It is difficult to separate tradition from history with regard to the various waves of persecution endured by Christians under the Roman Empire. The numbers of Christians crucified and thrown to wild beasts may be exaggerated, as some maintain. Perhaps. That this happened in some numbers is undeniable. The first emperor to launch an official state-authorized assault on Roman believers was probably Nero. After an incredibly destructive fire, the rumor spread that the emperor, insulated from the death and devastation, cared nothing for the pain of the people. Hence the statement, probably more apocryphal than historical, "Nero fiddled while Rome burned."
In desperate and immediate need of an official scapegoat, Nero blamed the Christians. This was convenient for several reasons. Christians were a minority in first century Roman society, and a suspect one at that. Rank and file Romans did not understand this new mystery faith from Judea. Romans, generally tolerant of alternative religions, were squeamish over what they heard of Christians' bizarre worship practices which were rumored to include drinking blood and cannibalism. There was also widespread concern that Rome might receive divine punishment for Christians' refusal to sacrifice to the gods. Religion was at the very heart of ancient Roman culture. The pagan gods were Rome's protectors and divine benefactors by whom the blessedness of the empire came, from crops to conquests. Whatever offended the gods might well bring judgment on the Roman world.
Nero's gambit was sophisticated and cynical politics. He hoped to shift the blame off of himself and onto a mistrusted religious minority. By doing so he could dodge the label of uncaring despot and gain favor with the populace at large. It was an imperial "twofer" and to a large extent it worked.
For the next three hundred years or so, depending on the disposition of the emperor at the time, Christianity experienced seasons of peace or persecution. This also varied depending on geography. The Roman Empire was far-flung to say the least, and poor communication lent itself to huge variations in public policy. Rome's official stance on anything might be interpreted and applied in wildly different ways depending upon local authority. Therefore, what Christianity underwent in Asia Minor (Turkey) might not be at all what was happening at the same time in, say, Egypt.
Gradually, despite adversity, opposition and outright persecution, Christianity gained first a toe-hold in the empire, then a hold ON the empire. The historical transition from excoriated, despised cult to state religion was not a smooth ride. The peaks were somewhat few and far between and the valleys were often filled with blood, but the Christian faith advanced through it all. The emperor Constantine finally declared Christian worship legal and not to be forbidden or persecuted. This is often called the Constantinian Shift. At first the emperor's edict was simply declaring religious tolerance to be the law of the empire. Henceforth pagans and Christians were allowed to worship as they wished without state interference. Near the end of his life, in 380 AD, the emperor went further, declaring Christianity the official religion of the empire. Constantine himself was baptized on his deathbed.
At a certain Christian education conference, I was shocked to hear one of the speakers refer to The United States of America as the world's first Christian country: a popular view of the American narrative, perhaps, but one which failed to take into account a mere 1396 years of world history.
The centuries following Constantine saw the rise of European, then American social and political Christianity. Christian countries such as France, England, Spain, Italy and others rose to take their place in history. Catholicism and Protestantism wrestled for preeminence across the face of countries and continents, but Christianity in one form or another informed the laws of the Western states including legal concepts such as the value of life and the rights of the individual. From the Magna Carta (1215) to the American Constitution, the foundational thought of law was both understood commonly and clearly stated to be the higher law of God. As far back as the thirteenth century, Henry de Bracton wrote extensively on the superiority of God's law (from a Christian view).
Irrespective of contemporary historical revisionism, any fair-minded reading of United Staes history must accept that the founders viewed the new nation and its laws as being created subject to God and His laws. Therefore, they stated in multiple locations, the nation could continue to exist as it was, only as it remained in submission to God's law. Any other reading is simply the self-serving imposition of modern thought on the thoroughly Christianized culture of the new American nation. Liberal humanists attempt such revisions but it never rings true, I think, even to themselves. Whenever I hear people say this was not founded as a Christian nation, I think of those irritating anachronistic costume dramas where King Arthur speaks in 21st Century street jive. They cannot seem to bring themselves to say, yes, this once was a nation under God. That's over. At least that would be honest.
