This twofold approach literally transformed the Roman Empire. While evangelists and apologists such as Peter and Paul were proclaiming the gospel and defending its integrity in an era of polytheism and pagan superstition, hundreds of thousands of ordinary believers were infiltrating every part of society and living the kind of questionable lives that evoked curiosity about the Christian message. They surprised the empire with their unlikely lifestyle.
These ordinary believers devoted themselves to sacrificial acts of kindness. They loved their enemies and forgave their persecutors. They cared for the poor and fed the hungry. In the brutality of life under Roman rule, they were the most stunningly different people anyone had ever seen. Indeed, their influence was so surprising that the fourth-century emperor Julian (AD 331–363) feared they might take over the empire. Referring to Christians as “Galileans” and Christianity as “atheism” (because of their denial of the existence of pagan gods) and believing their religion to be a sickness, he penned this directive to his officials:
We must pay special attention to this point, and by this means effect a cure. For when it came about that the poor were neglected and overlooked by the [pagan] priests, then I think the impious Galileans observed this fact and devoted themselves to philanthropy. And they have gained ascendancy in the worst of their deeds through the credit they win for such practices. For just as those who entice children with a cake, and by throwing it to them two or three times induce them to follow them, and then, when they are far away from their friends cast them on board a ship and sell them as slaves . . . by the same method, I say, the Galileans also begin with their so-called love-feast, or hospitality, or service of tables —for they have many ways of carrying it out and hence call it by many names —and the result is that they have led very many into atheism [i.e., Christianity].
Julian was concerned that the Christians’ acts of hospitality and philanthropy were winning too many of his subjects. He decided to launch an offensive against them by mobilizing his officials and the pagan priesthood to out-love the Christians. He decreed that a system of food distribution be started and that hostels be built for poor travelers:
Why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism? I believe that we ought really and truly to practice every one of these virtues. . . . For it is disgraceful that when . . . the impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Julian’s new social program utterly failed. He couldn’t motivate pagan priests or Roman officials to care that much for the poor. He failed to realize that the Christians were filled with the Holy Spirit of love and motivated by his grace. The message they shared —that God loved the world —was patently absurd to the average Roman; the pagan gods cared nothing for humankind. And yet in the miserable world of the Roman Empire, the Christians not only proclaimed the mercy of God but also demonstrated it. They not only fed the poor; they welcomed all comers, regardless of their socioeconomic status. The nobleman embraced the slave. Moreover, Christians opened their fellowship to anyone irrespective of ethnicity, and they promoted social relations between the sexes and within families. They were literally the most surprising alternative society, and their conduct raised an insatiable curiosity among the average Roman.
Michael Frost, Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2016).
I have just completed a series of lessons based on this book. They are available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription service. For a medium-sized church, lesson subscriptions are only $10 per teacher per year. Lessons correspond with three of Lifeway’s outlines as well as the International Standard Series.