How Christianity Conquered Rome

Famine and war had recently afflicted Caesarea, so when the plague hit in the early fourth century, the populace was already weakened and unable to withstand this additional blow. The populace began fleeing the city, one of the larger ones of the Roman Empire, for safety in the countryside.[i] However, in the midst of the fleeing inhabitants, at least one group was staying behind, the Christians. Bishop of the city and historian of the early church, Eusebius, recorded that during the plague, “All day long some of them [the Christians] tended to the dying and to their burial, countless numbers with no one to care for them. Others gathered together from all parts of the city a multitude of those withered from famine and distributed bread to them all.”[ii]

Cities in the ancient world were even more overcrowded than the densest population centers today. With few sewers existing, cities were filthy beyond imagining and became a breeding ground for disease. Major catastrophes were not uncommon, including fires, plagues, conquests by armies, and frequent earthquakes.[iii] Even though the cities were unpleasant places to live, they were the population and intellectual centers of the empire, and they provided Christians with opportunities for numerical growth and cultural influence. Indeed, Christianity eventually dominated the empire by taking root in almost all the major cities of the ancient Mediterranean world, from Alexandria in North Africa to Cordova in Spain.[iv]

However, the Christian conquest of the Roman Empire came not by the sword, but by the preaching of the gospel joined with acts of compassion. Eusebius goes on to state that because of their compassion in the midst of the plague, the Christians’ “deeds were on everyone’s lips, and they glorified the God of the Christians. Such actions convinced them that they alone were pious and truly reverent to God.”[v] A few decades after Eusebius, the last pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate, recognized that the Christian practice of compassion was one cause behind the transformation of the faith from a small movement on the edge of the empire to cultural ascendancy. Writing to a pagan priest, he said, “[W]hen it came about that the poor were neglected and overlooked by the [pagan] priests, then I think the impious Galilaeans [i.e., Christians] observed this fact and devoted themselves to philanthropy.”[vi] To another, he wrote, “[They] support not only their poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”[vii] In fact, Julian proposed that pagan priests imitate the Christians’ charity in order to bring about a revival of paganism in the empire.

Julian’s program failed because the polytheism of ancient Rome was unable to sustain the kind of self-sacrificial love and compassion that Eusebius observed in Caesarea. Christianity presented to the ancient world two theological truths that were not to be found in the pagan religions. The first is that the God of Jesus Christ is a God worth dying for, since He had first demonstrated His love for humanity by sending His Son. The second truth was a “new conception of humanity,” that is, the idea that all human beings have special dignity and should therefore be shown compassion.[viii] These two ideas slowly but surely transformed the culture of the Roman Empire. Today, as the West appears to be returning to paganism, the distinctiveness of the Christian doctrines of God and of man will once more stand in stark contrast to the surrounding culture by Christians demonstrating the love of Christ in acts of compassion.


[i] Caesarea had a population of about 45,000. There were only thirty-one cities in the empire whose populations were greater than 30,000. See Rodney Stark, Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 35-36, 60.

[ii] Eusebius, The Church History, trans. Paul L. Meier (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2007), 293. In other editions, see IX.viii.13-15. Eusebius records that the famine was so severe that a single measure of wheat was sold for 2,500 drachmas, one drachma being the daily wage of a skilled worker (292). Eusebius interprets the tragic events as divine punishment upon the city for its zeal in carrying out the government-sponsored persecution of the Christians initiated by Caesar Maximin. Shortly after these events Maximin died, Constantine became emperor, and Christianity was legalized throughout the empire.

[iii] Stark, Cities of God, 26-29.

[iv] See Stark, Cities of God, 35-59, for a brief overview of the Christian presence in each of the thirty-one largest cities of the empire.

[v] Eusebius, 293. In other editions, see IX.viii.13-15.

[vi] Julian, “Fragment of a Letter to a Priest,” in The Works of the Emperor Julian, vol. 2, trans. Wilmer Cave Wright (New York: MacMillan, 1913), 337. Julian is not referring to the specific instance that Eusebius cites, but is referring to Christian charity more generally. Elsewhere, Julian stated regarding the Christians, “It is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism” (“To Arsacius, High-Priest of Galatia,” in The Works of the Emperor Julian, vol. 3, trans. Wilmer Cave Wright [New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1923], 69). He went on to say that “I believe that we [i.e., the pagans] ought really and truly to practise every one of these virtues.” Julian’s program of moral reform forbade priests from going to licentious theaters and to sacred games at which women were present. He also encouraged priests to demonstrate hospitality by establishing hostels for travelers and distributing money to the poor. As a former Christian, Julian knew the Christian ethic well. Echoing the words of Jesus about the greatest commandment, Julian summarized the requirements for appointment to the pagan priesthood as love for (the pagan) gods and love for man (“To Arsacius,” 69-71; cf. “Fragment of a Letter to a Priest,” 335-337).

