The Baptismal Community -- By: David F. Wright

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 160:637 (Jan 2003)
Article: The Baptismal Community
Author: David F. Wright

The Baptismal Communitya

David F. Wright

For whatever reason the last few years have witnessed a resurgence of interest in the success of the early church. To describe the history of Christianity up to Constantine as a success story may sound triumphalist, but it seems to merit this recognition. The “Jesus movement” grew to about five percent of the population of the Roman Empire in less than three centuries. By some very broad-brush calculations it has recently been estimated that such expansion required growth, on average, of 40 percent per decade, or 3.42 percent every year. This is the finding of the sociologist Rodney Stark, whose little book The Rise of Christianity1 has stimulated fresh debate about “How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries,” as his paperback publisher subtitled his work, without his knowledge.2 Newsweek went one step further, calling the book an account of “how the West was won—for Jesus.”3

No less interesting from a present-day standpoint are the circumstances in which Christianity made its way in the Mediterranean world. For most of the period before Constantine Christians were liable to persecution, and many died for their faith as martyrs. Though pluralism and inclusiveness in religion were the order

of the day, Christians maintained an exclusive stance and counted adherents of all other religions as fair game for evangelism. No philosophy or cult was off limits—and the older view that Greco-Roman paganism was withering away by the first century is no longer a consensus among scholars. The mores of Roman imperial society tolerated a fair degree of sexual license, not wholly unbridled but permissive enough, so long as certain traditional norms were observed. Christianity, however, steadfastly refused to smooth its path to success by accommodating to the prevailing attitude toward immorality.

As one reflects on the context within which the church of the early fathers attained sufficient strength (not solely in numerical terms) to attract the interest and then the favor of a Roman emperor, it is difficult not to observe uncanny parallels to the situation facing Christians in much of Western society today. The difference, of course—and it is a massive one—is that today’s religiously and culturally pluralist society, so inclusively tolerant and sexually besotted, has emerged out of Christendom. No return to the innocence ...

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