Early Christian Marginalization & Friction with the Roman Empire (Bruce Shelley)

The following is from Bruce L. Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language. It’s an account of early Christian ostracization and marginalization within the Roman Empire.

Christians today, even in our own contemporary context, may find growing similarities to our predicaments as our society becomes increasingly post-Christian, unembracing (even hostily) to our convictions and values, and may even view our beliefs as unpatriotic when they step out of line with civic and militaristic expectations.


Once the Romans discovered what the Christians were up to they were confronted by the problem of toleration in a more exasperating form than even the Jews had presented. The Jews, after all, were “a sort of closed corporation, a people set apart from others by the mark of circumcision, who lived and worshiped largely by themselves, and did no active proselyting.” The Christians, on the other hand, were always talking about their Jesus. They were out to make Christians of the entire population of the empire, and the rapidity of their spread showed that this was no idle dream. Not only did they, like the Jews, refuse to worship the emperor as a living god, but they were doing their utmost to convince every subject of the emperor to join them in their refusal. From time to time, then, Christians felt the wrath of the empire and its people.

Fundamental to the Christian life-style and the cause of endless hostility was the Christian’s rejection of the pagan gods. The Greeks and Romans had deities for every aspect of living—for sowing and reaping, for rain and wind, for volcanoes and rivers, for birth and death. But to the Christians these gods were nothing, and their denial of them marked the followers of Jesus as “enemies of the human race.”

One simply could not reject the gods without arousing scorn as a social misfit. For the pagan every meal began with a liquid offering and a prayer to the pagan gods. A Christian could not share in that. Most heathen feasts and social parties were held in the precincts of a temple after sacrifice had been made, and the invitation was usually to dine “at the table” of some god. A Christian could not go to such a feast. Inevitably, when he refused the invitation to some social occasion, the Christian seemed rude, boorish, and discourteous.

Other social events Christians rejected because they found them wrong in themselves. Gladiatorial combats, for example, were to the Christian inhuman. In amphitheaters all across the empire, the Romans forced prisoners of war and slaves to fight with each other to the death, just for the amusement of the crowd. The excitement was seductive. As late as the early fifth century, Augustine tells the story of his friend Alypius, who agreed to attend a spectacle to please a friend, but resolved to keep his eyes shut. When the shouting began, his eyes popped open, and he was yelling above the rest.

The Christian fear of idolatry also led to difficulties in making a living. A mason might be involved in building the walls of a heathen temple, a tailor in making robes for a heathen priest, an incense-maker in making incense for the heathen sacrifices. Tertullian even forbade a Christian to be a schoolteacher, because such teaching involved using textbooks that told the ancient stories of the gods and called for observing the religious festivals of the pagan year.

We might think that working with the sick would be a simple act of kindness. But even here early Christians found the pagan hospitals under the protection of the heathen god Aesculapius, and while a sick friend lay in his bed, the priest went down the aisle chanting to the god.

In short, the early Christian was almost bound to divorce himself from the social and economic life of his time—if he wanted to be true to his Lord. This meant that everywhere the Christian turned his life and faith were on display because the gospel introduced a revolutionary new attitude toward human life. It could be seen in Christian views of slaves, children, and sex.

There is no unifying force like the force of a common religion; and Caesar worship lay ready at hand. None of the local and ancestral faiths had any hope of ever becoming universal, but Rome was universal. As a result Caesar worship became “the keystone” of imperial policy. It was deliberately organized in every province in the empire. Everywhere temples to the godhead of the emperor appeared.

Little by little people within the empire came to believe that any allegiance in conflict with loyalty to the emperor, and therefore to the empire, could only lead to the disintegration of order. Worship of another Lord could only open the floodgates of chaos.

On a certain day in the year every Roman citizen had to come to the Temple of Caesar and had to burn a pinch of incense there, and say: “Caesar is Lord.” When he had done that, he was given a certificate to guarantee that he had done so. After a man had burned his pinch of incense and had acknowledged Caesar as Lord, he could go away and worship any god he liked, so long as the worship did not affect public decency and order.

Thus, we see that Caesar worship was primarily a test of political loyalty; it was a test of whether or not a man was a good citizen. If a man refused to carry out the ceremony of acknowledging Caesar, he was automatically branded as a traitor and a revolutionary.

To the Roman the Christian seemed utterly intolerant and insanely stubborn; worse, he was a self-confessed disloyal citizen. Had the Christians been willing to burn that pinch of incense and to say formally, “Caesar is Lord,” they could have gone on worshiping Christ to their heart’s content; but the Christians would not compromise. That is why Rome regarded them as a band of potential revolutionaries threatening the very existence of the empire.

Pastoral Theology & Church Practice in Calvin’s Geneva, Pt. 2 (Scott Manetsch)

In this episode, Kirk sits down with professor and well-regarded church historian, Dr. Scott Manetsch, to discuss what church life was like in Reformation-era Geneva under the ministry the John Calvin.

Access the episode here (available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and more).

See all other episodes in this series.

Pastoral Theology & Church Practice in Calvin’s Geneva, Pt. 1 (Scott Manetsch)

In this episode, Kirk sits down with professor and well-regarded church historian, Dr. Scott Manetsch, to discuss what church life was like in Reformation-era Geneva under the ministry the John Calvin.

Access the episode here (available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and more).

See all other episodes in this series.

Cruciformity as Biographical Typology (William Tyndale)

Yesterday Dan Allen delivered a biographical sermon on the life of William Tyndale (1494-1536), the father of the English Bible.

Tyndale strenuously and sacrificially dedicated his life to translating the Bible into English, which was illegal at the time given the control of the Roman Catholic Church. Tyndale faced many setbacks along the way, including having his print shop raided, loosing his translation of the entire Pentateuch in a shipwreck, and much more. Eventually this endeavor cost him imprisonment and even his life. At the end of his days, he was never able to see the project through to full completion.

Two years later, however, Henry VIII, King of England, changed his tune and demanded that an English translation be made. … Just two years after Tyndale’s death!

Dan raised the question (at the 38:00 mark): In many ways we could ask, “Why God? Why just two years later? Why not move King Henry to make it legal within Tyndale’s lifetime, and avoid all those troubles he faced? Why have Tyndale experience so many setbacks for something so obviously good? Why have one of the most brilliant scholars and dedicated servants locked up in a cell for the remaining years of his life, unable to continue the work? Why?” It seems so wasteful, pointless, and unnecessary.

As Dan raised this question, my mind went to 1 Peter 2:18-25, in which — among other places in the New Testament — the Christian life is portrayed as following in the footsteps of Christ, namely conformity to his suffering. As Christ’s path to glory was through suffering (death to resurrection), so too our path, as those united and conformed to the likeness of Christ– so too our path to glorification with him is paved by suffering with him as well.

We can think of many other such similar occasions across church history: individuals with great gifts and dedication being cut short and hindered by seemingly needless suffering and pointless opposition.

I wonder, however, as counter-intuitive as it may be to us, if this regular pattern of suffering, if nothing else, is God’s way of testifying to that cruciform pattern of conquering through death / suffering. Maybe it is that God specifically chooses to bring about his purposes this way — bringing about fruit after death and suffering — specially as a way of making his people conform to the pattern found in Christ (conquering by death, and death to resurrection); and this as a way of highlighting, testifying to, and using believers’ lives as a means to point people to that same pattern in Christ.

Call it a “biographical typology” if you will.