One of the conundrums surrounding the early Church is how the Gospel spread sufficiently powerfully to where Constantine established Christianity as the Empires official religion in the early 4th century. Recall how Christianity was a persecuted religion, a radical minority belief during the second century. Experts estimate that not more than two percent of the population were Christians by the end of the second century.
From the time of the apostles onwards until Constantine there are few records of any missionary activity, or celebrated missionaries. Yet the Gospel spread and gradually began to make significant progress to where the Roman Empire became officially Christianised. How did this come about?
At least one authority, Robin Lane Fox has speculated that, despite a revival of pagan idolatry throughout the second and third centuries, Christianity and the Christian communities represented a radically different order to Greco-Roman culture and civilization. It was radically different, but not violently revolutionary.
Some key points of difference were the recognition of all men as being in God's image, the acceptance of slaves without demanding the overthrow of the institution of slavery, the acceptance of women as equal co-heirs of salvation with men, yet all along remaining engaged in their communities and participating in the normal affairs of life. Christians were both engaged and yet radically different.
One such radical difference was the commitment to alms, charity, and the care of the poor. Whilst they shared this characteristic with the Jewish synagogues, it remained profoundly at odds with the accepted outlook of paganism.
Another radical difference was the ethic of humility.
Among pagan authors, "humility" had almost never been a term of commendation. It belonged with ignoble and abject characters. Men were born "sons of God," said the Stoics, and thus they should cherish no "humble or ignoble" thoughts about their nature. The humble belonged with the object, the mean, the unworthy.This was the ethic, these were the forces God brought to bear upon the Greco-Roman world. They broke paganism down and eventually brought into captivity a host of captives, bondslaves to Christ. It was the "inside-out" revolution: from the heart, to the family, to the community, to the culture. But at the same time there was widespread cynicism and disquiet over the fruits of paganism in the Empire.
Christianity, however, ascribed humility to God's own Son and exalted it as a virtue of man, his creature who he had redeemed. Through its Jewish heritage, Christianity idealized "abject poverty", ptocheia. It was not specifically material poverty, but poverty in the broader sense of an utter dependence on God. Pagans had never seen any spiritual merit in the status of the poor. Ptoichoi, they thought, were down-and-outs, worse than poor men of a certain independence. [Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc, 1987), p. 324.]
In summarising the case, Fox writes:
[The success of Christianity] was also due to faults in pagan society In cities of growing social divisions, Christianity offered unworldly equality. It preached, and at its best practised, love in a world of widespread brutality. It offered certainty and won conviction where the great venture of Greek philosophy was widely perceived to have argued itself into the ground. By 250, it was still the persecuted faith of a small minority, but its progress was sufficient to reflect on a growing failure of the pagan towns. [Ibid., p. 335]
It's the way the Spirit always works. Unbelief works itself out into a weak, distasteful gruel. Its wisdom comes to naught, self-flagellated into the ground. (Think post-modernism in our contemporary Western world). Its brutality was offensive and nauseating. (Think abortion in the West). The Christian Gospel and Christian community present a certain, yet radical alternative of the Kingdom of God yet one which continues to affirm this world as God's creation and beloved of Him. It is a gradual transformation from the inside-out. We can observe the same pattern happening now in China and South America.