In the West today, we are seeing, in an amazingly brief period of time, a new Constatinian Shift. The new emperor of liberal humanism is restating, and doing it rapidly, the basis of legal thought and cultural expression. The laws of God have given way to the lesser laws of lesser gods. The founders saw the state as under God. That is now top side down. The inalienable rights such as free speech, property ownership and religion (among others) now bow to the new creed of state above God. The value of life has been exiled, and in its place the quality of life, a doctrine that would have horrified the founders, is seated on a throne of tyranny.
That last paragraph may draw a similar response to the Geico ads. Everybody knows that. Yes, but did you know what this change may mean or how mid-to-late 21st Century believers may need to deal with it?
Here are seven reasons 21st Century believers may have to go back to the future to find answers in the first century.
1) First century believers lived under the culture and legal system of the Roman Empire which was not based on Judeo-Christian values. For centuries we in the West have enjoyed the luxury of a highly Christianized culture including our laws. That is over, or where it is not over, it soon will be. Late 20th Century believers thought they could turn the tide back to the 19th Century. If enough Christian politicians could be elected, they reasoned, we could go back to that sweet season. It did not happen, and the early 21st century has seen a dramatic plunge into secular humanism and a hedonistic culture far more Romanesque than Early American.
This is not to say we should not try to elect Christians to office, or better yet, get them on the bench. We should. In doing so, however, we must face facts that we are not appealing to a 19th Century American zeitgeist informed by a commonly held faith. We are fighting a delaying war, refusing to go gentle into that darksome night, but knowing all the while the twilight is upon us. I am not saying that reaching back in history for answers is wrong. Quite the contrary. I'm saying reaching back to the 18th and 19th centuries is not reaching back far enough. The first century is where our answers lie.
2) Second, we must learn to change culture with personal influence, even when we cannot change laws. The rise of first century Christianity did not happen in an era of a prevailing Christian value system. Paganism was the informing religion of Rome, an adversarial paganism that perceived Christians to be dangerous and unpatriotic. In a large part, modern Hollywood already sees believers that way. We had better get prepared for much of the rest of America to follow suit. We must re-learn how to do business in a marketplace where meat is sacrificed to idols. The traditional American marketplace that did no business on Sunday is gone. The hope of passing new blue laws is childish. The goal now is to master the art of living and trading in a land where Caesar is lord. St. Paul was a sail maker. Presumably he sold some of those in Roman markets. Perhaps they even graced the masts of Roman naval ships.
3) Third, we cannot raise our families in tidy little Christian cocoons. At the theater in Ancient Rome, when a part required a death, a slave was trained for the part and was actually slain on the stage. State-sponsored gladiatorial violence was part of everyday cultural life in Rome. Believers in Ancient Rome could not have imagined the innocent atmosphere of early American culture, any more than 19th century Americans could have believed where our culture is today. Yet here we are. Shielding our children from contemporaneity is no more possible for us than it was for ancient Roman believers. They did not compromise and neither must we. On the other hand, marginalizing Christianity by hiding out in the hills is hardly the answer. Ancient Roman believers had to do business in Rome and raise their children in the midst of unimaginable depravity without retreating or yielding to it.
St. Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, "All the saints salute you, chiefly they that are of Caesar's household." In other words the primitive church found a way to live as saints, not just in Caesar's world, but right in Caesar's palace. A sturdy sainthood that can live and work and witness in the heart of darkness will be our only hope in what lies ahead.
4) Fourth, we will have to re-discover what personal grace means in a corrupt culture. If eating meat sacrificed to idols was against the law, as it was in Israel, obedience was all faith needed. The very first Jewish believers in Jerusalem were not so much asking questions about life style. However, as the faith moved out into the Gentile world, a new question was demanding an answer. How then shall we live? For example, if an Ephesian temple prostitute came to faith after a lifetime of seeing her own dubious profession as something patriotic and even religious, her questions were entirely different than those of the Jewish believers in the Upper Room.
