There are so many good reasons to study church history. One reason is that it gives us perspective. When we study church history we see the providential hand of God guiding the affairs of men and nations in such a way that the Gospel is never extinguished.
I know I’m not the only one who sees the writing on the wall. The rising anti-Christian sentiment in our country gives pause for great concern. Anyone who knows me well is aware that I have very strong political views. But the truth is that politics are neither here nor there when measured against eternity and God’s grand plan of redemption for His elect. The most important thing to God is the church, and whoever touches her, touches the apple of His eye (Zech. 2:8). In the church’s history there have been seasons of peace and there have been times of terrible persecution. I pray for the peace of the church in America. I do that because I’d like to lead a quiet life and be able to pursue holiness without being harassed (1 Tim. 2:2). However, such has not always been the case, and it certainly is not the case for many of our brothers and sisters today in various regions of the world. What I am trying to get at is this: Persecution might be new to us, but it is not a new experience to the church. With that in mind, I wanted to share an excerpt from Stephen J. Nichols’s book, “Pages from Church History.” Here he describes the sociopolitical context that the early church, in the Roman Empire, found itself. Read closely. I believe you will find not just a few similarities. More important, I think it will encourage you to see beyond the noise of the immediate.
Due to the nature of the Roman Empire, a conglomerate of formerly independent city- and nation-states, a certain pluralism prevailed. To be a Roman was the glue that held everything together, but underlying this was great pantheon of gods and religions and world views.
To accommodate these differences, the empire dubbed certain religions as acceptable…These religions tended to be pluralistic or at least polytheistic, so to bring them into the already expanded fold of gods mattered little. Some of them observed secretive rites and rather bizarre practices. They were accepted, however, because these religions did not preclude their members from participating in the civil cult, or offering sacrifices to the gods of Rome.
But not all religions fit so well … Not only did Christianity affirm that there is one God, it also made the point that there is only one way to God. For Christians, other religions do not simply provide alternatives, they are false. All of this resulted in Christianity’s being designated an illegal religion …
The Christians in the region were plentiful and had abandoned the pagan cults and temples, making for economic difficulties, curiously similar to the fallout of Paul and the church at Ephesus just a century earlier (Acts 19:21-41). Pliny [a Roman senator] knew the Christians were to be executed, but he was puzzled as to the exact nature of the crime. He failed to see how they were enemies of the state. Emperor Trajan assured Pliny that they were in fact enemies of the state and were to be executed, though he did not seem to indicate that doing so should be Pliny’s top priority. The main reason for their treatment, Trajan affirmed and Pliny consented, was that they failed to offer a sacrifice to the images of the gods or to the images of the emperor.
Consequently, and quite ironically, the early Christians were accused of atheism; they did not recognize the gods of the Roman state, and they certainly could not offer sacrifices to them. This gave Nero, emperor during the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul-as church tradition has it- his reason to persecute them …Nero and the others bootstrapped the accusation that the Christians denied the gods of the state (which was true) to the charge that the Christians were the enemy of the state (which was not true). In reality, Christians made great citizens … Christ and the New Testament teach that Christians are to honor the government and its officials. Christianity practiced compassion for the less fortunate and practiced a high ethic concerning social relationships in the marketplace and in the home. Christians were law-abiding and peaceful. Yet they were hated and viewed as the very enemy of the state…perhaps the real reason for the persecution is that the Christians were a convenient scapegoat. Tertullian reveals the ulterior motive: “They consider that the Christians are the cause of every public calamity and every misfortune of the people. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not rise to the fields, if the weather will not change, if there is an earthquake, a famine, a plague – straightway the cry is heard: “Toss the Christians to the lions!”1
In a strange way, reading this page from church history helped settle my soul. How is that? Well, after all is said and done, there is only one thing that matters: I am a Christian.
Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain! Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways. (Ps 119:36–37).
1 Nichols, Stephen J., (2006) “Pages From Church History: A Guided Tour of Christian Classics” (49-50), Phillipsburg: N.J., P&R Publishing.