Persecution Comes when the State Demands Supremacy

Thoughtful Christian friends, take a look at these few paragraphs on the persecution of the church in the Roman Empire. See the reasoning behind Roman persecution as it parallels the reasoning stripping Christians of religious freedom in the US and Canada today.

From: Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), chapter 7.

The church endured little persecution as long as it was looked upon by the authorities as a part of Judaism, which was a religio licita, or legal sect. But as soon as Christianity was distinguished from Judaism as a separate sect and might be classed as a secret society, it came under the ban of the Roman state, which would brook no rival for the allegiance of its subjects. It then became an illegal religion and as such was considered a threat to the safety of the Roman state. The state was the highest good in a union of the state and religion. There could be no private religion.

Religion could be tolerated only as it contributed to the stability of the state. Since the rapidly growing Christian religion was exclusive in its claims on the moral and spiritual loyalty of those who accepted Christ, when a choice had to be made between loyalty to Christ and loyalty to Caesar, Caesar was bound to take second place. This was conceived by the Roman leaders, bent on preserving classical culture within the framework of the Roman imperial state, as disloyalty to the state; and they saw Christians as those who were trying to set up a state within a state. Either the universal state or the universal church, the body of Christ, must give way. The exclusive sovereignty of Christ clashed with Caesar’s proud claims to exclusive sovereignty.

Social problems also made their contribution to the cause of Roman persecution of the church. The Christians, who had great appeal for the lower classes and slaves, were hated by the influential aristocratic leaders of society. These leaders looked down on them with contempt but were fearful of their influence on the lower class. The Christians upheld the equality of all people (Col. 3:11); paganism insisted on an aristocratic structure for society in which the privileged few were served by the lower class and slaves. Christians separated themselves from pagan gatherings at temples, theaters, and places of recreation. This nonconformity to accepted social patterns brought down on them the dislike that the nonconformist always faces in any period of history. The purity of their lives was a silent rebuke to the scandalous lives that people of the upper class were leading. The Christians’ nonconformity to existing social patterns led the pagans to believe that they were a danger to society and to characterize them as “haters of mankind” who might incite the masses to revolt.

All these considerations combined to justify the persecution of the Christians in the minds of the authorities. Not all were present in each case, but the exclusiveness of the claims of the Christian religion on the life of the Christian conflicted with pagan syncretism and the demand for exclusive loyalty to the Roman state in most instances. Persecution followed naturally as a part of imperial policy to preserve the integrity of the Roman state. Christianity was not a licensed religion with a legal right to existence. Martyrs and apologists were its answer to mobs, the state, and pagan writers.

In our day, this same issue of church and state has again been revived, and in many countries Christians are tolerated only under law. In other countries they face persecution from a state that will brook no rival. The early struggle of the church with persecution helps to point up the importance of the modern concept of the separation of the church and state. Only where people are permitted to have private interests apart from public interests can there be religious freedom.