We can learn a lot from the influence of the Church in the Roman world. The Church influenced multiple aspects of society. This blog focuses on four main areas, namely – the individual, the family, their communities and their nation. I hope that as Christians we will learn from History and be better informed in order to engage more successfully with those we come in contact with.
During the 1st Century, the moral climate was immersed in hedonism and polytheism. The Roman Empire was rotting from the inside. The birth of the Church was timely. The gods that were worshipped were nothing more than glorified humans. As a result, they were prone to the same moral failures as humans. The impact of such idol worship was that Rome was steeped in darkness. The people became like the gods that they worshipped (Psalm 115:2-8).
Lost in the foggy moral anarchy, they needed a beacon of light that would lead them out.
The early Church challenged the idea of idol worship through reasoned arguments, persuading those around them to turn from their idolatry and worship the living God. Peter May, a Christian apologist breaks down Apostle Paul’s argument, “Their religious ideas were mutually incompatible. On the one hand their poets said that “We are his offspring” but then they worshipped gods of gold, silver and stone! How could warm, personal humanity be the offspring of cold, impersonal matter? It was absurd.” As Christians engaged with non-Christians, showing them the inadequacy of their beliefs, individuals started to see the truth more clearly and turned from their idol worship (Acts 19:26).
The highly patriarchal society in Rome meant that women were often treated as subservient. As we look into the dynamics of marriage within the Roman Empire, further problems were evident. Husbands infidelity was largely overlooked. They were given the license to have extramarital relationships whilst wives were expected to remain faithful to their husbands. It is to this context that Paul radically challenges these cultural norms by saying to the early believers, “The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife.” – 1 Corinthians 7:4. This was to counter the way things were done.
With his words, Paul ushered in the great equalizing effect of the cross.
Paul gets even more radical in his writing to the Ephesians as he calls husbands to sacrificially lay down their lives for their wives (Ephesians 5:25-33). This meant that Christian husbands that obeyed the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles lived lives that ran against the grain of the Greco Roman world. The cultural practices at the time were rooted in their view of their gods. Rampant infidelity was directly connected to their belief about what their gods were like. In contrast, Jesus shows His faithfulness towards humanity by coming to sacrificially die for us all. This meant that those who believed this message lived sacrificial lives.
No wonder the early Church had such a large number of followers that were female. The freedom and equality found in Christianity was foreign to the Roman world. Phoebe, Priscilla and Mary were among many women who lived sacrificial lives supporting and building up the faith of the early Church (Acts 18:26 and Roman’s 16:1-6). Furthermore, a lot of prominent women were persuaded by the Gospel (Acts 17:4, 12). In references to a wealthy merchant of purple cloth, writer Margaret Mowczko says, “Lydia opened her home to Paul and his fellow travellers and to gatherings of the first church at Philippi (Acts 16:40).” Lydia used her resources for the benefit of the early Church community in Philippi.
As the persecution continued these new converts clung to each other however, their love for each other wasn’t based on a common ethnicity, class or gender. Paul refers to the Church as the “…pillar and foundation of the truth.” – 1 Timothy 3:15 NLT. This wasn’t a social club and fellowship was more than bringing food. Key decisions were made at these meetings that had a lasting impact on the individuals present and the next generation of believers. The Church was the epicentre of cultural renewal.
Their love for the truth meant they had to regularly exercise discernment in a world full of anti-Christian philosophies (Colossians 2:8).
This can be seen by the way they handled heresies. Some writings began to circulate between the 2nd and the 5th century carrying the names of familiar early saints. These writings were the gospel of Thomas, the gospel of Philip and the gospel of Mary. The Churches reaction showed their commitment to the truth. They tested the writing by four criterias.
1) The author – was it written by an apostle or someone who had a close connection with an apostle?
2) The book – was it being accepted by the Body of Christ at large?
3) The consistency – was he book consistent in doctrine and orthodox teaching?
4) The evidence – did the book bare evidence of high moral and spiritual values that would reflect a work of the Holy Spirit?
These writings failed the examination. The Deity of Christ in these writings was distorted as well as many other Christian orthodox beliefs. It is clear that a commitment to truth kept Christian communities strong. “The Christian church has thrived for more than 2,000 years because it has largely out-thought its opponents” states Gary Thomas, a Christian writer and speaker. They were not anti-intellectual as their robust intellectual base helped them navigate through the world of ideas. The famous prayer of Jesus was indeed at work, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” – John 17:15, 17 ESV
The effect that the early Church had on their nation would not have been as strong if the first three phases of society were not being transformed. Christians as outsiders were having an effect within the Roman Empire.
Christians were given the derogatory title Atheists as a result of their disbelief in the Roman gods and refusal to worship the Emperor. As writer Andrew Messmer puts it, “…to accuse Christians of atheism was a very serious charge which struck fear into the Roman empire’s rulers, at both local and empire-wide levels. The Roman empire wanted nothing more than order and stability, and few things could be more threatening than social upheaval based in the neglect of the gods.”
The Roman Empire saw Christians as a threat because of how effective they were at disrupting the customs and practices of Roman society.
They were reformers who were aware of the culture they lived in wisely engaging them on their own stomping ground. An example of such engagement was a Christian philosopher called Athenagoras. Historian Dan Graves writes, “It took a lot of courage for an obscure Athenian philosopher to write a letter to his emperor, challenging him to change his ways! Why did he do it? Because of the extreme persecution his fellow Christians were experiencing under Emperor Marcus Aurelius.”
The Faithfulness of God
The first thought that may come to mind when reading this blog is, “that was them but what about us in the 21st century?” Their faith can seem huge compared to ours. However, in looking more closely we share similarities with them. They too were in the minority in their own nation feeling like outcasts (1 Peter 2:11). They too felt the pressures within their families to conform to the worlds way of doing things (1 Corinthians 7:1). They also had to deal with the pressures of division within their communities (1 Corinthians 1:10-17). They were definitely misunderstood in their nation with beliefs met by hostility.
The theme that we find throughout Church History is the faithfulness of God. God is constantly at work, drawing individuals to Himself. Showing us how to live sacrificial lives. He’s also teaching us the truth so that we are more equipped to stand for truth within and outside our communities.
My prayer is that we will have eyes to see what God started 2,000 years ago and is continuing to do until this very day. My prayer is that we will seek to be a part of an already long line of people, who as imperfect as they were, by God’s grace changed the course of history. The Church has outlived Empires and oppressive dictators. The Church has continued to grow and withstand the pressure from the world to conform. They have also resisted heresies that have tried to sneak in. This is because the words of Jesus have remained steadfast,
“…I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
– Matthew 16:18 ESV
By guest writer Praise Anyanegbu
God Loves You, Always & Forever!0