Analysis and Examination of the Explosive Growth of Christianity in the Roman Empire

1. Growth Rate of the Early Church

It is no secret that Christianity exploded onto the world scene after the death of Jesus Christ circa 30 AD.  For example, two chapters into the book of Acts, only a few weeks after his death, three thousand souls were added to the fledgling church upon hearing Peter proclaim the gospel (Acts 2:41). What started as a small band of Jews turned into a globally dominant religion in less than three hundred years.  But how did this happen?  Surely these types of mass conversions pictured in Acts 2 did not sustain the early church.  Theories abound as to the exact nature of the explosive expansion that saw Christianity rise to the top of the world, but which one is correct, or at least, the closest to being correct?  Rodney Stark, professor of sociology and comparative religion at the University of Washington[1], sets out on a quest to answer this very question in his book titled, Rise of Christianity.  This paper will explore Stark’s main argument about why Christianity grew to be the dominant factor in the Roman Empire by the 4th century, attempting to show its overall validity while being cautious of some inherent drawbacks.  It will also interact with his sociological and historical arguments regarding this particular topic, and the paper will conclude by taking a practical look at some of the ways the book can personally benefit me in my current and future ministries.

Stark opens his book by asking the question that will be the focal point of his entire study:  “How did a tiny and obscure messianic movement from the edge of the Roman Empire dislodge classical paganism and become the dominant faith of Western civilization?”[2]  Knowing full well the weight and breadth of the question, Stark continues, “Although this is the only question, it requires many answers.”[3]  It may be best at this point to note that the arguments that Stark makes in the book are like a powerfully flowing river: twisting and turning wherever it pleases, constantly being fed by smaller feeders.  Stark begins at the source of the river and slowly works his way downstream, examining and analyzing bits and pieces of Roman culture in order to demonstrate exactly how Christianity grew so rapidly.  At the source of the river, Stark narrows down his search and asks this question: “What is the minimum rate of growth that would permit the Christian movement to become as large as it must have been in the time that history allows?”[4]  After investigating this question, Stark arrives at the conclusion that Christianity must have grown at about 40 percent per decade.[5]  Historically, this means that “there would have been 7,350 Christians in the year 100, followed by 217,795 Christians in the year 200 and by 6,299,832 Christians in the year 300.”[6]  This number seems to satisfy Stark, who claims that this would have been sufficient enough to put adequate political pressure on Constantine to issue the Edict of Milan.  Having this many Christians in the empire meant that the movement had become large enough to become a religious force.  Having shown this, Stark continues further downstream.  In order to illustrate the number’s legitimacy, he compares this rate of growth to the rate of growth that the Mormon church has experienced over the past century.  Finding the two rates to be virtually the same (43 percent per decade for the Mormon church[7]), he moves onto the next progression of his argument: conversion.

Before looking at Stark’s analysis of the conversion process, a few comments regarding the rate of growth for the early church are in order.  Without a doubt, reconstructing the actual data for Christianity’s growth rate is nearly impossible simply due to a lack of available sources that would help historians and sociologists determine the realistic rate.  Therefore, it seems reasonable to agree with Stark that 40 percent per decade is an acceptable growth rate based on the known amount of Christians in the empire during Constantine’s time.  Having said that, I do not automatically agree with Stark’s assumption that 40 percent is acceptable on the basis of there being modern-day evidence of this type of growth, namely in the growth of the Mormon church.  While it certainly is nice and even quite interesting that the two numbers are so similar, I do not think this similarity unavoidably leads to the conclusion the early Christian church grew or even could have grown at this rate.  Even as I accept the 40 percent growth rate for the Christian church, I do not assent to Stark’s sociological application for this particular example.  One might easily have argued that the Jehovah’s Witness cult, of which an in-depth study is way beyond the scope of this paper, has not grown at this rate during the same time period as the Mormon church.  Whatever the JW growth rate is, it certainly is not the same as the Mormon’s.  That being said, the JW rate would not be similar to the Christian rate, yet that does not discount or disprove the growth of either group.  All this to conclude that applying modern-day growth rates to first century growth rates in order to show the legitimacy of the growth rate seems rather weak, in my opinion.  And while it might show that such a rate could have taken place, it does not conclusively show that it did.

