In the early fourth century, the Roman army kidnapped and conscripted a young peasant named Pachomius. He was taken by slave ship to the ancient city of Thebes, where authorities threw the new “recruits” into a temporary prison cell. A group of strangers began bringing food and drink to the famished prisoners. Shocked and moved, he asked who they were; someone replied, “People who bear the name of Christ, the only begotten Son of God, and they do good to everyone.” This discovery set his heart on fire. So upon his eventual release, Pachomius immediately found a church where he came to know Jesus, was baptized, and became a leader in the early church.
This story serves as a clue to a perplexing question for historians: How did the early church, a tiny and disdained fringe religious movement, grow and transform the outwardly almighty Roman Empire? The church didn’t have political clout. They didn’t own property or schools. As the apostle Paul admitted, Christians were considered “the scum of the world” (1 Corinthians 4:13). Speaking for the Roman elite, the writer Suetonius dismissed the church as a piddly “new and wicked superstition.” And yet the church flourished, growing from about 5,000 in A.D. 40 to about 5,000,000 believers meeting in 65,000 house churches in A.D. 300 . What happened?
Rooted in the real presence of Jesus, those early disciples offered the world a radically new vision and power for a beautiful life—a life of dignity for every human being, even the powerless and unseen. It wasn’t just what Christians believed; it was how they lived. Of course, the early church was also flawed. Even the great theologian Origen sighed over Christians who did “not wish to correct themselves but persist in [sinful ways] until extreme old age.” But overall, early church leaders resonated with Minucius Felix, who saw the church grow through a “beauty of life” that intrigued and then drew “strangers to join the ranks.”
How did the early church, a tiny and disdained fringe religious movement, grow and transform the outwardly almighty Roman Empire?
This “beauty of life” didn’t burst up and flower at random. It was rooted in a particular person (Jesus) and specific public events (His life, death, and resurrection). The Romans loaded their religious system with deities the way our supermarkets do with cereal options. Rome, the “benevolent master,” acted with utmost religious tolerance as long as you (1) gave your ultimate allegiance to the emperor, a living god, and (2) didn’t worship one god exclusively. The Christians broke both rules with their earliest creed of three simple but subversive words: “Jesus is Lord.”
They couldn’t help it. The god-like Roman emperors seized privilege and reigned with brutal, bloody power, but Jesus—the world’s true and living King, as Paul proclaimed—“emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant” (Phil. 2:7). He chose to become “woundable” (the root meaning of the word vulnerable), even suffering the lowly death of a criminal. “No one in the ancient world had ever encountered the likes of Jesus before,” noted theologian Gerald L. Sittser. “Rome had no categories for Him … Jesus Christ summoned His followers to a new way of life because He was first and foremost the way to new life.” No wonder those early Christians broke the Roman tradition and dared to worship Christ alone.
And worshipping Jesus transformed more than just individuals like Pachomius. From “small and obscure beginnings,” the church brought a “tectonic shift of cultural values.” It toppled and transformed the mighty “[Roman] world saturated with capricious cruelty.” Even the agnostic philosopher Luc Ferry agreed that Christianity introduced the “unprecedented [idea that people] were equal in dignity.”
Try to picture that transformation through the eyes of two fictional Roman women from about A.D. 250—we’ll call them Marcella and Flavia. They are neighbors on the second floor of their building. At least they aren’t on the eighth floor, which is reserved for the really poor. They are “good” women. They do their duty, obeying their husbands, paying homage to the gods, and honoring the mighty Roman Empire, provider of roads and commerce and art and wisdom.
Those early disciples offered the world a radically new vision for a beautiful life—a life of dignity for every human being, even the powerless and unseen.
But life is also brutally harsh. Like the majority of Roman citizens, our fictional heroines’ families battle poor sanitation, disease, and crime. Similar structures to their poorly constructed tenement have been known to collapse. Their husbands (unlike Roman wives) aren’t expected to remain sexually faithful. With brothels dotting the cityscape like Starbucks or Taco Bells in a modern American metropolis, the men are encouraged to act on their sexual urges—with prostitutes and courtesans and even young boys.
For the vast majority of the non-elite, like Marcella and Flavia, life is also violent and cheap. They frequently overhear their husbands raving about gladiator events involving animal fights in the morning, the execution of criminals at lunchtime, and the main event in the afternoon—two armed men who fight to a bloody death. In hushed tones, the two neighbors also occasionally discuss other women who have been forced to abandon unwanted children by exposing them to the elements. It’s heart-wrenching, but all the smart and powerful Roman elite disdain the concept of mercy.
