What Made The Early Church So Effective?

Morning Message: John Cline

Text: James 1:26 – 2:19

Reader: Karen Cline

How did the early church survive when the odds were so heavily stacked against it? What made the early church so effective? These questions are worth looking at as we explore our own survival and effectiveness as a church in this increasingly anti-Christian society we live in. As we know from last week’s introductory sermon to the Letter of James, his, of all the 22 letters preserved in the NT, was the first letter written to churches. James wrote this letter to address these very issues of survival and effectiveness. The people he was writing to had been part of his church in Jerusalem but because of a horrible persecution of Christians that began on the day of the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, James and the other apostles and leaders of the early church advised everyone to evacuate immediately. That they did, fleeing for their lives to cities in the surrounding provinces of Judea and Samaria, plus south to Phoenicia, north as far as Antioch in Syria, and across the Mediterranean Sea to Cyprus. James feared that they were unprepared for what met them in their new locations: suffering, poverty, injustices brought on by others, and infighting and blaming and strong words amongst the Christians themselves. He was concerned for them and thus wrote this letter, which was really an “epistle”, which means it was a teaching letter. So, James was not sending greetings or warm hugs but instruction.

James wrote to the Christians in those centers. Think about it: those early Christians were religious refugees, people who had, because of their faith, been forced to flee for their lives. They had nothing, except their faith in the Lord. Historians have pointed out that it would have been unthinkable to anyone else living in the Roman Empire that the religions of the small, despised group of people from Jerusalem, Judea would become the dominant faith of the mighty Roman Empire, an empire steeped in fiercely defended traditional pagan religions and confident in its military prowess to defeat any attacking force. Little did they know that Rome would be brought down from the inside as Christianity spread which resulted in people embracing love and servitude, not power or might. The spread of the Christian church in its earliest centuries is one of the most amazing phenomena in all human history for it was considered

Religio prava, a Latin term meaning an “illegal and depraved religion”.

For three centuries, wave after wave of persecution from both Romans and Jews was unleashed upon the early church to quash it. The Roman military and courts, the state religion, the lack of opportunities for Christians making money: everything was against them. Except for one thing: Jesus, and their belief in him. James, who was the half-brother of Jesus as well as the first Bishop of the Church in Jerusalem, knew that the early Christians’ faith in Jesus could save and sustain them if they followed the instructions of both him and their Lord Jesus. Without commenting on that spiritual obedience side of things, secular historians have pointed to four things that caused the early church go grow.

  1. The earliest Christians did not have church buildings but met in each other’s homes.

Without church buildings they had erected or bought, the early churches remained unseen, under the radar of the authorities (so to speak) much like the house churches in China that have been so useful in growing the faith there. In those secret, uninterrupted places, in those confined, intimate houses, the Chinese Christians gather and benefit. In the same way, the early Christians would gather for the purpose of learning the scriptures, reading the letters written to them by the apostles, to worship together, grow spiritually stronger, share physically with each other, providing for each other’s needs, and praying for one another. In doing so, they became the force that changed society and won it to the Gospel of Jesus.

  1. Early Christianity was primarily an urban faith, establishing itself in the city centers of the Roman Empire.

Now, when you think of the cities in the Roman Empire don’t think of a city like Edmonton, orderly, predictable, neat, spread out with suburbs and homes for each family. No, the cities of the Roman Empire were more like those in modern Hong Kong or other high density cities. The people in Roman cities lived in crowded tenement buildings, which would have a communal plaza or compound in the middle. The people had no beds, just bedding that they would put on a floor to sleep on. In such a setting, there were few secrets so unbelievers knew who the Christians there. They observed their lives close-up. That is why what the Christians said and did had such an impact. A 2nd century Christian, Justin Martyr, making the case for Christians before the persecuting Emperor Antoninus Pius (a case which failed for he was soon martyred for his faith), wrote an explanation of who Christians were and what they did: “We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity; before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything, but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ, we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies and try to win over those who hate us without just cause, when cheated we respond with honesty in our business dealings.” Their lives shone!

  1. The early Christians spread the Gospel message of Jesus.

Jesus had commanded his followers to take the Gospel message to the world and those early Christians obeyed him. But they had to be careful, and so they spoke in code to that world. For instance, they used pictograms and acrostics to spread the Gospel. Two examples, one simple to understand and the other more difficult: the first one involves the Greek word for a fish, Ichthus. Because Jesus had told his followers that they would be fishers of people, the early Christians used a painted fish over a doorway as a secret symbol telling other Christians that inside the building were Christians.

The Greek word Ichthus which spelled out in an acrostic form Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour

Using the Greek letters of the word, the Christians then used it to explain that unbelievers that Ichthus, a fish, was actually an acronym meaning Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour. The first letter, Iota, stood for Iesous/Jesus; the second letter Chi was for Christos; the third letter Theta was for Theou/of God, the fourth letter Upsilon for Uiso/Son, and the final letter Sigma for Soter/Saviour. Spelled out in acronym form, Ichthus thus referred to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Saviour. You still see that fish symbol today on bumper stickers, on metal grates, on walls, in pictures – the “Jesus Fish”, as it’s called.

