While I was studying for my doctorate at Oxford, I became fascinated by the life and writings of Paul, the founder of the Christian church. My doctoral research focused on the transformation of Judaism into what we now know as Christianity, and in particular, Paul’s strategies and teachings on how to spread the word of Christ.
After earning my doctorate, I completed a Post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Durham where I specialized in Early Irish Christianity and Church History. During my time in Durham, I had the opportunity to study and subsequently work with the great historian Eamon Cregan on his wonderful book, The Transformation of Poland: Communism, Religion, and National Identity since 1945.
One of the fascinating things about this book is its emphasis on the role that religion played in the communist rebirth of Poland. Since the 1940s, when the country was divided between Nazi and Soviet control, Roman Catholicism has been strongly linked to the politics of national identity. This is most evident in the enduring popularity of the figure of Pope John Paul II among Poles, who named their second largest city after him, and in the establishment of the first Polish nationalist church, the Polish Catholic Church, in 1949.
While in Poland, I had the chance to compare the work of the early Christian missionaries to the strategies and tactics used by modern-day religious leaders. I was particularly struck by how the methods that worked so well back in the day seem quite a bit different from what we do today. It appears that Paul’s approach to winning souls for Christ back in the first century was not at all aligned with how we might do it thirty or forty years later. In this blog post, I will explore how, exactly, Paul used his missionary tactics to convert pagans and then present an outline of the main differences between his approach and that of our modern-day religious leaders.
Paul The Urban Missionary
One of the most striking things about the life and work of Paul is how he was quite literally a missionary in a large city. This was in stark contrast to the generally quiet and private lives that most Christians lead today. In fact, it could be argued that if Paul were alive today, he’d most likely be considered a progressive religious leader, a role model for young Christians seeking to follow in his footsteps.
The Bible is filled with references to the great spiritual impact that Paul had on those who came into contact with him. Writing to the Christians in Corinth, for example, he said:
“What I want to tell you is this: We should not get tired of doing good. For in due time people will acknowledge that it is God’s mission that we should spread the word (of Christ). When we do good, we should do it to the point of being remembered forever, and we should give praise to God for what he has done.”
Elsewhere in the Bible, in Galatians 1:8, we read that “those who want to make a good impression on Christ Jesus will be influenced by what they see in your life and practice”. The great German Christian theologian Adolf Von Harnack, in his book, The Via Media, noted that “the more we see of [Paul’s] activity, the more we see it as a mission”; a mission that was “carried out in the spirit of urbanity” in the great cities of the Roman Empire.
The Importance Of Impressing The Roman Leaders
It is fair to say that the success of Paul’s mission in the early days can be attributed to a few key factors. First and foremost, he was a rabbi from the Jewish community in Tarsus, which is located in present-day Turkey. One of the great evangelists of the early church, Barnabas, is often credited with introducing Paul to the Christians in Jerusalem. According to the Bible, these Christians were already following a form of Jewish monotheism at the time, but they were disheartened because they believed themselves to be Jews alone. They asked the more senior pastor, Peter, to visit them and provide them with some encouragement. What Peter did was bring a large group of missionaries with him from Antioch, including Paul. When Peter arrived in Jerusalem, he met with the leaders of the community and told them that he had brought some people with him who shared their interests. These people were more than willing to speak with him about the Lord and how they could become Christians. After spending some time with Peter and the Christians in Jerusalem, the Roman leaders were so impressed by the Christian presence that they decided to have a word with the Pope about this new sect. The Pope was not overly keen on the idea of a new religion spreading in the Roman Empire, but given the opportunity to meet face to face with Peter and Paul, he was more than willing to set a date for a meeting in which he would receive these Christian leaders in audience. This was a great opportunity for the Pope to promote Christianity in the eyes of the Roman leaders and show himself to be a man of faith and courage. The date of this historic meeting was November 1, AD 49.
It is clear from this account in Acts that the Roman leaders were quite impressed by the Christians and their message. In fact, the Bible says that the Roman emperor, Claudius, even ordered that some changes be made to the Roman religious calendar in order to make room for a feast in honor of ‘the new God’. According to church tradition, this was the day that the divine son of God was announced to be the Messiah. It is likely that this is why it is known as ‘Christ’s birthday’.
The importance of getting the Roman leaders onside cannot be overstated. Without their support, it is likely that the wider Christian community would never have taken off in the way that it did. This was a group of people who were completely dependent on the goodwill of others for their very survival. They lacked the resources and social capital to challenge the dominant spiritual and cultural forces in their time. All they had was a compelling story of a god that had risen from the dead and a man of extraordinary charisma who preached that message with passion, conviction, and a willingness to die for their cause.
To begin with, it should be said that Paul was a great orator. He possessed a natural gift of gab that carried him through life. One of his great biographers, Roland Bainton, described Paul as a “rhetorical genius”. The great 19th century Protestant theologian, William Barclay, said that Paul’s preaching was so effective because it was “conceptionally fresh, logically consistent, and practically feasible”. The fact that his message was so easy to understand, even non-Christians, was a great testament to Paul’s skill as a preacher.
One of the reasons why Paul is remembered as the greatest missionary of all time is that his message was so simple and appealing that it attracted many people to Christ, especially the poor, the oppressed, and the downtrodden. It is said that Paul’s sermons were so powerful that they would often cause listeners to weep and make commitments to Christ. He would often begin his sermon with the words “Brothers and sisters…” before launching into the main body of his message. In other words, he would use the kinship that he shared with the audience to establish a bond of trust and to encourage them to open up and share their innermost thoughts and feelings.
Another crucial element to Paul’s success as a missionary was his unwavering commitment to share the gospel with every person he came across. This was more than a calling; it was a passion. One of the biographers of Paul, Bethany Flynn, notes that he “would spend more time on the road evangelizing than he did on his missionary journeys”. What this means is that while Paul was carrying out his primary ministry of spreading the word of Christ, he was also traveling around the Roman Empire, town to town, gathering new disciples and evangelizing everyone he came across. In fact, it is said that he preached the gospel so effectively that many of the local religious leaders became his disciples and were eventually martyred for their faith in Christ.
Paul’s ministry was characterized by great consistency and an unwavering commitment to share the gospel with everyone he came across. His desire was to see Christians living and behaving in such a way that non-Christians would acknowledge the reality of the divine son of God (at the time, Christianity was considered a Jewish sect), who died for their sins and rose from the dead. Paul did not come up with this theological position all by himself; it was, in fact, originally a Jewish idea that he appropriated for himself. Once he became a Christian, he saw this as his sacred duty and never wavered in his commitment to this end. It was said that Paul would often ask God to show him a church that he had not yet founded and then set about to carry out his plan regardless of the cost. This was a mark of his great spiritual energy and unwavering faith that Christians could emulate.