(Tim Challies) When I was a kid, my family once watched a movie that included vivid scenes of persecution against the earliest Christians. I remember lying awake at night, terrified by these images of Christians burning in the streets and being fed to the lions. I couldn’t help but imagine myself in the place of those beleaguered believers. At the time, I assumed they were being persecuted simply for being Christians, but as I’ve studied early church history, I’ve come to realize it’s not quite so simple. And as simplicity gives way to reality, I see there are some important lessons we can learn today through that early church persecution.
The earliest Christians lived within the Roman Empire, and, despite what you may have heard, Rome was surprisingly tolerant of other faiths. As they conquered the surrounding nations, they would rarely demand full loyalty to the traditional Roman religion or gods. They would allow people to continue to worship their own gods in pretty much their own way. But still the Christians were persecuted. Why?
The great challenge of the Roman Empire was binding together many cultures, faiths, and nations under a common banner. As their armies conquered lands stretching from Germany to Northern Africa, from Spain to Syria, this challenge became increasingly difficult. What could serve as a kind of bond to hold it all together? The obvious answer was the Emperor. He could stand in as the living embodiment of the empire so that loyalty to the Emperor would be synonymous with loyalty to Rome. And how could such loyalty be displayed? By having every citizen make a sacrifice to him as if he was divine. So Rome did not insist that everyone convert to their religion; they merely insisted that every religion add a small homage to the Emperor, a small act of worship that would serve as a display of their loyalty to the Empire.