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.

Coronavirus as “Go Time” for the Church: Being Ready to Care for Others (Coronavirus, Ep. 5)

In this episode, we look at the church’s pedigree of caring for people in crisis and even plagues. What can we learn from this, and scripture, as a model for our own calling in this present moment?

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

See all episodes in this series.


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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.

Summary & Favorite Quotes from Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections


Download my summary notes of the book here.

“That religion which God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull, and lifeless wishes, raising us but a little above a state of indifference. … In nothing is vigour in the actings of our inclinations so requisite, as in religion; and in nothing is lukewarmness so odious.” (I.II.1)

“If the great things of religion are rightly understood, they will affect the heart. The reason why men are not affected by such infinitely great, important, glorious, and wonderful things, as they often hear and read of in the word of God, is, undoubtedly, because they are blind; if they were not so, it would be impossible, and utterly inconsistent with human nature, that their hearts should be otherwise than strongly impressed, and greatly moved by such things.” (I.III.1)

“God has given to mankind affections, for the same purpose as that for which he has given all the faculties and principles of the human soul, viz. that they might be subservient to man’s chief end, and the great business for which God has created him, that is, the business of religion. … Where are the exercises of our affections proper, if not here? what is it that more requires them? and what can be a fit occasion of their lively and vigorous exercise, if not such as this? Can any thing be set in our view, greater and more important? any thing more wonderful and surprising? or that more nearly concerns our interest? Can we suppose that the wise Creator implanted such principles in our nature as the affections, to lie still on such an occasion as this?” (I.III.3)

“The devil does not assault the hope of the hypocrite, as he does the hope of a true saint. The devil is a great enemy to a true Christian’s hope, not only because it tends greatly to his comfort, but also because it is of a holy, heavenly nature, greatly tending to promote and cherish grace in the heart, and a great incentive to strictness and diligence in the Christian life. But he is no enemy to the hope of a hypocrite, which above all things establishes his interest in him. A hypocrite may retain his hope without opposition, as long as he lives, the devil never attempting to disturb it. But there is perhaps no true Christian but what has his hope assaulted by him.” (II.XI)

“Men not only cannot exercise faith without some spiritual light, but they can exercise faith only just in such proportion as they have spiritual light. Men will trust in God no further than they know him: and they cannot be in the exercise of faith in him, further than they have a sight of his fulness and faithfulness in exercise.” (II.XI)

“It is not God’s design that men should obtain assurance in any other way, than by mortifying corruption, increasing in grace, and obtaining the lively exercises of it.” (III.2)

“The only certain foundation which any person has to believe that he is invited to partake of the blessings of the gospel, is, that the word of God declares that persons so qualified as he is, are invited, and God who declares it, is true and cannot lie. If a sinner be once convinced of the veracity of God, and that the Scriptures are his word, he will need no more to convince and satisfy him that he is invited; for the Scriptures are full of invitations to sinners, to the chief of sinners, to come and partake of the benefits of the gospel. He will not want of God any thing new; what he hath spoken already will be enough with him.” (III.I)

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