When I was a kid, my family once watched a movie that included vivid scenes of persecution against the earliest Christians. I remember lying awake at night, terrified by these images of Christians burning in the streets and being fed to the lions. I couldn’t help but imagine myself in the place of those beleaguered believers. At the time, I assumed they were being persecuted simply for being Christians, but as I’ve studied early church history, I’ve come to realize it’s not quite so simple. And as simplicity gives way to reality, I see there are some important lessons we can learn today through that early church persecution.
The earliest Christians lived within the Roman Empire, and, despite what you may have heard, Rome was surprisingly tolerant of other faiths. As they conquered the surrounding nations, they would rarely demand full loyalty to the traditional Roman religion or gods. They would allow people to continue to worship their own gods in pretty much their own way. But still the Christians were persecuted. Why?
The great challenge of the Roman Empire was binding together many cultures, faiths, and nations under a common banner. As their armies conquered lands stretching from Germany to Northern Africa, from Spain to Syria, this challenge became increasingly difficult. What could serve as a kind of bond to hold it all together? The obvious answer was the Emperor. He could stand in as the living embodiment of the empire so that loyalty to the Emperor would be synonymous with loyalty to Rome. And how could such loyalty be displayed? By having every citizen make a sacrifice to him as if he was divine. So Rome did not insist that everyone convert to their religion; they merely insisted that every religion add a small homage to the Emperor, a small act of worship that would serve as a display of their loyalty to the Empire.
Christians refused to do this. Their ultimate and exclusive loyalty to Jesus Christ precluded them from making the offering, and it was this refusal that was the source of so much of the persecution. It’s crucial to understand that from the Roman perspective, the persecution was not primarily about religion, but about politics. The Christians’ unwillingness to add this small element to their worship made them appear disloyal to the Emperor and to his empire. By failing to make their offering to Caesar, they were not failing a religious test as much as a test of good citizenship. They were refusing to participate in the ceremony that signified the unity of the empire. Thus, they were persecuted as disloyal citizens who hindered rather than strengthened their society.
It is right here that we may do well to learn some lessons for our own day. Our societies are attempting to maintain unity through growing diversity, yet have abandoned or overthrown most of the elements that have traditionally bonded us together. This leaves us searching for new means of fostering and expressing unity. The unifying principle that has risen to the top is tolerance—a new kind of tolerance centered around modern sexual ethics and mores. Where tolerance once called for respect despite disagreement, today it calls for far more. We are considered tolerant only when we advocate and celebrate new understandings of marriage, sexuality, and gender. Those who refuse to celebrate what they believe God forbids are seen as disloyal to the unifying principle of society. They are seen to be hindering rather than helping the strength and growth of this great new “empire.”
Here is one similarity between ourselves and Rome: Just as every religion in the Roman Empire was meant to add a small homage to the Emperor, today we find that every religion (and every other group, for that) is meant to add an element of tolerance. We display our loyalty to society when we express such tolerance, and display disloyalty if we refuse. If we fail the test of tolerance we fail the test of good citizenship.
Here is a second similarity: People today are perfectly willing to tolerate the Christian faith as long as it doesn’t disrupt the unifying principle of tolerance. Christians in the early church were welcome to continue to worship Jesus, to sing their songs, and to preach their Scriptures, as long as they added just that one tiny nod to the Emperor. Likewise, we are free to continue to worship Jesus, to sing our songs, and to preach our Scriptures, as long as we accept these new definitions of marriage, gender, and so on. We don’t need to abandon our faith, but just modify it slightly to better fit the times.
And a third similarity: Just as the people around the early Christians insisted that there was no inconsistency between worshipping Jesus and offering a pinch of incense to the Emperor, people around us today are insisting there is no inconsistency between these new sexual mores and the Bible. Those first Christians knew better and bore the consequences. We, too, know better, and may be forced to bear consequences.
Writing of the early church, Bruce Shelley said, “To the Roman, the Christian seemed utterly intolerant and insanely stubborn; worse, he was a self-confessed disloyal citizen.” But that Christian, through all his stubbornness, maintained a clear conscience before God. He was willing to suffer, knowing that he owed far greater loyalty to Christ than to any emperor, to his heavenly nation than any empire. May the same be said for us today.