Patience in the Early Church and Patience Today

by a Christian

In the book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (Baker Academic, 2016) the author, Alan Kreider, asks how the Early Church grew in the face of disgrace and death, without any coordinated program for mission or effort to attract outsiders. In short, the Church Fathers insisted that believers make their faith visible, specifically through patience, which they considered the highest of virtues. I found it intriguing that three early church fathers wrote treatises on this patience. Why was “patience” so extolled in this era?

In his defense of Christianity, Justin (2nd c.) said, “When Christians live with integrity and visibility ‘by our patience … and meekness [Christians will] draw all men from shame and evil desires.’”[1]

Pagan writers considered patience to be a characteristic of lowly people. Tertullian (4th c.), however, said patience is rooted in God Himself. The incarnation is the ultimate act of patience, as Christ bore the reproaches and shame of humankind. Christ rejected the sword. Believers must continue the same path.

This patience, which reflected a totally new way of life, along with the hidden power or yeast (ferment) within the Church, drew people towards the Kingdom who were dissatisfied with their old cultural habits and religious practices. Kreider talks about a push out from people’s social group and a pull towards the Church

While the Early Church world is vastly different from the 21st century, this reading has led me to reflect in the following ways.

Patience and Sacrifice

In Middle Eastern-South Asian cultures, the virtue of jawanmardi (young manliness, hero) is extolled as the greatest virtue of the “good man.” Difficult to translate the full meaning, it embodies all the public qualities of a true hero—courage, hospitality, large-heartedness, generosity, revenge as well as sacrifice). The ultimate hero lives without reference to himself and willingly sacrifices his life for the benefit of others instead of enacting revenge. Persians have told me they see Jesus as the greatest hero of all. He gave His life away, poured it out for others (kenosis—emptying of Philippians 2:6).

Indeed, the Christ-like patience which the church fathers extolled is much deeper than waiting quietly for a bus. Rather, it is a sacrificial and enduring compassion for others, carrying the pain and burdens of our world, which our Lord embodied in His life and ultimately on the cross. As His people, we are to have that same attitude (patience).

Patience and Christian Witness Today

Secondly, we are witnessing unprecedented growth of the Christian faith among Muslims in recent years that in some ways reflects the growth in the Early Church. We observe a push from within the Muslim world, a deep dismay at the present state in the Middle East (complicated as it is, with many dynamics at play) which compels people to search for answers beyond their world. We also see a pull towards the Church, the witness of compassion demonstrated by Jesus followers as they care for refugees and others. I have heard many migrants in Europe testify of the overwhelming love they’ve experienced from Christians. It is not doctrine or theology that draws them to Jesus, but the simple caring life of believers. Tertullian said, “Christians teach by deeds.”[2]

Yes, we must talk the gospel and explain the person of Jesus, but as Origen (d. 256) believed, “Patience—Christians treating their neighbors well and behaving courageously in the [public] arena—is at the core of the church’s witness.”[3]

Patience, Presence and Church Planting

Thirdly, our EM Conference is excited about church-planting and spreading the gospel beyond our own culture. As we seek to implement this vision, let us put on the garment of patience. We must become visible among the people we serve. It is this that encourages me about the new Ste. Agathe initiative as well as the efforts in southern Mexico—even though we don’t witness numerical success.

One of my team members, working among refugees in the Middle East, wrote recently,

One man wanted to come to the fellowship, but he had heard Christians get drunk, turn off lights in the service and grab someone’s wife. We assured him that this was all lies. He dared to come a few times, but became too busy with work. We trust he will bring his wife soon.

Another man who claimed faith was jailed for stealing. He was finally released. He acknowledged his sin and is experiencing real change. Our team member spends regular time with him and his wife.

Would these people be experiencing the new way of life if we were not patiently present among them? The believing community itself must be visible—tangible, accessible for true witness to take place. Christina Cook, in her article “Holy Inefficiency in a Digital Age,” bemoans our modern obsession with efficiency and productivity over presence and carrying burdens of people around us, “The living, breathing body of Christ … is uniquely poised to offer what the world is desperately searching for: embodied presence, true vulnerability […] the world is looking for the inefficient way to love.”[4]

Cyprian, a church leader, wrote in AD 256, “We are philosophers not in words but in deeds; we exhibit our wisdom not by our dress, but by truth; we know virtues by their practice rather than through boasting of them; we do not speak great things but we live them.”[5]

I see in myself the tendency to boast about impact and numbers. Can we relax from pushing or tracking statistics and overly coordinating efforts that easily run afoul? I want to believe in the divine ferment of God’s Spirit who draws people to the Kingdom and transforms them into a new way of living.

The writer has lived and worked among Persian peoples for more than 35 years. For security reasons, the writer is not identified here. 

[1] Quoted in The Patient Ferment, 16.
[2] Ibid., 56.
[3] Ibid., 20.
[4] Christina Cook, “Holy Inefficiency in a Digital Age” in Christianity Today, July/August 2018, 46.
[5] Kreider, 13.

3 thoughts on “Patience in the Early Church and Patience Today”

  1. It’s a beautiful thing to read the Body of Christ’s first post-Apostolic theologian being quoted today! So many of our modern controversies would be quite unnecessary if we paid attention to the ways in which the apostolic fathers addressed them. Little wonder they preached the Virtue of Patience, as powerful a discipler as it is! Additionally, Patience is essential because it is so intertwined with a little something else called “Faith”–so as to be, in certain cases, almost synonymous with it!

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful article. I believe we often need to take the “long view” approach to things. One example that someone once reminded me of is that in older times people would dedicate their entire lives and careers to a task in order to build a cathedral, which would not be finished for over a century, long after they would pass away. They worked and contributed their part to something beautiful that they would never see completed in their lifetime, which took great patience and a perspective that is much different than our modern obsession with quick results.

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