In the first two centuries after the ministry of Jesus, the faithful witness to him by his disciples was clearer and more consistent than it would remain. Persecution of his witnesses was also real, sometimes severe, but sporadic. This combined reality—faithful witness sometimes to death—inspired many Olympians to become Christians themselves.
But this reality doesn’t explain all, or even most, of the growing popularity enjoyed by the Church beginning in the 200s. How do we know? Because the success which was driving this growth was also subverting that Church. This became a familiar historical pattern: an authentic movement of the Holy Spirit gains popularity; then, overwhelmed by people, it becomes conventional.
“By the very fact of wealth and numbers the original forms of the church, namely, community of life and goods, began to disappear; they could not continue. The extreme differences between social strata made them impossible. The church solidifies. The fact of numbers, of money that has to be managed, and of the relation to power leads to the institution” (Ellul, 32).
A hierarchy develops within the Church which mirrors the imperial administration and its management of people and property. Institutional charity displaces personal care even though more poor people actually get fed.
With the growth of this hierarchy in the 300s, we see “the break between a clergy of priests and a laypeople, and the dominance within the church of the rich and powerful. A break comes between those…who render service, who give expression to charity, and those…who are the occasion of charity, to whom they render service. This was the real break in the church. How, under these conditions, could it maintain a theology or even more so a practice of non-power?” (32).
There were, of course, rich people who gave away their wealth and became poor in faithful witness to Jesus. The Church by then had ways of exploiting them while at the same time protecting itself and its members from their example. It sent them away. Some went away physically to live as hermits. Others went away narratively to live on as saints; that is, as people of extraordinary virtue who should be admired by ordinary people but not imitated. “How could the church survive if everybody became poor?” (33).
“The rich and well-provided did not confiscate the Christian truth that belonged to the poor…But when riches are present, it is only with difficulty that the poor maintain their place” (33). Poor people became the abstract poor who were cared for by leaders. This abstraction of love, called charity, simply strengthened the increasing marginality within the Church of those who were not leaders.