The Spread of the Early Church – an Excerpt from Introducing World Missions, 2nd Edition

The following is an excerpt from Introducing World Missions, by A. Scott Moreau, Gary R. Corwin, and Gary B. McGee.

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American and European Christians often have thought of the church extending to the West, due in part to Luke’s tracing events from Jerusalem to Rome, but more likely because the story of Christianity in the East was lost as believers separated from one another.

While Paul was directed westward by the vision of a man begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9), others went elsewhere. An angel of the Lord instructed Philip to take the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza to witness to a royal official on his way home to Ethiopia after worshiping in Jerusalem (Acts 8:26–39). Eusebius Pamphilus, a later church historian, said that Mark first preached the gospel in Alexandria, John went to Ephesus, and Thomas and Andrew ventured east of the Mesopotamian River valley (Eusebius Pamphilus 1955, 65, 82). Other influential witnesses included Pantaenus, who reportedly visited India (Mundadan 1989, 117).

Cover ArtBy the year 180, Christians could be found in all the provinces of the empire. Just as members of the palace guard in Rome had whispered the gospel among themselves in Paul’s day (Phil. 1:13), so now soldiers carried the faith to the farthest imperial outposts in Roman Britain, Germany, and Romania, while merchants built churches where they located new markets.

How far they traveled southward into Africa and eastward into Asia and how many Christians lived in these regions remain unknown. But in any event, the number of Christians within the empire may have grown to several million by the year 313, when the Edict of Toleration (Treaty of Milan) was published.

Notable centers for Christian training and mission inside the empire arose in Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus, Rome, and later Constantinople. To the east of Syria, Edessa, the capital city of the kingdom of Osrhoene, and later Nisibis, in upper Mesopotamia, became launchpads for sending forth Syriac-speaking Christians intent on sharing the gospel, some of whom would trek across the rugged mountains of Afghanistan to the deserts of central Asia and ultimately to China.

Christians benefited from the Pax Romana (the enforced “Roman Peace”) and the protected system of roads that connected all parts of the empire. The Greek language also helped because it was the common language of persons engaged in commerce and government. Christianity thrived in urban centers linked to the roads. Villagers from conservative rural areas, however, resisted surrendering their confidence in the local gods. Consequently, a non-Christian came to be known as a paganus, a “pagan” or “heathen” in contrast to a Christian or a Jew.

©2015 by A. Scott Moreau, Gary R. Corwin, and Gary B. McGee. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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