Mission in the Early Church: Themes and Reflections
by Edward L. Smither
—Reviewed by Jonathan K. Dodson, mission leader, pastor, and author
It is encouraging to see the work of diligent, global missiologists trickling into one another’s countries, thus reinvigorating our practice of mission. Edward Smither has made his own contributions from the vantage point of Brazilian missions in the Arab World. However, this work reaches back to draw out insight for mission from the first eight centuries of the early Church.
In chapter two, a particularly helpful contribution emerges within Smither’s categorization of the early Church missionaries (full-time, bi-vocational, and lay/anonymous). Within the bi-vocational category, ranging across six centuries from Ignatius of Antioch to Columba of Iona, the reader is able to grasp the diversity of methods used to spread the gospel.
For the Western Christian, the mix of apologetics with power encounters may come as a surprise. Leaders such as Martin of Tours and Gregory Thaumaturgus did not pit reason against power, but employed both as means for mission. Smither also highlights the role of Gregory of Rome in sending and advising Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize the English. Gregory’s letters to Augustine are actually filled with insights for mission. This chapter is so rich that it stimulates an interest for more knowledge about early Church mission practice.
Another insight that surfaces throughout the book is the role of the ordinary or anonymous Christian in the mission of the Church. Smither shows that while the exemplary suffering, witness, and writing of early Church mission leaders was important, it was the army of ordinary missionaries that carried the mission forward. He notes Justin Martyr’s highlighting of Christian businessmen in a dishonest marketplace (p. 43), the exemplary citizenship of Christians in Epistle to Diognetus (p. 44), and the broad imitation of faithful witness amidst suffering (p. 70). The interplay of exemplary leaders and the faithfulness of the anonymous constituted a vibrant witness that propelled the mission of the Church forward. This interplay was reinforced by sharing and recording conversion and faith stories. This is a practice that could also be given more attention in Western churches, which tend to be more formal or experiential in nature.
Embracing Justo Gonzalez’ aphorism, “the history of the church is the history of its mission,” Smither sets out to fill a gap in mission history and succeeds in this task. The book is well documented, making it easy for the reader to identify primary source reading for further study. In addition, the historical vignettes that appear throughout the work serve not only to highlight particular insights, but also raise questions regarding contemporary mission practice. These help the reader to bridge early Church insights to the modern Church challenges.
While it would have been nice to see more critical interaction with dissenting voices on various topics such as the actual role of martyrdom in mission and the damaging witness of some early Church practices, this book deserves a wide reading and deep application. Much more could be said, but I’ll leave the goodies for you to uncover, and with Smither’s earnest request, to apply in your own individual and ecclesial practice of mission.
EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 2 pp. 234-235. Copyright © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.