Lately, however, Flavia has been telling Marcella that she’s been meeting at a house with a strange group of people who worship only one god. They say Jesus alone is Lord. Marcella can’t help but notice how Flavia grabs her hand in sincerity while gushing, “He is not like all the other gods, Marcella. You can pray to Him directly, and He will answer you. It’s such good news: He came to save us because He loves us!” Even Flavia’s husband has started worshipping with the Christians.
Intrigued, Marcella starts going to the house church. Over the next few months, she hears remarkable things. Of course, every time they meet, the focus is on Jesus—His life, His teachings, His death and resurrection. But the church also paints a picture of a more beautiful way, rooted in Jesus. The leaders teach that it is wrong to take a human life. Do not waste your time at gladiator games. Do not leave infants to die. Husbands, they say, love your wives as Christ loved the church.
“He is not like all the other gods. You can pray to Him directly, and He will answer you.”
In King Jesus’ eyes, little people matter. Rich and poor, free people and slaves, men and, yes, women all worship together because they all share equal dignity. The teacher describes the church as a ragtag “army without weapons” composed of “God-fearing old men … God-beloved orphans… widows armed with gentleness… men adorned with love.” Another church leader says, “Be unsparing also in the care and attention you give to the poor.” And then Marcella hears something that makes her weep: God loves even people like her—an ordinary, unseen Roman woman. After coming to believe in Jesus, she is baptized and for the first time receives the Lord’s Supper.
The church grew and thrived because of little people. They exuded the aroma of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:15). That’s why I remain captivated by those anonymous Christians who brought food, drink, and hope to a band of kidnapped soldiers in a dingy, inhumane prison cell. Who were they? How did they meet Jesus? What was their house church like? All we know is that a weary soldier’s heart was “set on fire” to seek and find Jesus and His church because of their radical love.
I often wonder what it would take for our neighbors to see the same radical love in us. Researchers say that the religious “nones” are on the rise. Our friends and neighbors are often skeptical and even hostile toward Jesus and His church. They don’t expect us to exude the aroma of Christ in our culture.
That’s why so many of those early followers of Christ—like the nameless saints who brought water and food and hope to Pachomius and his fellow inmates—have become my mentors. They intrigued and then wooed their weary neighbors with a new kind of good. An embodied, lived-out, proclaimed goodness rooted in Jesus. And reading their stories often sets my heart on fire and inspires a simple prayer: Lord Jesus, may Your beauty in me and in my church draw others to You. Through us and our generation, may You “spread the sweet aroma of the knowledge of [You] in every place” (2 Corinthians 2:14).
Illustration by Adam Cruft
Wayne A. Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), page 3.
Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (San Francisco; HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), p. 214.
Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought (New York: Harper Perennial, 2011), p. 72.
See Steven D. Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2018), p. 77.
Rodney Stark writes that for the pagan elite “mercy was regarded as a character defect and pity as a pathological emotion.” Humans must learn to curb the impulse to show mercy. “This was the moral climate in which Christianity taught that mercy is one of the primary virtues—that a merciful God requires humans to be merciful.”
“The notion that there is one true and transcendent God, and that this God loves the world/humanity, may have become [such] a familiar notion [to us] … that we cannot easily realize how utterly strange, even ridiculous, it was in the Roman era.” See Larry W. Hurtado, Destroyer of the gods (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016), p. 64.
“Recent, objective evidence leaves no doubt that early Christian women did enjoy far greater equality with men than did their pagan and Jewish counterparts.” This even applied to children, “as Christians lamented the loss of a daughter as much as that of a son, which was especially unusual compared with other religious groups in Rome.” Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity (HarperOne, 2012), pp. 124-125.
Taken from a sermon written around 250 AD by Clement of Alexandria.
Taken from a sermon written around 250 AD by Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage.
The historian Paul Veyne, an avowed unbeliever, admired the “genius” of Christianity—“Namely, the infinite mercy of a God passionate about the fate of the human race, indeed about the fate of each and every individual soul, including mine and yours, and not just those of the kingdoms, empires and the human race in general.” Quoted in Stephen D. Smith, Pagans and Christians in the City, pages 187-188.