By Dr. Barry Thornton
Since the time of Christ and subsequent to the fourth century, governmental intervention in the affairs of religion coupled with the dictates of culture created a volatile atmosphere for Christians in the free expression of their faith.
Roman government’s mandate for all religions to conform to a state-ratified culture produced an eventual clash between Christians and Roman government. Prosecution and persecution that followed was based more on a lack of cultural conformity than the actual religious tenets that Christians upheld. Christians were thus labeled as subversive, anti-government, and ultimately anti-Caesar because of their unwillingness to yield to worship Caesar and sanctioned pagan gods.
In essence, culture was a construct of Roman government. For the Romans, religion was first and foremost a social activity that promoted unity and loyalty to the state—a religious attitude the Romans called pietas or piety. Cicero wrote that if piety in the Roman sense were to disappear, social unity and justice would perish along with it.
For Christians this provided a real challenge to their convictions, molded and formed by one who called his followers to be salt and light. Jesus’ claim to be the only way to God the Father and his followers’ loyalty in obeying his teachings over the teachings of men placed Christians in a quandary related to their convictions. For Christians, there could only be one Lord, not multiple lords and certainly not Caesar himself!
Roman government insisted, for the sake of procuring a harmonious culture, that Christians accept religious pluralism, the belief that all religions were of equal validity and truth. As a result, and to avoid potential execution, Christians went into isolation; but instead of existing in harmony with the culture and government, it only tended to compound the tensions and create a volatile suspicion toward Christians.
Because Christians refused to yield to pagan worship and the acknowledgement of Caesar as a god, they became a lightning rod for all blame associated with various calamities, such as floods, fires, earthquakes, famines, plagues, etc. Though much of the Roman government was utilitarian, it was also heavily motivated by the pagan sense that bad things will happen if the gods are not respected and worshipped properly.
Human life had greater value for the believer too. Christians believed that their bodies were the temple of the Holy Spirit. The belief that family life was a sacred calling for Christians ran in stark contrast to all forms of pagan debauchery. This compounded suspicions about Christians’ cultural intents, which ultimately led from Christians being prosecuted for their adherence to Christ’s teachings on to full persecution by government and the culture at large.
The irony of ironies is that in a pagan’s eyes Christians were atheists! Their lack of physical idols in their places of worship and their refusal to worship the sanctioned gods of Roman government labeled Christians as a bad fit for the culture. The Romans’ distaste for Christianity arose in large part from its sense that it was bad for society. They were viewed as not only atheistic but rebels, divergent from state rule.
ON THE RISE
Fast forward to the 21st century, and the patterns of cultural and political dictates continue. Christians find themselves in stark contrast to governmental promotion of religious pluralism, peppered with anti-Christian sentiments. Choices need to be made in our quest to be salt and light in a vertically oriented and originated faith.
Release International, an organization based in England that ministers to the families of martyrs and prisoners, points out the sobering struggles of those suffering for their faith. Though exact numbers about martyrdom are problematic to calculate and are counted in a variety of ways, they cite the following statistics:
• More Christians have been martyred in the 20th century than in all previous centuries combined.
• About 170,000 Christians are martyred for their faith each year. That’s 400 people dying for their faith each day!
• Currently more than 100 million Christians are being persecuted worldwide.
• Christians are persecuted in 131 of the world’s 193 countries (Pew Forum study).
• North Korea is counted as the worst country in the world in 2014 for persecution.
In all countries around the globe, persecution is on the rise. Christians must stop and consider what they are willing to die for. A true assessment of our commitment and beliefs is imperative.
Three sources of authority come to mind that Christians today must consider and choose from:
Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”)
Martin Luther made Scripture alone a centerpiece issue of the Reformation Movement by asserting that Scripture is inherently authoritative and the final reference for all matters of Christianity. Scripture itself bears witness to this principle with such passages as Jude 3 asserting that we “now have the faith once and for all delivered unto the saints.” This means that the full embodiment of the exercise of our beliefs are, in their final, complete, and perfect expression, related to inspired New Testament teaching. Early Christians followed sola Scriptura, and later Luther affirmed sola Scriptura in his campaign to bring the church to an acknowledgement of biblical authority over all other authority.
Sola Polis (“the government only”)
As mentioned earlier in this article, the Roman government sought to provide the axis for all matters of faith as a way of maintaining social order. It sought to define the parameters of the free expression of one’s beliefs, seeking a pluralism of religious beliefs that were considered equally true and state sanctioned. Government can sometimes “play god” by demanding a worldview that contradicts the Christian conscience. Just like the Christians of the first centuries, we must obey God rather than men.
Sola Cultura (“the culture only”)
Meshing with sola polis, the first century church also dealt with a culture that was hostile to Christian ways and principles. Pagan religion was quite satisfied to include a whole myriad of gods, accepting pluralism as the norm. The exclusivity of Christianity chafed against the multi-beliefs of common culture, ultimately reaching a point of government prosecution, persecution, and, in many cases, martyrdom. Cultural relativism was at war with Christianity’s claims of exclusivity.
The culturally created god today is a god of non-judgmentalism, fun, games, and lack of consequences that serves the people instead of the people serving him. This culturally created god is the worst kind of idol man could ever conceive, for it strips the God of the universe of all his holiness.
Christians today must understand that we are in the midst of battles that date back to the early centuries of Christianity, battles that bear personal consequences at times. Similarities in political, cultural, and religious battles mirror early challenges that Christians struggled with. Yielding to political mandates that contradict Christian principles, marrying culture to church and Christianity to relativistic thinking provide crossroads for each of us to consider. For those who choose a non-compromising approach for their lives, know that there will be potential prosecution and even persecution.
Persecution is inevitable because Christians are in the world but not of this world. If we were of this world we would be in total conformity to the world. If we truly die with Christ and are raised with Christ, we should walk as Christ in a foreign land and fully expect the same kind of opposition that Christ faced. He knew the inevitabilities and so did the New Testament writers. Their words echo from centuries past to encourage and exhort us to stand with integrity:
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness” (Matthew 5:10).
“Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you, and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of man” (Luke 6:22).
“For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Corinthians 4:11).
“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Philippians 1:29).
Jesus calls us out of this world to transform the culture in the midst of political mandates and dictates. In spite of the prosecution or even persecution that follows, we must stand strong and stand long for the cause of Christ!
Dr. Barry Thornton is a freelance writer in Mt. Washington, Kentucky.
The Armor for Opposition
Ephesians 6:10-18 has excellent reminders as we and Christians around the world face opposition.
1. God is our source of power—so we have all we need (v. 10).
2. The main opposition is not from people or governments but from God’s enemies in the spiritual realm (vv. 11, 12).
3. A calm, humble, firm stance in Christ is a supernatural weapon (v. 13).
4. Righteousness, rather than self-righteousness, protects you (v. 14).
5. While spiritual fighting is inevitable, the end game of the gospel is peace (v. 15).
6. Faith allows us to put out flaming arrows, not fling them back at others (v. 16).
7. Our focus is on gaining ground for Christ rather than against governments, cultures, or individuals—even though this often looks similar (v. 17).
8. Prayer is the foundation and source of all these actions (v. 18).