The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: A Summary by Peri Zahnd

The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: A Summary by Peri Zahnd

I finished a book I’ve been promising myself I’d read for three years — when Covid lockdown hit I decided I had time. And it still took me three months of sporadic reading. I had to read it slowly so that it could seep into me — I took weeks-long breaks. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church by Alan Kreider, an academic book by a Harvard trained PhD, professor emeritus of church history and mission at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. It was an academic book, so it was exhaustingly comprehensive and tedious at times and certainly not for everyone. Brian first read it three years ago and loved it. There are lots of books he reads and loves I know I’ll never touch, and visa versa. But the title so intrigued me and I mused on it often. A patient ferment. A little leaven that slowly makes the bread rise, expand, grow, mature. Water turned to wine. How did the early church end up changing the world?

According to Kreider, the early church had no organized plan for evangelism, in fact tried to hide itself and prohibited visitors. They were a secret society, not so much because of fear of persecution but of avoiding throwing pearls to swine. What they had was so precious it had to be protected. Those who sought to join them had to go through a demanding and lengthy catechismal process designed to not only teach doctrine but to change the “habitus” of converts — a discipleship of programming Christlike behavior that would become automatic and habitual — an embodied faith.

The early church had no plan for growth and yet it grew. It spread throughout the world organically, almost imperceptibly, yet relentlessly, like a new species introduced into an ecosystem, which is exactly what it was — a new species, a new humanity, a new kind of people whose DNA was now of the Jesus strain.

What made this new group unique? First, they insisted on the absolute equality of all people. Roman society was very striated. The rich were superior to the poor and felt no obligation to care for them or to increase their lot in life. But in this new humanity, this new organizing of the world, rich and poor met together in equality. These new communities worked hard to care for the poor, especially their own, sharing their resources. Women were also elevated and valued more in the church than in any other place of Roman society. Slaves were on equal footing with senators in the church. Racism was not tolerated, as it says in Galatians — “no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

They believed that God is love and in following the non-violent, self-denying model Jesus had set forth. Their catechesis calls to mind the non-violent training that Gandhi and King implemented in modern times. Non-violence and self-denial must become reflexive and automatic in the lives of Christians. Behavior was more important than mental understanding of beliefs.

The early church believed that God was patient and that Jesus, the Son of God, modeled and embodied patience. They believed that God was at work, slowly and patiently transforming the world, and that they were called to patiently allow that work to be accomplished in each individual as it was being accomplished in them. They didn’t feel called to convert the world but to be the world converted by Jesus. They didn’t much preach to the world with words but trusted that the Christlike behavior of their converts would intrigue and attract others. This was fermentation at work.

The early church had a strong ethos of patience and taught often on patience. Many early church writings are devoted to the virtue of patience. They weren’t in a hurry to see the world changed. God would do it all — in time. The scripture that we now refer to as the Great Commission at the end of Matthew was more a proof text for their understanding of the Triune nature of God than a missional directive. They felt strongly that the gospel could never be compelled upon people by coercion, which would be impatience. Freedom of all religion must always be protected, because even true religion cannot be forced upon anyone.

After their catechism was complete, after it was shown their new “habitus” was sufficiently established, converts were baptized, welcomed into the worship services of the church, and could now receive communion. The early Christians were sustained and empowered by their frequent meeting together to worship. It was as if the catechismal process was the price they paid to receive admittance into the worship services of the church, which had a strong numinous quality, an awe-filled and holy awareness of something other-worldly. These Christians had encountered “the pearl of great price” and were prepared to suffer persecution and great loss for the privilege of being a part of this new company. Do modern Christians have that experience today? I have often mused on the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, forty days after the Ascension — what awareness of the presence of God had the people of God experienced prior to that historic moment? Do we now take for granted the Holy Spirit that we have become so accustomed to? I remember the encounter that so changed my life at age 13 — how I’d said “yes” to the altar call at the end of some impassioned preaching, but it was when I was taken to the prayer room afterwards and encountered real presence in worship, that I found what I hadn’t know I was looking for, but knew I’d chase after and long for my whole life. Pearl of great price indeed!

The early church’s philosophies on discipleship are summed up in these sentences from the book:

“The Apostolic Tradition’s assumption is clear. Inner and outer are inextricable; if you live in a certain way in everyday life, you cannot hear, comprehend, or live the gospel that the Christian community is seeking to embody as well as teach. The church will not baptize people in hopes that they will change thereafter…The early church believed that people lived their way into a new kind of thinking.”

We continue to wrestle in modern times with the same concepts. Must Christians behave before they belong? The early church seems to be resolute in this. But this was soon to change, just a few hundred years after Christianity began.

The last two chapters were the most intriguing, devoted to Constantine and Augustine, two historic figures with enormous influence on the church. I was surprised that Constantine, the Roman emperor, had such interest and knowledge of the developing theology of the church. In a very short period of time, Christianity went from being a persecuted minority to a favored majority, because Constantine made it so. I knew how he claimed to have heard a voice telling him he would win a battle if he fought in the name of Christianity and assumed him to be more like a modern politician, using religious language to gain the approval of religious constituents. Instead, Constantine appeared to seriously engage with the church and Scripture but, as emperor, he didn’t submit himself to the authority of the church or become a catechumen, a disciple on his way to full inclusion in the church. He did it his way. He was the emperor, of course, accustomed to being in charge.

He was not baptized until he was on his deathbed, twenty-five years later. According to the author, it appears that Constantine was unwilling to change his lifestyle, his habitus — that the dignity of his noble standing could not be sacrificed. He was naturally — by nature — superior to others. Yet he wanted to justify his life before God, and so he devoted himself to finding a way to do so, engaging philosophically with Scripture and theologians. He eventually embraced the idea of two ways of life — not differentiating between Christians and pagans, or believers and unbelievers, but about two types of Christians — one type “living the perfect way of life” but the second “more humble, more human.” The former was devoted to the imitation of Christ including a rejection of violence and killing, while the latter viewed this as an idealistic impossibility in the real world we live in.

As emperor, Constantine did outlaw crucifixion and gladiatorial games. But he persecuted with torture and death Christian heretical groups, namely the Donatists. He famously ordered the executions of his wife and son and daughter-in-law. It seemed he learned some things about God without yielding to God until he knew he was dying and consented to baptism. His deathbed conversion made deathbed conversions popular — a conversion more concerned with afterlife judgment than right living. And after Constantine, cathechism was less about behavior and began to emphasize right thinking — correct doctrine. After Constantine, Christianity began to change.

Eighty years after Constantine’s death Augustine, the influential bishop of Hippo, wrote his famous treatise “On Patience,” putting forth a novel understanding of how the church regarded patience. He too was intent on ridding the church of heretics —  Pelagians and others he considered heretical, but may have used too much force in seeing that accomplished. He may have become impatient in the way the early church defined patience, and then simply redefined the word for his purposes. His influence on the Western church was gargantuan. He changed the emphasis on behavior for believers to an emphasis on attitudes — thinking and possibly feeling Christianly, having predispositions to good works, but realizing those good works aren’t always practical. Augustine said that Jesus’s commandments “pertain to the disposition of the heart, which is something interior, rather than to action, which is something exterior. In that way we maintain patience along with goodwill in the secret of our soul while we do openly what is thought to be able to benefit those for whom we ought to do good.”

We live in a different world sixteen hundred years post-Augustine. But it’s important to understand how the church has changed and to consider the message of the early church as we seek to continue to live the gospel of Jesus, the Savior of the world.