Crossley on Early Christianity’s Growth

In my post, Why Did Christianity Grow?, I discussed Philip Schaff’s explanations for the growth of early Christianity. Doug Ward and Steph recommended that I read Rodney Starks’ Rise of Christianity, and Steph also suggested James Crossley’s Why Christianity Happened. I’m almost done with Crossley’s book, which refers to Stark quite a bit.

Crossley says that Christianity spread through networking: people became Christians because people they knew were Christians. He appeals to studies that demonstrate this to be the case with other marginal movements, such as the Moonies in the 1970’s. And he also has biblical support. In Acts, the church seeks to convert entire households, not just individuals (e.g., Acts 16:15). Paul preached in influential cities where news could quickly spread through social networks. And Paul expressed hope that a believing wife would convert her unbelieving husband (I Corinthians 7:16).

Crossley maintains that the Jesus movement originally wanted Gentile converts to observe the Torah. While there were many Gentiles who were eager to embrace Jewish customs (as Crossley abundantly documents), other Gentiles were not as enthusiastic. These “friends of the friends” of the Gentile Christians were tied to their Gentile customs and deemed Judaism to be rather strange. And not all the members of the households were as happy as their heads when they became Christians. For Crossley, this was why the Jerusalem conference said Gentiles didn’t have to obey the Torah: there were many Gentiles coming into the church who did not want to.

Crossley’s scenario addresses questions I have had. First, if Christians’ sinful nature is dead, why does Paul have to exhort them to stop being bad and start doing good? Part of the reason may have been that not everyone in the church was gun-ho for Christianity. Second, some have argued that Gentiles were attracted to Christianity because they wanted God without the Torah and circumcision. I asked in my post how this could be the case, if Krister Stendahl is correct that Gentiles were enamored with customs of the orient, including Judaism. Crossley’s answer is that some Gentiles were more than willing to embrace Jewish customs when they became Christians, but others weren’t as enthusiastic.

My mind turned to a couple of things as I read Crossley. First of all, I thought of a book that I looked through a few years ago: Richard Rice’s Believing, Behaving, Belonging. Rice is a Seventh-Day Adventist, and he notes that his church has mostly focused on getting people to believe and behave in a certain way. But he found that, once people feel like they belong to the church, right belief and conduct usually fall into place. I don’t really care for Rice’s “convert people to Adventism by being nice to them” subtext, but his point overlaps with Crossley’s argument: relationships are an important factor in the beliefs a person accepts.

I also think of the movie, The Rapture. Mimi Rogers plays a loose woman who has lots of casual sex, until she converts to Christianity. Her conversion disappoints her boyfriend, played by Moulder from the X-Files. “You’re trading what we have for something that’s not even there,” he tells her. But she sticks with him, and, in the next scene, Moulder, Mimi, and their daughter are all sitting together in church as a family. Moulder’s hair is shorter, and he wears a nice suit. He holds hands in prayer with his wife and daughter every night. And he’s the boss at his company. He even tries to reach out to an alcoholic employee, which shows he’s now a loving person. Why the change? Did he see a miracle? No. He became a Christian because his wife was one.

I wondered how Crossley’s scenario would work in terms of evaluating the Armstrongite movement. Did it grow through networks? On some level, yes. One of my relatives converted to it after talking with someone he knew from work, who happened to be in the movement. But that wasn’t the case with everyone. Several people joined because they listened to Herbert Armstrong’s program on the radio, and something about it drew them in.

There may have been a variety of reasons that the early Christian movement grew. Networks most likely played a role. Attraction to the belief system was probably another factor. And I’m not willing to blow off miracles as a possible explanation, since Paul refers to them in his letters (II Corinthians 12:12; Galatians 3:5). Also, I wonder if people would join a movement as stigmatized and persecuted as Christianity, solely because people they knew happened to be in it.

Is there an apologetic motivation underneath my points and inquiries? Probably. But apologetics have their weaknesses, since there are religions other than Christianity that gain converts while undergoing persecution. And the Koran talks a lot about “signs,” meaning religions other than Christianity may appeal to miracles.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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6 Responses to Crossley on Early Christianity’s Growth

  1. Doug Ward says:

    Crossley’s idea looks promising. Gentile God-fearers were attracted to the Torah, but their relatives may not have been.

    Thinking about networks reminds me of those Verizon commercials. Imagine an analogous advertising for Christianity. (“Want to avoid the dead zone of eternal death? Then become a Christian. You’ll have our whole network on your side.”)


  2. James Pate says:

    Lol. True!


  3. Anonymous says:

    It’s an odd comparison, but Rice’s theory is reminiscent of what people who have studied soldiers say about what keeps them fighting on the front lines. They don’t do it for love of country — they do it in order not to let down the men fighting alongside them in their unit.


  4. Russell Miller says:

    I hate to be this way, but I have known many people who became Christian and did NOT become loving. One does not follow from the other, and to believe it does really only accomplishes one goal – to make sure you’re an easy mark for people who want to sucker you.

    “Brother, I’m a Christian too, would I ever lie to you?”


  5. Looney says:

    In the 1st century, everything spread by networking or it didn’t spread. I don’t see that observations of networks leads anywhere productive.

    The atheist/modernist/universalist framework teaches that all religion is alike – or religion is a mental disorder – hence, they really can’t address religion A vs. religion B, no matter how sophisticated the sociological analysis.

    Acts 11:21 says “The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord”. As you mentioned in the earlier post, there were numerous heresies and variations. To answer why A and not B, you must get into the content of the religion.


  6. James Pate says:

    That could be, Looney. One thing that came to my mind was that this isn’t really an exact science. Sure, Christianity grew, but I wouldn’t be surprised if people knew people from other religions. Why didn’t they grow? I don’t think we can blow off the importance of networks–as you don’t–since we see that they play an important role in movements that grow. But there may be other factors as well.


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