The Bible teaches that God is sovereign over all of history (Daniel 4:17, Acts 4:27–28). So when it comes to the origin and development of historic Christianity, believers in Christ undoubtedly accept the words of Galatians 4:4–5: “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.”
Thus, theologically speaking, God’s hand of providence in history is the ultimate explanation for the rise and growth of Christianity. Yet God uses social, cultural, and religious means to achieve his sovereign ends.
So in just a few centuries, the Jesus movement went from being a small and obscure Jewish sect in the backwaters of the Roman Empire to becoming the official religion of Caesar’s great kingdom. What factors contributed to Christianity’s dramatic growth and influence? In part one, we briefly examined three social factors about the Mediterranean world in general and the Roman Empire in particular that helped the Christian faith to advance.
To expand upon my previous list, let’s now examine two cultural factors that significantly contributed to Christianity’s initial flourishing within the ancient Roman world.
4. Christian Aid and Charity
Critical to Christian morality is the biblical teaching that all people are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27). The early Christian community put this belief into practice by attempting to provide food, shelter, and clothing for the poor. There was no safety net in the Roman Empire or anywhere in the ancient world, thus the poor and slaves had few, if any, options. Christians shared their goods not only with other Christians but also with non-Christians.
The Christian community also set up hospitals and hospice centers where the sick and dying could receive care. These healthcare centers, while limited in medical knowledge, nevertheless deeply helped during times of natural disasters and infectious plagues, which were so prevalent in antiquity. Christians also established orphanages where parentless and unwanted children could find their needs met.
These remarkable Christian acts of charity had a deep influence upon non-Christians who were undoubtedly deeply attracted to a philosophy of life that cared for people who were at the very bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.
5. Christianity’s Freedom from Class Distinctions
The cultures of the ancient world readily divided people according to race, gender, class, and people group. So the Apostle Paul’s proclamation in the book of Galatians is nothing short of revolutionary in this regard: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
In primitive Christianity, racial, gender, and class distinctions were set aside by believers in Jesus Christ. In the church, the unity found through faith in Jesus Christ brought diverse people together as brothers and sisters in the Lord. This declaration served to set Christianity apart from the cultural norms of the Roman Empire and apart from the various ancient religions, including Judaism. It is therefore not a surprise that the two largest groups to initially join the Christian faith were women and slaves.1
How attractive it must have been to the masses of people in the ancient world to hear the message that the Christian God loves, forgives, and accepts people irrespective of their skin color, sex, or class status.
Therefore, the biblical belief that all people are made in the image of God, and the effects of its application, served to draw all kinds of people in the ancient world to Christianity.
See other installments in this series here: part 1.
For more information on the spread of Christianity, please see my book 7 Truths That Changed the World. I also recommend How Christianity Changed the World by Alvin J. Schmidt and The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark.
1. Stephen Neill, The Supremacy of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1984), 20.