[vii] Julian, “To Arsacius,” 71.

[viii] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997), 214.

The Security of Stained Glass—Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

From a Birmingham jail in 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. penned his now famous response to the liberal clergymen who opposed his methods for fighting racial discrimination.1 Among his many disappointments, one stood out above all others. In the face of manifest ungodliness, the Church had been silent. King was painfully aware that when the Church is silent about sin, evil will follow. As a minister of the gospel, he was equally convinced that the Church could speak prophetically to the culture and transform it. But unless her voice was faithful and clear, she would become irrelevant. He was right.

Let me take note of my other major disappointment. I have been so greatly disappointed with the white church and its leadership . . . I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen.

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church, felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; and too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows . . .

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other-worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular . . .

Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

There was a time when the church was very powerful—in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man . . .

Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.2

1 “Statement by Alabama Clergymen, April 12, 1963,” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Paper Project at Stanford University Website,
2 Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963,” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Paper Project at Stanford University Website,

Confessing Courage – Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

The name, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), has become a byword for conviction and courage. In 1935, ten years before the Nazis hanged him in Flossenburg, Bonhoeffer presided over a seminary consisting of twenty-five young pastors. They were all part of the Confessing Church, believers who refused to drape Hitler’s policies with the Christian flag. Therefore, the seminary was illegal; they literally risked their lives to pray together, study together, and live together. In 1937 the Nazis shut down this clandestine seminary, and a year later Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together, reflections on a Christian community. In the pages of this book, he taught that courage is not only standing up against the unbelieving world; it includes standing up against one’s own sin in the context of the local church.

The Church had many enemies in Bonhoeffer’s day. Even before Hitler used religious language to promote his goals, modernism replaced the cross with “progress.” Commenting upon his time at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Bonhoeffer wrote, “I never heard of the Gospel of Jesus Christ . . . of the cross, of sin and forgiveness, of death and life (while) in New York . . . only an ethical and social idealism which pins its faith to progress.”1 In Germany, the success of social idealism and Nazi nationalism meant the Church risked forgetting what God calls her to be: a community of faith subject to the Word of God. In order to fulfill this mission, Bonhoeffer encouraged believers to regularly confess their sins to one another (James 5:16).

Why is this so important? Because, according to Bonhoeffer, a congregation without mutual confession of sin is a church afraid to be sinners: “The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship.”2 Bonhoeffer lamented this state of being. What an awful paradox: saved by the work of Christ alone and yet unwilling to let one’s sin be known. Why the silence? “Confession in the presence of a brother is the profoundest kind of humiliation. It hurts, it cuts a man down, it is a dreadful blow to pride. To stand there before a brother as a sinner is an ignominy that is almost unbearable.”3 And yet the shame must be born in order to follow Christ: “The Cross of Jesus Christ destroys all pride. We cannot find the Cross of Jesus if we shrink from going to the place where it is to be found, namely, the public death of the sinner. And we refuse to bear the Cross when we are ashamed to take upon ourselves the shameful death of the sinner in confession.”4

Is godward confession insufficient? Must a third party be brought into the mix? Bonhoeffer warned his readers that those ready to be honest with God while refusing to be vocal with their brother may be living in hypocrisy:

[W]e must ask ourselves whether we have not often been deceiving ourselves with confession of sin to God, whether we have not rather been confessing our sins to ourselves and also granting ourselves absolution. And is not the reason perhaps for our countless relapses and the feebleness of our Christian obedience to be found precisely in the fact that we are living on self-forgiveness and not real forgiveness.5

Yes, there is room for prudence in public confession. Done wrong, it can pointlessly titillate or humiliate others, including friends and loved ones. Sometimes it amounts to confessing the sins of others: “I repent of harboring ill feelings toward this brother who has wronged me.” But the dangers should only lead believers to exercise care in such confession—not to shun it.

In light of Bonhoeffer’s willingness to die for the faith, the call to mutual confession may seem minor, even trite. Not to him. He knew that dictators rise and fall. Persecution comes and goes. But the Church endures, and, until Christ returns, she is full of sinners. The courageous sinner, redeemed by the blood of Christ, will fight his sin by being honest about it, confessing it both to God and a brother or sister. Such courage may not make the history books, but it will mark those written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (Rev. 21:27).

