According to the author of the Didache, Origen, and Eusebius of Caesarea, the early church communities sent unnamed, itinerant evangelists to travel and cross cultures to proclaim the gospel. Origen notes: “Some of them, accordingly, have made it their business to itinerate not only through cities, but even villages and country houses, that they might make converts to God.”
These early Christian missionaries were anonymous, bivocational, church-centered, cross-cultural laborers for the gospel.
Though some operated as vocational evangelists, one remarkable element of early Christianity was its anonymous missionary element. It is intriguing that the two largest church communities in the western Roman Empire, Rome and Carthage, had anonymous origins. Observing this phenomenon, Henri Irénée Marrou writes: “The whole church considered itself to be involved in mission and to have a missionary duty, and every believer was a witness, felt called to the work of evangelization.” This spirit of early Christian mission seems best captured in the anonymous Letter to Diognetus:
For Christians are no different from other people in terms of their country, language or customs. Nowhere do they inhabit cities of their own, or live life out of the ordinary.… They inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities according to the lot assigned to each.… They participate in all things as citizens.… They live in their respective countries, but only as resident aliens; they participate in all things as citizens, and they endure all things as foreigners. They marry like everyone else and have children, but they do not expose them once they are born. They share their meals but not their sexual partners. They are found in the flesh but do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth but participate in the life of heaven.
This ownership for mission was also evident by the number of bivocational missionaries in the early church—those who witnessed unto Christ while occupied with other work. For instance, philosophers and teachers such as Justin Martyr and Origen taught philosophy and directed schools while also engaging in cross-cultural witness. Likewise, a number of bishops, those set apart to lead established congregations, engaged in missionary work. In Gaul, Irenaeus reached out as an apologist to gnostics and also learned Gaelic in order to preach in rural villages in addition to leading the church at Lyons. Similarly, Martin of Tours was an itinerant preacher and cared for the poor in addition to his responsibilities as bishop of Tours. Finally, monks comprised the most significant group of early Christian bivocational missionaries. In our survey we have observed the work of Basil of Caesarea in Asia Minor, Columba and the monks of Iona in Scotland, and the Church of the East missionary monks in central Asia and China.
Early Christian mission was inextricably linked to the local and universal church. Though strategies changed over time and church forms looked different, a time never came when there was a churchless Christianity. The church was both a powerful means for mission and the most visible outcome of mission. In the first century, mission occurred through a deliberate house-to-house approach, and the oikos (household) structure facilitated an organic church, especially during periods when Christians were unable to exist as a legitimate organization. Even after peace was given to the church in the fourth century, mission flowed from the church and back to the church in the absence of any structured mission societies. Because evangelism, catechesis, and baptism ministries were located in the context of the church, this solidified a church-focused mission. The phenomenon of church art showed that nonbelievers could embrace the gospel through seeing the gospel visually in basilicas built after the fourth century.
The church provided authority, sponsorship, and support for mission activity. Patrick, Boniface, and Alopen were all set apart for their work by mission-minded bishops. Bishops such as Gregory the Great, Ishoyahb II, and Timothy of Baghdad retained authority over their missionaries and also offered pastoral care and guidance. Finally, that authority was shared as these noted bishops ordained missionary bishops in order to establish new churches with leaders.
While surveying mission over a broad period of time and vast geographical territory, it might be easy to lose sight of the fact that early Christian missionaries were cross-cultural boundaries. For example, Alopen and the Church of the East monks learned a new language and culture to minister in China. Martin of Tours, a native of Pannonia (Hungary), was an immigrant missionary monk to the peoples of fourth-century Gaul. Though Basil of Caesarea did not physically go on preaching journeys, he welcomed the nations and peoples on the move who passed through his home region of Asia Minor. Finally, missionaries such as Justin, Irenaeus, and John of Damascus crossed frontiers of worldview and belief to proclaim the gospel.
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This excerpt is adapted from Christian Mission: A Concise, Global History by Ed Smither (Lexham Press, 2019).