“Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your strength may not fail.” Luke 22:31-32
Did you feel the earth shift on election night? Something foundational has given way. Liberals and conservative bloggers and commentators all seem to sense that a great change is upon us.
We began as a land that was founded on biblical principles and one in which Christians were generally looked upon with favor. Since that time, the culture has drifted, and recently outright fled, from the idea that this is or should be a “Christian” nation. And while I do see the blessing that goes along with a culture grounded in Judeo- Christian values, I would like to argue that for the Church, these changes may not be a bad development.
To help make the point, please indulge a brief church history primer.
Before Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire, Christians were violently persecuted. One famous example was nobly born, wealthy, well-married young mother Vibia Perpetua. Born in 181 AD, this North African woman and her maid died a gruesome death in the arena for refusing to offer sacrifices to Emperor Severus. Other Christians, while still living, were impaled and made into candles that glowed in Emperor Nero’s garden at night. Thousands were executed, made slaves, and sent to the mines. Only those who were willing to put life, family, property, and comfort on the line would claim Christ as their Lord and be baptized. There were few lukewarm believers. It was an all-or-nothing deal.
Despite the widespread and often public torturing and killing of Christians, the Church grew at an annual rate of 3.4%. At the Church’s founding soon after Jesus’ death, there were a few hundred Christians in Jerusalem. By the year 350 AD, there were over 31,000,000 Christians in the Roman Empire (i.e., 52.9% of the population had become Christian; cf., “The Triumph of Christianity” by Rodney Stark, p. 156). In his book “The Rise of Christianity”, Stark explains:
I believe it was the religion’s particular doctrines that permitted Christianity to be among the most sweeping and successful revitalization movements in history. And it was the way these doctrines took on actual flesh, the way they directed organizational actions and individual behavior, that led to the rise of Christianity.
Amidst the ever-present threat of physical harm for its followers, Christianity was sweeping the Empire. Why? It was not because Christians were well-represented in government, part of a thriving middle class, or portrayed positively within the local synagogue, roman temple, or theatre. The suffering of the believers strengthened the church. And as a result, Christians showed a mercy the world had never known.
The pagan world, especially philosophers, regarded mercy as a “character deficit” and pity as a “pathological emotion.” They reasoned that because mercy involved providing unearned help or relief, mercy was contrary to justice. But the doctrines of the Christian faith, which were being refined by persecution, bore the external fruits of charity and compassion.
Trials reveal character. And trials were abundant in the world into which Christianity was born. In 260 AD Bishop Dionysius wrote about the events in Alexandria during the second great plague:
At the first onset of the disease, they (pagans) pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease; but do what they might, they found it difficult to escape.
Contrast this with his report of the Christian response:
Most of our brother Christians showed unbounding love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains. Many, nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead…
Surrounded by the Roman culture’s aversion to aiding those who had not earned their keep, in AD 251 the bishop of Rome wrote a letter to the bishop of Antioch in which he mentioned that the Roman Christian congregation was “supporting fifteen hundred widows and distressed persons.”
In the first few centuries, the practice of “exposing” infants was almost universal (save Judaism). Unwanted children, usually girls and underweight boys, were exposed to the elements and left to die. Not only did the new Christians not expose their infants, but they also rescued and raised infants that they found abandoned, sometimes fishing them out of rivers with nets. The non-Christians took notice.
Because the regular waves of persecution would weed out tepid believers, the church was composed of individuals who were wholeheartedly committed to Christ. This is the external fruit of their saving faith:
– Drastic sacrifice.
– Rushing into a hurting world.
This is where credibility lives.
Then, for reasons still debated by historians, Constantine legalized Christian worship in 313 AD. In 391, Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire. In our American mind, this would seem to be a great triumph for our faith. But what happened next speaks to one of the great realities of biblical faith. Chuck Colson in “The Body” writes:
When Christianity was made the official religion in Rome in the fourth century, the church became socially and politically acceptable. People with halfhearted faith flocked to churches that could no longer disciple them. Soon the word ‘Christian’ became meaningless…
And while there has been a remnant of faithful, authentic believers since that time, a great shift occurred within the church. Once it became apparent that being a Christian would advance one’s career prospects, the motivation to become a part of the church changed from being one of devotion to Christ to one of monetary and political gain. And thereupon begins the great parade of examples of hypocritical, lukewarm, devious and destructive church leaders who abused power and were much more concerned with building their own kingdom rather than Christ’s.
In my next post, we’ll look at how the inverse of this trend is seems to be taking place in the US, and how the example of the early church gives us the necessary way forward.
For more on the true Christian life, see “Christianity according to Jesus.”