Missions and the Early Church

Despite the fear of persecution that many early Christians faced, it in no way undercut the missional nature of the church and the desire for them to see the gospel spread throughout the world.You would think the persecution of their fellow Christians would have undermined the courage of other Christians to openly evangelize and pursue missionary work. However, even the New Testament gives examples where such persecution did not cause other Christians to fear rather it made them even more bold to preach and teach others concerning the gospel message (Philippians 1:12–14).

Early Christian missionaries were rarely full-time missionaries. Most of the stories regarding them are found in the writings of other missionaries, and not many are mentioned directly by name other than the stories regarding the mission of the specific apostles. The major thrust of missionary work in the early church was done bi-vocationally. The first group of these bi-vocational missionaries were the bishops. These bishops balanced both the work of their congregations, and the work of reaching people outside their specific congregations. Some of these bishops like Gregory Thaumaturgas and Martin of Tours claim to not only have conducted mission work through teaching and leading, but also through the exorcising of demons and miracle faith-healings.[1] A second group of these bi-vocational missionaries were the philosophers. Through their attempts to defend the Christian faith, they were afforded audiences that otherwise may never have heard the gospel, or may not have found the gospel intellectually satisfying without both the offensive and defensive approach to apologetics taken by the philosophers. Thirdly, and the most significant group of missionaries were the monks. Though often thought of as isolationists, most monks were coenobitic or communal in their monastic thinking.[2] Many of the monks chose missional work as that which would cover their manual labor commitment. These monks were vital to taking the gospel into areas that were completely pagan and unreached prior to their arrival. One such monk was Boniface who brought the gospel to the German people, and sought to show them how much greater the Christian God was to theirs. The best example of this is when he cut down an oak that was dedicated to the pagan god Thor.[3]

There is much regarding the identity of missionaries in the early church that should address the way we think about missionaries and mission work today. The most important thing that I believe the early church reveals about the way we ought to think about missions is that the early church saw missionary work less as a vocation reserved for a few “called” individuals and more as duty to be fulfilled by all Christians. To be a Christian was to be a missionary. Regardless, of your calling in life from the bishop to the soldier, if you were a Christian you were called on mission for the advancement of the gospel.

One perfect example of this is seen in the beginning of the church in North Africa. The North African Church was not begun by monks or Bible scholars, but by Christian merchants, colonists and even soldiers.[4] As Christians today, we need to recognize that though there is a place for full-time vocational missionaries, as disciples of Christ, we too are people of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19–20). Whether you are a pastor, a baker, a teacher, a police officer, a construction worker, etc. the early church tells us “if you are a Christian you are called to be on mission.”

[1] Edward L. Smither, Mission in the Early Church: Themes and Reflections, (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 34.

[2] Smither, 40.

[3] Ibid, 42.

[4] Ibid, 46.

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