2.  Conversion: A Relational Theory

Now, Stark moves onto conversion.  Having shown what the conversion rate might have been, he zooms in to take a look at the process of conversion in order to see what exactly takes place when someone converts to a new religion. After studying a cult group known as the Moonies, Stark concludes, “conversion is not about seeking or embracing an ideology; it is about bringing one’s religious behavior into alignments with that of one’s friends and family members.”[8]  Stark goes on to argue generally, most new converts were attracted to the group by someone they knew inside the group.  That being the case, it was reasonable for them to convert in order not to be found to be deviant.  Stark will apply this theory to great effect in chapter four.  There, he argues that epidemics led to the expansion of Christianity in several different ways.  For example, the plagues wiped out a larger number of pagans than Christians, so the network of interaction among the people groups in the empire had a sudden increase in the Christian-to-pagan ratio.  This inevitably led to relationships, which led to conversions based upon Stark’s theory of the relational conversion process.  Note that the growth rate of 40 percent means that gradually more and more Christians would be in the empire.  While it may be obvious, it is still important to realize that more Christians, according to Stark’s relational theory, means a greater amount of converts simply because more people would be interacting with Christians inside the empire.  Again, this would point to Christianity’s growing dominance throughout the empire as more and more converts were made.

I think Stark’s relational conversion theory, namely, that people tend to convert to new religions as a  “part of conforming to the expectations and examples of one’s family and friends,”[9] holds some weight, but it does not quite account for all conversions.  In Christian theology, it is God who does the work of conversion to the soul, not man (Cf. Matthew 19:25-26; Ephesians 2:8; and 1 Peter 1:3f). This reality seems to directly contradict what Stark argues; however, I believe the two can coincide neatly with a little work.  Certainly, people do not just exist in a vacuum that is devoid of all human contact.  Stark argues that human interaction will almost inevitably lead to religious conformity.  While I do not agree with this assertion completely, I do think that the presence of Christians who are proclaiming the gospel and “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in [their] bodies” (2 Cor. 4:10) will certainly lead to some form of disciple-making and conversions.

At this point, I will comment on one of the ways that I believe this book can help me in my current and future ministries.  To a certain degree, I hold Stark’s relational conversion theory to be correct.  Ultimately, I believe Stark is simply theorizing (people convert based primarily upon relational compulsions) something very similar to what the Bible commands regarding making disciples.  What this means for me is that I am to be in the world; I am to get my hands dirty, if you will; I am to enter into the lives of those around me in order that they might turn and know and love Jesus Christ.  Relationships are messy, nearly everyone will agree.  But if Stark is correct, and if I am to be faithful to the commands of God, I must seek out relationships with those who do not yet know Christ in the hopes that God might work through me to reconcile them to himself.  Knowing that simply creating these relationships with non-believers might break down barriers to belief should spur me on to seek them out even more rapidly and regularly.  Currently, I work “inside” the church.  This means that I do not work with any non-believers (hopefully), so I must be more intentional with the friends I spend time with in order to place myself around people who do not yet know Christ.  In the future, I hope knowing these truths will shape how I view making disciples as I shepherd others to make disciples of their own.  Realizing, at least to some degree, that people tend to convert to new religions based on the network connections they have should urge me on to furthering my own connections in the hopes that God will convert as many people in and through my own network as possible.

