In his important and stimulating article, “Christian Number and Its Implications,” Roman historian Keith Hopkins next begins to think about the implications about the size of the Christian church at different periods. One point to emphasize is that there was not simply one church. There were lots of churches in lots of places, and it is a myth to think that they were all one big cohesive bunch. On the contrary, they were often (as we see in our records) often at odds with each other.
But even more than that, even within one city – if it was large enough (think Rome or Antioch for example) there would have been more than one church. And why? Because there would have been too many people to meet in one place.
The first time we have any evidence of a church “building” – that is, what we today normally think of as a church (the Baptist church on the corner; the Methodist church up the street) – is not until the middle of the third Christian century. Before then (and in many, many places, long after then), Christians simply met either in private homes or in outdoor settings, such as cemeteries (really!).
If there were, say 200 Christians in Rome in the year 120, they couldn’t meet in a single home. It’s more likely that they would have something like four or five different homes to meet in. And these would be scattered throughout the city. How do we know how well these different groups of people — all calling themselves Christian and considering their community to be a “church” — got along? Did their leaders see eye to eye with one another? Did they have different doctrinal views? Different ways of practicing baptism and the eucharist and worship? How would we know? There’s no way to know.
But it’s also hard to know – impossible, really – whether each group…
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