The early centuries of the Church saw astronimical growth. It is estimated that in 250 A.D. Christians made up 10% of the population and by 350 were 50% of the population. This had little or nothing to do with Constantine’s conversion and everything to do with the health and strength of the Church. What was it that made it strong in the early centuries? What made it strong despite persecution (a persecution that was sometimes Empire wide), and despite not having places of worship that were ‘out in the open?’ What made it strong when the Roman world put it on the margins and made it illegal even to call oneself a ‘Christian?’
One of the things that caused the growth of the Church, ironically, was its strict boundaries around membership. Taking the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, for example, we read that the potential catechumens (newcomers to the faith) underwent an intense interview process, a ‘weeding out’ of those who were willing to persevere and those who more than likely would not. Those who had questionable professions (e.g. Gladiators, brothel-keepers) or were living lives of immorality (pederasty or prostitution) were told to ‘cease or be rejected.’ They were told to leave their former lives and identities to follow Chirst and to take on new identities as Christians. It did not matter whether or not they were ‘important’ from the standards of the Empire–they would take on a life that was inherently ‘unimportant.’ It did not matter whether or not they were successful–if they were living a compromised life, they were told to ‘cease or be rejected.’
What a contrast to the message so many proclaim–inclusion at the expense of transformation, eros at the expense of agape, good feelings at the expense of repentance. The irony is, when we ‘preach it straight’ and expect change and transformation, the world is turned upside down. When we say, ‘follow the Master’ rather than ‘all is well’ lives are changed–and more people want to be a part of that. Just ask the early Christians.