Evangelism in the Early Church

Green, Michael. Evangelism in the Early Church. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004. Find on Amazon.

In Evangelism in the Early Church, Michael Green has given us insight into the world in which early Christians lived, thought, worshipped and evangelized. While the cultural context has changed since then, it is no less complex than the cultural milieu of the first four centuries of Christianity. Thus, numerous themes from this classic work hold great import for contemporary theology and practice of missions.

First, just as there were several cultural factors that enabled the rapid expansion of Christianity in the Roman world (29–49), the history of missions has shown that these opportunities (or praeparatio evangelica) exist in varying degrees in every age. Green showed how early Christians, and significantly Paul (356–79), made strategic use of these advantages. The discussion of missionary strategy has been a hot topic in the past 200 years and will continue as such. Even so, while there have always been professional missionaries making use of prayerful strategies, Green humbly and appropriately reminds the reader throughout that “the unknown ordinary man, the man who left no literary remains, was the prime agent in mission.” (242). Western missions has taken full advantage of the professional missionary, and in the past 40 years has seen the rise of lay missions in probably its greatest scale in modern history; however, it remains to be seen how the Western church will enable and empower the laity as the early church. Professional minister and missionaries must take this to heart—the gospel spreads the farthest the fastest when it is seen as “the prerogative and the duty of every church member” (380).

Second, Green goes to lengths to show the ways in which the early church contextualized the gospel (116–202, esp. 165–8). To the Jews, the Christians emphasized the fulfillment of Scripture in the coming of the expected Messiah. To the Gentiles, Christians increasingly used language and terms that appealed to the Greco-Roman mind. In both cases, the Christians argued that Christianity was superior to the cult of both demographics because of the superiority of Christ over the law and over idolatry, respectively. The apologists chose terms that were agreeable to the unbelievers mind to open a door for the gospel (173), they chose methods that made it easier for inquirers to hear the gospel explained to them (300–55, esp. 319ff), not in order to trick the Jew or pagan, but to convert them, to transform them (203–233). They were not trying to build continuity with false religion, but to bring people out of it into a relationship with the risen Lord. This is very instructive for modern attempts at contextualization that over-emphasize the continuity between Christianity and other religions.

Finally, though certainly not claiming to have exhausted the importance of this work for missions, Green emphasizes the quality of life exhibited by the early Christians (249–72). Since the vast majority of early Christians never wrote a massive treatise or apology, what was it that convinced the Greco-Roman world of the truth of Christianity? It was the character Christians exhibited in life and in death. The grave danger for Western Christianity today is deadly legalism (also its distant cousin antinomianism). Western missionaries have been faulted with legalistic imperialism in the past two centuries, local Christians being forced to act Western as a visible sign of Christianity. Thus, as many scholars have argued, pagan religions have not been suppressed as only white washed with a veneer of Christianity. Certainly, this danger has always been present, but it is undeniable that the virtue of the early Christians was a living apologetic to the Roman world. Not that their behavior was perfect, but that their compassion and love overcame their faults. Would that missionaries, ministers, and lay people be so clothed with Christ!

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4 Comments

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  1. Emmanuel Olatunji Omitoyin October 23, 2009 — 13:31

    i have find this material so helpful for me to understand the extensive work done by the noble professor. i quiet appreciate you effort in putting the entire book into a sumary, remain blessed.
    hope to visit this site often as i prepare missionaries and local church for ministry on the mission field.

  2. This is a great review of the book and good insight. I was searching for information on early church missions. I am always surprised, however, at the accusation of Western legalism. Firstly, it is hard to believe that the early Christian missionaries weren’t “legalistic” since Paul, at times, seems to be (men have short hair, etc). And secondly because Western missionaries today seem to bend over backwards to prove they aren’t legalistic and Western. The missionaries I’ve known to Haiti, the Sudan, Nepal, and LEbanon are more clothed with Christ than anyone I’ve ever known. Seems like a charge we’ve picked up from the wrong critics.

    • Jaime,

      Good point. However, when you look at the overall missionary movement in the past two centuries, while not fair of all missionaries, these charges hold. I think contemporary missionaries are more sensitive to this and do much better than their predecessors. I know many a godly missionary as well.

      Thank you for your feedback!

  3. Opio Harrison April 27, 2013 — 17:22

    But missionaries must possess the true Gospel as preached by the Early church. Research tells me that the Early church abandoned public confession of sins about 1000 yrs ago but the most life changing evangelism is similar to the one of the East African Revival.Less than that, missionaries will produce half baked Christians who do not know and do not practice soul saving Christianity. The evangelism needs to go back to the drawing board and ask God to give us the live saving evangelism and salvation that he (God) desires from any christian. Not tourism in the name of Evangelism.

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