Expansion of the Early Church

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The following was a college essay written by Joshua Pippert. It has been edited and approved by Mary Boneno. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Joshua Pippert, Benedictine College

            “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). This is the last thing Jesus Christ said to his apostles before he ascended into heaven. The apostles began their ministry with Church customs already tailored to the culture of Jerusalem, yet if they were to bear witness for him as Jesus had commanded them, some cultural adaptation would be unavoidable. This essay aims to demonstrate the various ways the Church adjusted to Greco-Roman culture and evangelized to others in the beginning of its mission.

            The first of such difficulties came about within Paul and Barnabas’ ministry to the Gentiles as described in Acts 15. At this time, the Church had operated according to two key variations of the Torah or law of God: moral and ritual. The issue in question had to do with the ritual Torah, over whether the Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to obtain salvation. Judging by the statement of Acts 15:1, proclaiming that “unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved, ” it is not too much of a conjecture to conclude how Paul and Barnabas themselves had voted in this situation.

            As the Church grew more diverse, however, taking on a host of Greco-Roman believers, the subjectivity of the ritual Torah became questioned more often. Perhaps circumcision was necessary according to Jewish law, but questions arose over whether it should be necessary according to all human law. The circumcision requirement may have been dropped for evangelization to the Greco-Roman world when the subjectivity of the ritual Torah became realized, but the moral Torah remained invaluable. It is therefore important to keep in mind that Paul considered changes to the ritual Torah for the sake of expansion, but it never occurred to him to change the objective moral Torah. While the rituals may be adjusted, the moral law of God can never be changed for the mere sake of evangelization.

            Certainly, this is not to say that the Church endured no sufferings for its steadfast adherence to the moral law. Many people from saints to simple believers were martyred for holding such a belief so obstinately. Consider St. Polycarp of Smyrna, who refused to render unto Caesar (Aquilina, 71) and was later burned and stabbed (73) as a result. Consider also St. Pothinus, who, with a group of his own Christian companions, was sent to prison for Christianity and “endured tortures beyond all telling” (Blosser, 43).

            It is not unreasonable to think, then, that the Greeks and Romans found themselves bewildered when they heard any Christian teaching. In fact, Christian doctrine was, for the most part, either contrary to common Greco-Roman belief or unheard of in any of their societies. Greek philosophers such as Plato and Socrates often taught lessons on the value of wisdom or practice, but never does one read an exhortation from either about love or charity. Even when Aristotle spoke of virtue, he meant it as a proficiency attained through practice, not in the traditional Christian understanding.

            In the case of Rome as well, the religion was a product of the state, where temples were government property and priests were paid a salary with taxpayer money. Anything contrary to this state-run religion (i.e. Christianity) would often be considered treason. These sorts of disconnections and persecutions were what gave way to the presence of the apologists. St. Justin Martyr in particular had plenty of matters to resolve with the Romans over misunderstandings of Christian teaching. The Second Apology addresses transgressions committed in the territory of the governor Urbicus against Christians and explains some of the most common questions that the Romans had for them. Justin uses the example of a woman condemned by Urbicus, a woman in a mutually adulterous marriage who, after she learned the teachings of Christ, “became a self-controlled person” (77). A woman absorbed in sin and vice had become enlightened by Christ in virtue of her own inherent capacity for goodness, but this was perplexing to the Greeks and Romans. In their understanding, the essence or being of human nature varied with the actions of the person. Never did they think — as St. Justin did — that the goodness in the essence of human nature is not stained by evil deeds, but rather can always show itself forth and be redeemed in spite of evil.

            Justin also covers topics such as persecution and why Christians do not fear death. As he says in chapter eight, “the poets in some respects, because of the seed of reason implanted in all mankind, were hated and killed” (80). Simply put, anyone who reasons through truth will often be hated by those who choose not to accept it. In addition, chapters four and eleven explain that Christians do not kill themselves in a Platonic manner of escaping the burden of material reality, but they acknowledge that the material was made for man by God and is very good. Ultimately, to seek death would be an act of selfishness, for to do so would put an end to the faith eventually. Yet death is an inevitable precipitant of human sin, and Christians pay the price and show gratitude for it as the necessary means of reaching salvation.

            Expansion “to the end of the earth” required no small sacrifice on the Church’s part, for it led to hatred, martyrdom, and the need for apologists. Some good martyrs died and works like The Second Apology were needed to help work out understandings. In the end, however, the Church learned to defend itself and to bridge gaps between societies through its immersion in the Greco-Roman cultures.

Works Cited

Aquilina, Mike. The Fathers of the Church: An Introduction to the First Christian Teachers. Our Sunday Visito Publishing Division, 2013.

Blosser, Benjamin. THEO3420: History of the Catholic Church I. Cognella Custom, 2020.

The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition. Ignatius, 2006.

7 Responses

  1. It’s clear from Acts 15:5 that circumcision wasn’t the only thing that the Gentiles were not required to do: it was the whole law of Moses. The Gentiles at the house of Cornelius received the Holy Spirit by faith (see Acts 15:9). The Holy Spirit did not limit itself only to those who had been practicing Judaism.
    Christianity is a religion of the Spirit and of grace. This is on a different level than a religion based on observing rules and regulations in the attempt to be righteous before God. The Spirit informs us of what is moral and what isn’t (see 1Corinthians 2:9-16 and 1John 2:20, 27). It makes us self-controlled people (see Galatians 5:22-23). This aspect of Christianity is a step above all cultures that require religious performance for righteousness, and not just Judaism. This serious difference, if not observed, makes us ineligible for grace (see Galatians 5:4-6).

      1. Cooperating with God’s grace is being open to it by humility toward God. Scripture is clear on this even if most of modern Christianity is not. This type of humility is best described in 1Peter 5:5-7 which says: “Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time: Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.” See also James 4:6-10, Philippians 4:6-7, Proverbs 3:5, Psalms 37:7, 55:22, Isaiah 26:3-4, 55:7-9, and Galatians 5:22-23.

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