3.  The Role of Women in the Growth of the Church

After a thorough examination of the conversion process, Stark moves further down the proverbial river to analyze the surrounding Roman culture into which Christianity was penetrating.  Thus far, Stark has shown that a 40 percent growth rate per decade mixed with the nature of conversion being relational were two prime factors for the explosion and growing dominance of Christianity in the Roman empire up to the 4th century.  He then moves to a cultural factor: the role of women.  By my count, Stark gives five main reasons that women were instrumental in the early success of the church:  1) “an initial shift in sex ratios resulted from Christian doctrines prohibiting infanticide and abortion”[10]; 2) “the initial shift would have been amplified by a subsequent tendency to overrecruit women”[11]; 3) Stark considers “evidence from ancient sources as well as from modern archaeology and historical demography concerning the status of women in the early church”[12]; 4) Stark then builds “a case for accepting that relatively high rates of intermarriage existed between Christian women and pagan men”[13]; 5) and finally, Stark “will demonstrate why Christian and pagan subcultures must have differed greatly in their fertility rates and how a superior birthrate also contributed to the success of the early church.”[14]

It is important to note that “a population’s capacity to reproduce is a function of the proportion of that population consisting of women in their childbearing years, and the Greco-Roman world had an acute shortage of women.”[15]  This shortage of women, Stark argues, was to some degree caused by the practices of infanticide and abortion.  Many pagan women throughout the empire lost their lives or their ability to bear children after having an abortion, and many babies were simply killed at birth in the infanticide practice.  The Christians, on the other hand, were prohibited from committing such atrocities, directly leading to a greater population of Christian women.  Stark moves onto his next argument, namely, women were more likely to be primary converts than men were.[16]  Interestingly, Stark does not attempt to explain why this is the case.  He states, “there have been several interesting efforts to explain why women in many different times and places seem to be far more responsive than men to religion,” but “this is not an appropriate place to pursue the matter.”[17]  This is striking when one considers that Stark simply assumes this to be the case without ever trying to explain why it must be.  At this point it would have been appropriate to at least provide some brief explanations as to why this might be the case, yet Stark fails to offer any accounts.  Nonetheless, Stark continues by arguing that Christians viewed women as having a higher status than pagans viewed them.  This generally meant that women were treated better, leading to an increase in the population.  Lastly, this increase in population meant that there were more Christian women than pagan women, so there was likely a high rate of intermarriage between Christian women and pagan men.  Stark argues that this led to plenty of secondary conversions, i.e., the men simply converted because their wives were Christians.

Stark does a wonderful job showing that prohibitions of infanticide and abortion led to an increase of Christian women.  One can easily conclude that when part of the population is destroying itself by means such as these and the other part is prohibited from committing these acts, the second part will soon grow to be a large force.  Moving on, I have already commented briefly on Stark’s omission to provide evidence as to why women were more susceptible to Christianity than men.  Operating on the assumption that this was the case, it would have been acceptable to explain why he arrived at his conclusions, yet he simply does not do this.  Aside from that, Stark effectively shows that the higher status of women, added together with a high rate of intermarriage between Christian women and pagan men, allows for a large increase in the Christian population throughout the empire.

4.  Urban Chaos: A Catalyst for Christianity’s Growth

Stark’s argument then moves on to the nature of the urban empire.  After claiming, “Rome had achieved…political unity at the expense of cultural chaos,”[18] he progresses to demonstrate the utterly poor living conditions that contributed somewhat to this cultural chaos.  What follows is a brief overview of Stark’s position.  After a concise summary of the people-per-acre ratio in Antioch, he describes the actual living conditions:  “Greco-Roman tenements lacked both furnaces and fireplaces.  Cooking was done over wood or charcoal braziers, which were also the only source of heat; since tenements lacked chimneys, the rooms were always smoky in winter.”[19]  Moreover, “when human density is high: urgent problems of sanitation arise.”[20]  Stark describes this in striking detail.  The water supply likely would have been very limited, filth abounded due to lack of adequate plumbing systems, and “sweat, urine, feces, and decay permeated everything.”[21]  All of these realities culminate with the conclusion:  life in the Roman Empire would have been an urban nightmare.