1 Quoted by James and Marti Hefley, By Their Blood: Christian Martyrs of the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), 203.
2 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1954), 110.
3 Ibid., 114.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid., 115-116.

Minister to Lepers: Father Damien de Veuster (1840 – 1889)

Late one evening, a woman knocked at Father Damien de Veuster’s door. Nervously, she whispered a warning into his ear then fled into the darkness. What she told him was sobering: that night, pagan incantation rites against his life were being conducted in a burial cave. Yet undaunted by the threat, he walked for an hour to reach the cave. When he arrived, 30 men were gathered around a priest holding a voodoo doll of him. So Damien rushed in, tore the doll to shreds, and stomped on its remains before denouncing the men for their sin. Then he walked out of the cave untouched as they stood in stunned silence.

Born Jozef de Veuster, Father Damien left his native Belgium in 1863 at age 23 to sail for Hawaii. During his first pastorate there, he acquired a reputation for hard work, building two church buildings with his own hands. Then, despite his youth, he volunteered to move to a much larger parish when its pastor became ill. Over three decades in Hawaii, personal courage became a hallmark of his ministry.

Once, he was riding a horse along the shore when he spotted a ship’s lifeboat carrying what appeared to be an unmoving body. So, ignoring sharks, he swam to the boat and saved eight sailors who had been adrift for more than a week after a fire at sea. On another occasion, he expended such effort to make a pastoral visit that he collapsed from exhaustion and dehydration upon arriving. The journey involved riding a horse, walking, swimming, and climbing mountains on his hands and knees, sometimes waist deep in mud.

Such bravery eventually led to Damien’s greatest sacrifice. In 1873 he volunteered to minister in Kalaupapa, a leper colony on the island of Molokai. Because of the stigma attached to leprosy, doctors refused to treat its victims and ostracized them to die alone. The disease was grotesque. It caused terrible skin sores, nerve damage, and gradual debilitation. In Kalaupapa villagers were dying at a rate of one per day and being buried in shallow graves where wild dogs and pigs mangled their remains. Predictably, the physical conditions led to spiritual hopelessness. At night the lepers got loudly drunk and engaged in sexual immorality. But Damien changed all that.

On his first full day he began digging six-foot graves and building coffins to provide dignified burials. He also located a clean water source and channeled it to villagers with iron pipes. To replace primitive huts, he built 300 houses. Further, he erected schools for children and built a chapel every year for the first ten years of his ministry there. Most remarkably, however, he embraced the people without fear of their disease. He hugged them, shared eating utensils with them, and bandaged their wounds. And every night, he ate dinner with 20 villagers. They described the gatherings with a Hawaiian word meaning “the time of peace between night and day.” Damien’s ministry ended only when he contracted leprosy and died at age 49. For his efforts, he was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.

Though most Christians today are not faced with voodoo dolls and leprosy, they do live amid daunting challenges and human needs. Indeed, many address those needs with valor. Yet to serve the Lord most effectively, God’s people must, like Damien, constantly look for the next stronghold to topple in the name of Christ.

Early Evil: The Legalization of Abortion in Russia (1920)

On November 20, 1920, the nascent Soviet government released what it termed a simple “public health announcement.” The statement, a missive intended as law, proclaimed a new, fully-funded program for women: legalized abortions, available free of charge at state-run hospitals. By keeping abortions high and the birth rate low, Soviet leaders and their sycophants hoped to keep more women in the labor force, economically viable and controlled by the state.

The legalization of abortion in the Soviet Union emerged as but one important facet of a systematic extermination program of a theologically-grounded social morality. Only months after the Bolshevik revolution in October 1917, the new regime issued a series of marriage laws which undermined the importance of wedlock and approved an extremely permissive “no-fault” divorce clause. Other leading authorities had earlier endorsed state-sanctioned promiscuity—labeled “free love”—as a viable alternative to marriage. Regarding the state’s disdain for wedlock, “The people’s commissar of justice . . . stated that the main purpose of the legislation was to undermine religion-sanctified marriage,” blessed by the church (see Mervyn Matthews, “Soviet Social Policies,” in The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe). By subverting family life, the Soviets self-consciously attempted to defy what even they seemingly knew: that marriage is a decidedly religious act, performed in the presence of God.