Meat sold in First Century Roman markets had almost always been sacrificed to idols. That raised a complicated and delicate question for new Gentile believers. In eating such meat, they asked, are we practicing idolatry or even compromising with it? St. Paul answered the "meat sacrificed to idols" question with personal grace. He answered the temple prostitute in quite a different way. Here is the thing. In a society where neither idolatry nor prostitution are seriously censured, we will have to find where grace gives latitude and where wrong is just plain wrong regardless of the century. The questions of new gentile believers in the decadent atmosphere of the Roman Empire were the very ones we will increasingly face in post-Christian America. Wherever questions such as these are answered by the laws of the land, Christians have it easy, and where it is easy, Christians get soft. In the new millennium, it may never be easy again, and soft sainthood will not work.
5) Fifth, we must be prepared for hardship and sacrifice. Will Western believers be thrown to lions in this century? Perhaps not. I certainly hope not, but that is not a prediction I am totally convinced of. Persecution is already happening and I believe it will get even darker before sun up.
David and Jason Benham's reality show, Flip It Forward, was all set to start on HGTV. Instead it was cancelled because they were "outed" as pro-life Christians. The notorious liberal organization, People For The American Way, denounced the Benham brothers as extremists and HGTV immediately buckled, cancelled the show and apologized. Think of what has happened in just a few decades. People who believed in abortion in the America of my youth were simply in favor of a crime. Then what was illegal became legal. Then to oppose it was no longer "The American Way."
I am not equating having one's television show on HGTV cancelled with being eaten by a lion. I am saying, and saying it soberly, we do not know what comes after this. If Western culture is headed back toward Rome, and it looks as if it may be, then perhaps believers in its midst are headed back to the future.
6) Sixth, and here is the good part. Back to the future is not all bad. The most spiritually muscular, supernaturally anointed, fastest growing expansion in the history of Christianity was under an antagonistic and often violently oppressive world dictatorship, the Roman Empire. Christianity grew despite all the Roman Empire could do to stamp it out. The faith, fertilized by the blood of martyrs, has changed cultures and continents slowly and always at great cost, but it has pressed ever forward. Passionate missionary zeal refused to cede real estate to any kingdom, not even Rome.
People For The American Way, are sure they know what the American Way is and they are prepared to hammer dissenters into silence, or perhaps herd them into the Coliseum. The way forward may well lead back to Rome. It won't be an easy journey any more than it was in the first century, but the God who sustained the first generation church is still I AM in the 21st Century.
The Lord's ultimate victory is certain. We know that. When all the empires of men lie in smoldering ruins we shall stand with the Lamb. This is not about fear. Of whom shall we be afraid? As the old saying goes, we know how this ends. We win. It is between here and there that Christianity will have to muscle up and "smarten" up.
7) Seventh, we must rediscover and reclaim our misplaced joy. If the joy of The Lord is our strength, and Nehemiah assures us it is, we will need it as never before. All too often, especially as we have watched in horror as our Christian laws changed, we have become joyless culture warriors. St. Paul was beaten, humiliated, arrested, scorned, stoned and finally executed. Yet it is this same maligned and defamed servant who said, "Rejoice and again I say rejoice." When under arrest in Philippi it was not an angry rant at Rome's moral disintegration which sprang St. Paul loose. It was joyful worship.
In the West, we have often confused joy with happiness. If we allow the shifting legal and cultural atmosphere in the West to steal our joy we will not have the strength for what may lie just around the bend. It may well have been the joy of the saints in suffering which finally broke the yoke of Rome. There is plenty going on to make us unhappy. That it may well do. We cannot allow such circumstances to steal our joy. That is a different matter.
We may not be able to halt the decline of the West any more than St. Paul could convert Nero. The conversion of an emperor took three hundred more years. What we can do is what St. Paul did. We can love and forgive our persecutors and live rejoicing in their presence. Ultimately the prize at the end of the road shall be ours. As sobering as the thought is, we may be headed back to the future. On the way there, we will need plenty of joy for the journey.