Early Christians rarely grew in number because they won arguments. – Alan Kreider
My friend and colleague Karina Kreminski wrote a very helpful blog for Missio Alliance earlier in the year, entitled Five Real (and Risky) Ways to Start Peacemaking in Your Neighborhood. It’s really good. Her five ways are super practical and I can attest to the fact that she’s trying to live them out in her own neighborhood.
But it was the last line in the article that seemed to strike a chord. I saw a bunch of people tweeting and sharing her restatement (taken from Alan Kreider) that the early Christians didn’t grow by winning arguments. And it got me thinking. Is that true?
I’m definitely all across Karina’s argument that peacemaking and reconciliation were central practices for the early Christians. And I loved Kreider’s book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church. I’ve previously blogged about it here.
But is it true that the early church didn’t grow in some measure due to their participation in arguments?
We know that Paul’s ministry of preaching against the gods of Greece and Rome stirred up a riot in the city of Ephesus when the local idol-makers union became incensed. Paul eventually had to be smuggled out of town.
Then, on another occasion Paul attacked the Lystrans’ worship of Zeus and Hermes, insisting: “You should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them”. (Acts 14:15)
Likewise, in Athens, in a sermon often touted for its cultural sensitivity, Paul pulls no punches when he says:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything… We ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent… (Acts 17:24, 29-30)
The response wasn’t exactly warm.
Then in The Clementine Homilies we find the story of a second-century evangelist in Alexandria rebuking those “philosophers” who had attended his meeting to heckle him and mock his “artless” preaching. He ends up giving as good as he gets and another riot ensues, necessitating the evangelist to hide out at a local Christian’s home until the heat died down.
In fact, there are so many accounts of the early Christians stirring up trouble with their attacks on polytheism that it’s hard to justify the statement that they weren’t trying to win arguments.
Here is an early fourth-century statement from Lactantius on the process through which one might ascend from the darkness of polytheism to the light of Christ:
Now the first step is to understand religions which are false and to cast aside the impious worship of gods made with hands.
Them’s fighting words, right there. But he continues:
The second step is to perceive with the mind fact that God is one, most high, whose power and providence made the world from the beginning, and direct it towards a future. The third step is to know His Servant and Messenger, whom He sent on embassy to earth.
It’s simple really: reject your false gods; accept the one true God; and learn to know his son Jesus Christ.
And the argument against other gods made by men like Lactantius and Justin (and their forebears, Quadratus and Pantaenus) wasn’t particularly subtle. Idols were deemed useless, merely inanimate objects made from wood or metal. There’s an unmistakable tone of mockery in much of the early Christians’ attacks on idols.
The great apologist, Justin wasn’t satisfied merely to mock the idols themselves, but the very character of the men who made them:
We need not tell you – you know – what the craftsmen contrive of their material, carving and cutting and casting and hammering. That we count not just nonsense, but blasphemy. The craftsmen who do it are themselves a bad lot, I need not enumerate – you know well enough, they have got every vice. The very girls who help them in the shop they seduce. What madness, that dissolute men should be said to fashion gods for your worship.
And if any idol worshipper should suggest that praying to their god made their field fertile or their wife pregnant, Justin had an explanation: anything efficacious that might have resulted from praying to idols was merely the manifestation of evil spirits sent to deceive you.
“We obey him in declaring (the gods of polytheism) are demons, not only crooked, but evil and profane,” says Justin.
I’m in full agreement with Karina Kreminski (and by extension, Alan Kreider) that we should be peacemakers, fostering reconciliation and grace in our host communities. But to say the early Christians didn’t grow by winning arguments (while eminently tweetable) isn’t strictly true.
Certainly, they did practice radical hospitality and performed astonishing acts of philanthropy in an otherwise brutish and uncaring empire. But they also attacked polytheism, mocked idols, demanded repentance, performed exorcisms and insisted their audiences embrace allegiance to Christ as their only king and savior.
In saying this, I’m not suggesting we make it our business to stir up trouble for trouble’s sake. But there comes a time when it’s right and proper to start an argument with the idols of our age.
It’s right to declare the folly of serving materialism and greed; to repudiate the false gods of patriotism, militarism, racism, sexism, and imperialism; to condemn the practice of capital punishment, abortion on demand, and the mandatory detention of refugees; to say to our age, as Paul did to his, that they must turn to God from idols “to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.” (1Thes 1:9-10)
[Featured image of Mordecai refusing to bow to Haman from Keith Green, No Compromise album cover artwork]