To its dismay, the government witnessed its agenda wildly succeed. Divorce rates skyrocketed. In Moscow, state statisticians reported a rate of three abortions to every one live birth, a shocking population reduction which in 1936 led Stalin to seek desperately for a way to limit the damage. Unaware of the grim realities produced by the legalization of abortion, social liberals in America lauded what they deemed the progressive nature of Soviet thinking on the issue. As journalist Marvin Olasky writes, “even . . . the sedate American Journal of Public Health in 1931,” argued on the basis of Soviet practice that legalized abortion was “the only means for women’s emancipation” in modern times.

Despite modernist fantasies, abortion did not emancipate Soviet women. It placed them in a brutal bondage, a slavery that remains to the present hour. Recently, the Russian Health Ministry revealed an abortion to live birth rate of 1.7:1 in Russia, a number five times higher than in the United States. Epidemic abortions among these young women have produced an unintended consequence: widespread infertility. As a result, researchers estimate a twenty-five percent population decline in Russia during the next half-century, a deterioration which makes one wonder whether such numerical decline will inevitably lead to cultural demise.

Other countries would do well to learn from the tragic legacy of the long Soviet war against the family. The way a nation regards marriage and the protection of its unborn children presages the long-term health of its society. Disregard toward such defining cultural institutions is nothing less than anger directed toward God, who created them. But such defiance is never taken lightly, for although even “the wrath of men praises [God] . . . He is to be feared by the kings of the earth” (Psalm 76:10, 12 ESV).

The BibleMesh Team

Of Gods and Men

Though my own Baptist faith is not given to masses and monasteries, I loved Of Gods and Men, the story of French monks who ministered and died in the Algerian mountains. I think particularly of the scene where the old exhausted doctor, facing almost certain death at the hand of Islamic terrorists, pauses to press the side of his face against the bare chest of Christ in a painting of His Passion. Luc, the doctor, is seeing as many as 150 Muslim patients a day, including terrorists from the very band which will take his life, and he has decided to stay in harm’s way.

The contrast with Islam could not be sharper; as the film title suggests, a man’s apprehension of God determines his behavior, and Luc’s sacrificial, loving behavior is grounded in devotion to the One who surrendered His life to unjust men that unjust men might be saved.

Of course, Muslim terrorists also give up their lives for their convictions, whether detonating explosive body-packs in a Bali nightclub or flying jets into New York skyscrapers, but there is no comparison. They shred the innocent of other faiths for the advancement of their cause, while Luc and his colleagues allow themselves to be shredded for the sake of innocents of another faith in hope that those people will be drawn to Jesus.

If Islam allowed religious paintings beyond geometric, calligraphic, and vegetarian arabesque, against what sort of painting would a member of Al-Jamaa Islamiya rest his face before resuming his jihadic ministry? A portrait of Mohammed, who himself took part in dozens of armed raids? Who gathered wives and goods as he established military hegemony in the region, and whose sword-wielding followers had pushed a thousand miles east and west within a hundred years of his death?

Though the screenwriters have inserted a few lines suggesting that the current troubles are due to perversions of Islam and to the colonial plundering of the French, neither conceit will stand. For ordinary Islam kills culture as surely as militant Islam kills Algerian monks. It’s no accident that the pills Luc dispensed and the van the terrorists used to kidnap the doomed monks were made in Europe; that the road-building equipment of the Croatian workers they murdered was made in Illinois by Caterpillar; that the old “Huey” helicopters, “jeeps,” and cargo trucks the Algerian army used, in vain, to protect the monks were manufactured in various American locales; and that Frenchmen, Germans, Englishmen, Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, and Belgians were able to colonize animist and Muslim Africa, and not vice versa. Whatever one may say about the callousness and injustice of these European ventures, they were made possible by the backwardness of the colonized cultures, a product of their dismal religions.

When the monks were weighing whether or not to leave, one told his Muslim neighbors that he and his companions were like birds on a branch, wondering if they should fly away. A woman, corrected him, explaining that the monks were the branch and the villagers were the birds.

Of course, this reminds me of the opening verses of John 15, where Jesus says He is the true vine in which His disciples abide as branches. And we see throughout history that the fruit bearing comes not only in the form of evangelism but also as cultural awakening – in both repentance and antibiotics; in the restoration of marriages and the manufacture of ambulances; in the preaching of the Word and the defense of religious liberty; in the promise of heaven and the spread of literacy; in vibrant churches and a decent social order. The gospel touches everything.