looks a lot like ancient Rome. And so we should not be surprised when the people around us mock our worldview.

We should not be surprised when they think it’s ridiculous or stupid. We should not be surprised that they think it’s a threat to their society or a threat to our government or that we are divisive because of our allegiance to Christ or because we live so counterculturally or that we don’t worship the system of sports, or we don’t worship the option of abortion or euthanasia or whatever is currently acceptable in our culture. Because we are different as led by the Holy Spirit of God, we should expect resistance in our mission. And we should also expect to be living on mission and evangelistically as Christians in this society. Now, that doesn’t mean you go out door to door, but that you know what you believe, and you are able to communicate that graciously and truthfully to the people God has given you missions in the early church spread because of persecution. In Western American culture, right now, we are not yet persecuted, not at that level at all. But we should be ready and prepared to take a stand, not out of fear, but out of devotion to the God who loves us, and who has promised to be with us and who laid himself down for us. We should learn from the stories of the people in the early church who went to the Colosseum and who died for their faith.

We should learn from the modern missionaries and the modern martyrs and what they are going through around the world right now. How can we stay devoted to the gospel and be willing to take a stand on truth even when it is counter cultural and not be afraid of that persecution, but to know that through persecution, the church has actually spread the most, and that is one of the amazing upside down kingdom realities of being a Christian, that when the church is most pressed, when the church is on the verge of being eradicated in the eyes of those who are week’s episode of Verity podcast.

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