Mar

04

2013

Trevin Wax|3:22 am CT

The Rise of Christianity: A Summary of Rodney Stark’s Proposal

When we as Christians consider the coming of Christ and the rise of Christianity, we tend to focus on the spiritual forces at work – the powerful preaching of the gospel, the apostles’ martyrdom for the faith, and the evangelistic attraction of the early church’s common life together.

A book like The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (New York: Harper One, 1996) by Rodney Stark may seem unusual at first, as it traces the sociological factors in the rise of Christian belief and practice.

Today, I’m going to summarize the case Stark makes for the rise of Christianity and then tomorrow, I’ll offer some points of application for our churches.

Summary

Rodney Stark wisely begins his book by acknowledging the helpfulness and also the limitations of social science.

“No sacrilege is entailed in the search to understand human actions in human terms. Moreover, I do not reduce the rise of Christianity to purely ‘material’ or social factors” (4).

Nowhere is Stark seeking to deny the Christian belief that God was at work in the beginning of the Christian movement. Instead, he wants to examine the means by which this rapid growth occurred. He believes social science will put an end to some of the common, persistent myths about Christianity’s rapid growth.

For example, examining the constant rate of growth of Christian believers, Stark questions the often-assumed link between Constantine’s conversion and the Roman Empire having a Christian majority.

“Constantine’s conversion would better be seen as a response to the massive exponential wave in progress, not as its cause” (10).

Why Does a Religious Movement Grow?

So what factors are at play in the rapid rise of a religious movement? There are certain social dynamics that must be examined.

  • Networks of family and friends play a huge role in conversion. Stark sees conversion as being more likely when “people have or develop stronger attachments to members of the group than they have to nonmembers” (18).
  • Stark also notes that “new religious movements mainly draw their converts from the ranks of the religiously inactive and discontented, and those affiliated with the most accommodated (worldly) religious communities” (19). 
  • The implication of this migration from one religious affiliation to another is that the middle and privileged classes are more inclined to convert than the lowest classes. “New religions must always make their way in the market openings left them by weaknesses in the conventional religion(s) of a society,” Stark writes, and “religious skepticism is most prevalent among the more privileged” (37). Why is this the case? Stark believes the class of people most likely to understand the new religion and see the need for its beliefs will be the most economically privileged (39).

Christianity and Judaism

Stark’s sociological study of the rise of early Christianity would be incomplete without an in depth treatment of the relationship between Judaism and the early church. Rather than seeing the relationship as inherently hostile, Stark makes the case for an intertwined Jewish and Christian identity, as large numbers of Jews converted to Christianity from the first to the fifth centuries (49). To make this case, Stark spends an entire chapter sketching the reasons why scholars have assumed a low rate of conversion among faithful Jews. Then, in light of new sociological findings, Stark counters the conventional wisdom and makes the case that large numbers did indeed convert peacefully.

Chaos and the Need for Stability

Another role in the burgeoning Christian movement was played by social crises, brought in the wake of disastrous plagues or in the common chaos of urban life. During the early centuries of Christian growth, a series of natural disasters (including earthquakes and epidemics) disrupted the Roman Empire. Stark believes “Christianity offered a much more satisfactory account of why these terrible times had fallen upon humanity, and it projected a hopeful, even enthusiastic, portrait of the future” (74). These explanations helped Christians cope with the disasters, which in turn helped Christians survive at higher rates than pagans.

Furthermore, the massive numbers of those who died disrupted the normal social bonds that would have attached people to their families and neighbors. Because Christians were more likely to survive the plagues, pagans found new friendships with Christians whose faith would have been appealing in the midst of such turmoil (75).

Stark also points out the chaos associated with urban living during this period of history. Life in the city was one of disease, misery and fear, providing Christians with the opportunity not only to imagine a better world in the distant future but also solutions for present-day problems (149).

The Role of Godly Women

Another factor in the rise of early Christianity centers on the role of women in the early church. Because of Christianity’s prohibition of infanticide and abortion, Christian families were more likely to raise up daughters in the faith. High rates of intermarriage between Christian women and pagan men brought about “secondary” conversions to Christianity, not to mention the likelihood of children being brought up in the church (95).

What about the Martyrs?

Christian historians often point to the testimony of the martyrs as a major reason for the rise of Christianity. Stark does not discount the role of martyrdom, but he puts it into perspective.

For example, he counters the irrationalist vision of martyrdom that sees persecuted people as clinging so tightly to their personal faith they make irrational choices that lead to their demise. Stark believes the martyrs saw their sacrifice as the best choice, given their belief in the rewards they would gain in return (167). Likewise, “martyrs are the most credible exponents of the value of a religion, and this is especially true if there is a voluntary aspect to their martyrdom” (174). But Stark also counters the common Christian perspective by showing how the number of martyrs was never very large, and the persecutions that took place broke out intermittently and never focused on all Christians everywhere.

What do you think?

Tomorrow, I’ll offer some points of application for today’s church. Right now, I’m curious as to which of these contributions to the rise of early Christianity surprises you. Do you agree or disagree with Stark’s analysis?

Categories: Book Reviews, Christianity

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8 Comments

  1. I can see each of these playing a role but I’m most suprised by the suggestion that large numbers of Jews converted to Christianity. I’d like to see more on this.

    I’d think another reason for its ascendance was its mediating position between pagan religions and Judiasm. Many pagan’s were facinated with Jewish monotheism and the moral authority it provided but were reluctant to accept full conversion to the rituals of the law.

  2. First century Christianity was less a surprise to the Jews who were firmly established in every nook and cranny of the Roman world … much less of a surprise to those monotheistic Jews than to the rest of that society’s polytheistic core population …
    And the history shattering destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD sent shock waves through all the synagogues of Jacob’s descendants … and it certainly made the coming of the Messiah a much more likely possibility … Obviously God the Father, through the Holy Spirit, had no little part in the more extended acceptance of Jesus of Nazareth as an incarnate Messiah

  3. I am surprised with Stark’s claim that the economically privileged are more likely to convert than the poor and marginal of society. It seems that the gospel (“which is good news for the poor”) preached in the gospels show the marginalized embracing Jesus over the privileged.

    Not disagreeing with Stark. Just noting an observation. I’m sure the truth is more nuanced and complex.

  4. David Roseberry

    The last bullet is polar opposite to the point made in “When Helping Hurts”; namely, that the Gospel first took root among the poor and underclass; in the slums of the cities, because it was good news for the dire and downtrodden.

    Hunter agrees with Stark in “To Change the World”, in a way.

    Which is it?

    • From my recollection, I read it a while ago and loaned it to a friend and never got it back…but I seem to recall Stark basically saying that it was a movement that reached people of all social strata, not just the poor. The part of his argument that would address this is that the gospel took hold of people who were dissatisfied with their current religious experience.

      For a modern corollary, look at the wealthy people who try some exotic religious expression like Buddhism or Kabbala. Those people are looking, they think they know what Christianity is because it’s “familiar.” Basically, they know enough to be inoculated, but they really don’t understand the gospel.

  5. It is excellent that you mention this book. I started using it as a source in my world history classes I teach in a public high school more than two years ago. I like to point out to my students how Christianity actually raised the status of women over against the Roman paganism in which the “paterfamilias” (male head of household) has absolute rule over his family, including the power of the sword over anyone in his household. The role of women in the church was significant. Paganism was more popular with Roman men, but the churches seemed to be filled with women because Christianity was so appealing to them. I highly recommend this book.

  6. Sounds like a good read. As a person who has and does study sociology this sounds interesting. Best of both worlds, Christianity and sociology.

  7. [...] I summarized Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became [...]

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