Secondly, and much more complex, the early Christians did much the same thing using a five-line block pattern of five Latin words, one word on each line, Rotas, Opera, Tenet, Arepo, and Sator, which were used by the early Christians to teach about the Fatherhood of God. In that Roman world, people felt, like so many do today, they were at the mercy of fate, victims of chance, dependent on luck, and their destiny determined by blind astrological forces. By contrast, Christian believers witnessed to a personal God who could be approached as “our Father.” What a jolt it must have been to the Roman world for the early Christians to come teaching about God as “Our Father.” This radical idea liberated those who were captive to fatalistic resignation. Archaeologists have discovered two of those five-line block patterns in their digs at the city of Pompeii which was destroyed by the Vesuvius volcano in 79 AD. There, the five lines were an

Acrostic made into a cross formation (e.g. in 79 AD Pompeii Italy), which spelled out Paternoster (which means, “Our Father”)

Thus, the Christians spread the Gospel message through 1. their house churches; 2. their purity in lifestyle (which was so different from the Roman lifestyle); 3. and their spoken words and hidden and symbolic messages, but, fourthly and maybe most importantly, their message spread because of their

  1. Care for orphans and widows.

Christians became so known as caring people that when Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate wanted to revive pagan religion in the mid-300s, the only example he could give of how to live was by pointing at Christians. Remember, he was an opponent of the Christian faith, but about it he said, “Christianity has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers and through their care of the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that Christians care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help we should render them.” So, those early Christians changed Roman society. The reason why was based on their belief that Jesus, their Lord, was alive and that they should live faithful and obedient lives as they followed him. Remember, how they were living was very different from how Romans were living. But, for the Christians, it all started and ended with Jesus. They remembered that one time, telling a parable explaining how unrighteous people do not care about others, but righteous people do, Jesus – who referred to himself as “The King” in this parable, said:

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” (Matthew 25:37-43)

Jesus, in no uncertain terms, identified with the mistreated so caring for the oppressed became a constant theme for the early Christians, out of their solidarity with, and obedience to, Jesus. James, in his letter, as we will hear, doubled down on this theme by insisting that the caring of orphans and widows was a necessity for the early Christians.

We must remember that in that Roman society, the two – orphans and widows – went together because fatherlessness, not the absence of both parents, was what determined that a child was an orphan. 45% of children lost their father by the time they were 14. That was due to war, and to a low average life expectancy for men of just 42 years of age. Only one or two of every ten men reaching the age of marriage would still have a father alive at the time of his marriage. As well, the average age of getting married was for men between 25 and 29 years of age and for women between 16-21 years. There were very few long-lived marriages, and no 50th years of marriage golden wedding anniversary celebrations. The age differences for married couple were usually of 12 or so years so when we crunch all those numbers, we can see that there would have been a lot of widows back then. As well, though, there was a high rate of orphans due to their father’s dying young and to a very high rate of childbirth deaths for the mothers. Historians have determined that 30-40% of the women were widows by age 30. What more obvious group of disadvantaged people was there to minister to for the early Christians? Thankfully, James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, knew they had some experience with such situations for in the church in Jerusalem had such a ministry. We read,

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So, the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them…They chose (seven men) and presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. So, the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:1-7)

This was the start of having deacons in the church, started by the specific serving of widows and (no doubt) their orphaned or fatherless children. Because the early church did the right thing in caring for the widows, the church in Jerusalem grew. James knew, being the lead pastor, the bishop of that church, that such a ministry was essential anywhere a church was, and so, he advised the scattered Christians:

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:26,27)

“If you want to consider yourself to be a Christian, then keep a tight rein of your tongues, look after orphans and widows, and don’t allow your minds to be polluted by giving in to the ways of the world.” Remember that Jesus prayed for us, His followers, in John 17, in his final Garden of Gethsemane prayer for his followers on the night in which he was betrayed, that we would be “in the world but not of it”. James is very clear that caring for widows and orphans and not allowing oneself “to be polluted by the world” are part of “religion that is pure in God’s eyes”. It is worth noting that in the verse just prior that James takes issue with those who would claim to have faith in God but don’t keep a reign on their tongue. Perhaps this is the reason for the admonishment to avoid the world’s pollution.

We need to recognize that widows and orphans are still common today. We have many in our church. In our world today, for various reasons, the reason for being a widow could be their husband’s death, or, by biblical standards, having been abandoned by their husbands, while for orphans, there are still thousands in other countries due to issues such as war, impoverishment, abandonment, or parents having died due to drug overdoses. I have a cousin, slightly younger than me, who took on the role of parenting her granddaughter after the mother died in her early 20’s and the father was nowhere to be found. In our society, and in our church, the opportunities to minister are still real. If we want to reflect Jesus’ heart, we need to both speak our faith and live it out in ministries of compassion and care. Going on to chapter 2 we see that James’ focus is not on being “polluted” by the world:

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong? If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder. (James 2:1-19)

Words alone do not save. Deeds must accompany our words. Jesus’ early followers continued his message of love, mercy, justice, and compassion for those who were socially vulnerable and marginalized. Here, James urges the early Christians to show mercy and love and to not discriminate against the poor by showing favoritism toward the rich and to keep the “royal law found in Scripture”, that being Jesus’ words to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This shouldn’t be controversial but, over the centuries it has been, starting with the Father of Protestantism, Martin Luther, who called the Letter of James, “an epistle of straw” because of this teaching. More next week!

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