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How to Win an Empire to Christ

It's all a matter of habitus.

In his excellent book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, Alan Kreider demonstrates that the key to winning the Roman Empire to Christ was not so much in missions and evangelism as it was in living a Kingdom life. 

Patience, Kreider points out, was the key to the Church’s success. For by being patient in the face of opposition, Christians – individuals and communities – demonstrated a way of a life – a habitus – which persuaded many to believe and join the Christian movement.

But that was easier said than done. Whereas today we rush to get people on the membership rolls of our churches, the first Christians took their time and were patient. They realized they needed time – often years – to wean pagans off their false beliefs and practices and to shape them into true followers of the Lord. Catechesis was the key, coupled with participation – to a point – in the life of the community. As pagans observed and participated in the Kingdom habitus of the Christians, and as they learned the mysteries and doctrines of the faith, they shed their old ways, took up the new, and were led to sincere faith and full communing membership. Kreider provides abundant examples and excerpts of writings to demonstrate his point.

This is an important book. It is thoroughly researched from the earliest records of the Church and backed by additional contemporary scholar-ship. I might quibble a bit with Kreider’s last chapter on Augustine, whom he criticizes for seeking to enlist the (at that time Christian) emperor in his struggle against various heretics, notably, the Donatists and Pelagians. Augustine, Kreider believes, lacked the patience of the early Church and sought a political expedient to achieve his ends. Thus he opened the Church to a form of pragmatism rather that ultimately undermined the patient ferment previous generations practiced. I think this chapter needs to consider the broader framework of Augustine’s day and the calling of civil government to serve as an agent of good. Augustine may have gone too far in seeking to bring the government down on heretics, but certainly not in believing Paul’s teaching about the role of civil government.

But this is a well-researched and well-written book, which provides an important corrective about how we should think about our lives as believers and churches.

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