What is the importance of this in Stark’s mind?  He sums up his findings in one succinct sentence:  “Christianity revitalized life in Greco-Roman cities by providing new norms and new kinds of social relationships able to cope with many urgent urban problems.”[22]  What I found most effective throughout this section of the book was the fact that Stark painted a very vivid picture of what life must have been like in the empire.  Twenty-first century Westerners probably have no place to file away some of these findings.  We simply cannot imagine the utter and total chaos that would have been evident in everyday living to those citizens.  Having painted the picture, he then describes what this meant for the growth of Christianity, namely, that paganism was found to be wanting in its ability to help any of these urban crises, while Christianity provided real, tangible coping mechanisms.  As far as Stark is concerned, he says that this urban chaos actually facilitated the rise of Christianity because it penetrated a society that was looking for hope.  Christianity gave citizens this hope, as well as providing them a “sense of family…[and] effective nursing services”[23] in order to combat the abounding misery prevalent throughout the Roman Empire at the time.  Christianity rose to be a dominant force because it had real answers where paganism did not; Christianity could effectively deal with the urban chaos of the empire, and paganism simply failed to provide any relief at all.

At this point, I will comment on the second way that this book can help me in my current and future ministries.  If Stark is correct about Christianity flourishing despite the broken nature of the culture surrounding it, and I have good reason to believe he is correct here, that means that I should immediately seek to accomplish two things.  1) I should not expect the decline of (genuine) Christians to take place in the United States due to the secularizing of the culture around us.  It is no secret that Western culture is growing ever so slightly more hostile towards Christianity, and one might even see legitimate persecution on the horizon for Christians in the Western world.  However, this reality should not take any of my hope away.  It was apparent that the urban chaos in the Roman Empire served to enliven Christianity, so I should not think it impossible that Christianity should not be enlivened and grow during the twenty-first century urban chaos of Western culture.  In fact, I should almost be looking forward to the coming chaos in some respects; Christianity is clearly a religion that flourishes when it is being hard-pressed.  This leads me to the second thing I should strive to accomplish:  2) I should seek to bring the Christian message to broken cultures throughout the world.  Knowing that Christianity grows amidst the most broken, I should hope to make disciples who are willing to risk their lives going to the most out of order cultures around the world to proclaim the Christian gospel to those who are legitimately suffering because of the chaos that surrounds them.  It is under this umbrella that Christianity will have the most impact, in my opinion.  So I must not lose heart as the world becomes more chaotic because Christianity seems to explode from underneath chaos.

5.  Conclusion: The Growth of Christianity

To close, Christianity really did become the dominant religious force in the Roman Empire in just a few centuries.  Rodney Stark explores exactly how this happened in his book, The Rise of Christianity.  This paper has examined his arguments and shown the strength of each, while simultaneously pointing out drawbacks where they presided.  After establishing a rate of growth for the early movement, Stark claims that conversion takes place relationally: “the primary means of its growth was through the united and motivated efforts of the growing numbers of Christian believers, who invited their friends, relatives, and neighbors to share the “good news.””[24]  That seems to be an adequate summary of the entire book, fittingly appearing on the final page of the second-to-last chapter.  This relational conversion theory that Stark proposes allows for the Christian women to have had a huge impact on the growth of their own religion.  A larger number of women meant a larger number of connections in which to bring converts.  Urban chaos also contributed to the rapid explosion of Christianity, in part due to the large network of Christians who abided in the empire, and in part because of its capacity to deal with tangible difficulties in a chaotic culture.  On the whole, I think Stark’s approach was carefully and effectively executed in order to show how Christianity rose to such heights in so short a period of time.

[1] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries.  (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996)  Back Cover.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 3.

[5] Ibid., 6.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 16-17.

[9] Ibid., 56.

[10] Ibid., 95.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 95-96.

[15] Ibid., 122.

[16] Ibid., 100.

[17] Ibid., 100.

[18] Ibid., 144.

[19] Ibid., 151.

[20] Ibid., 152.

[21] Ibid., 154.

[22] Ibid., 161.

[23] Ibid., 161.

[24] Ibid., 208.

Thanks for reading.  Have a comment or question?  Leave it below.

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