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.

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Endnotes

[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.

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).

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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.


Care for the Poor in the Weekly Worship of the Early Christians—Justin Martyr (c. 114 – c. 165)

Justin Martyr was a pagan philosopher who converted to Christianity. Once a prominent thinker who taught in many of the great urban centers of the Roman Empire, he was eventually executed because of his faith. In his “First Apology,” Justin defends Christian truth and practice in a letter to the Emperor Antoninus Pius. In this passage, he describes in detail the activities involved in the weekly worship of the early Church community. For modern readers, it may be astonishing to see both the simplicity and the priorities of these forerunners as seen in their weekly Christian gatherings. They read Scripture, the pastor (here translated as “president”)1 gave a brief homily of application, they celebrated the Eucharist, and took up an offering. What is interesting about that offering, however, is where the money went. It was primarily intended to care for the poorest and weakest members of society.

And we afterwards continually remind each other of [our common faith]. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.2

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1 The word “president” in this passage almost certainly refers to the chief elder or pastor of the congregation.
2 Justin Martyr, “The First Apology of Justin,” Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985), 185-186. In other translations see chapter 67.


Missionary to the Cannibals—James Chalmers (1841 – 1901)

To wake us up from our slumber, we need to hear from our brothers and sisters who have been called to give the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of the gospel. Below is the story of James Chalmers, taken from the Kairos Journal vault:

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Little did James Chalmers and his missionary colleague Oliver Tomkins know, as they waded ashore at Risk Point on Goaribari Island, New Guinea, that they were walking toward their deaths. It was Easter Sunday, April 8, 1901, and the villagers rejoiced at their arrival, inviting them into the newly constructed dubu (a communal house for fighting men which could not be used without consecration by a human sacrifice) for refreshments. Yet the festive mood was in stark contrast to the piles of human skulls nestled around the crude wooden idols in the corner of the hut. Without warning, the natives attacked and dismembered their two visitors, passing the limbs to the women to be cooked, mixed with herbs. In those few moments, Chalmers and Tomkins passed from Easter faith to Easter presence.

The Pacific islands were one of the first areas to be evangelized in the modern missionary era. Most of the indigenous population lived in primitive conditions, immersed in cannibalism, licentiousness, infanticide, and constant warfare. Yet by the end of the 19th century, most of this region had become Christian through the faithful and sacrificial service of many missionaries who proclaimed the gospel despite the constant threats of disease and death.

Chalmers, the son of a stonemason in the West Highlands of Scotland, was converted during the 1859 revival. Even as a boy he wanted to be a missionary to the cannibals, and eventually he arrived on the settled island of Rarotonga in May 1867, where he served with the London Missionary Society for the next ten years. He was a pioneer at heart and set off for New Guinea (modern day Papua New Guinea) to preach the gospel. For the next 23 years he labored up and down the coast, visiting 105 villages, 90 of which had never seen a white man, and establishing a chain of Polynesian teachers to continue the work. He always went unarmed, knowing this would allay native suspicions while leaving him defenseless in case of attack.

Chalmers, who outlived two wives, longed for the unreached to hear the gospel. “I dearly love to be the first to preach Christ in a place,” he said, and he had the joy of seeing communities transformed by the good news. Declining an offer to work as a government official, he declared: “Gospel and commerce, yes: but remember this: It must be the gospel first. Wherever there was the slightest spark of civilization in the Southern Seas it has been because the gospel has been preached there. The ramparts of heathenism can only be stormed by those who carry the cross.” Despite innumerable hardships, Chalmers counted it a great privilege to sacrifice everything for Christ.

At a time when many churches have championed the prosperity gospel with its “promises” of health, wealth, safety, and comfort, imitators of Chalmers are sorely needed. He sought neither personal protection nor glory; his faith did not rest on riches or long life. Instead James Chalmers lived with his eyes focused on heaven so that others might share his knowledge and confidence in the Savior. It cost him his life, but he would have been pleased with the exchange.

A Witch Judge Repents—Samuel Sewall, 1697

Pastor Samuel Willard strode up the center aisle of Boston’s Third Church as the congregation sang a psalm. It was an official day of fasting and prayer for Bostonians. But for Samuel Sewall, it would also be a day of personal repentance. As Willard passed, he paused just long enough to receive a note from Sewall. Later in the service he unfolded the note and looked at Sewall, who rose to his feet. What happened next shocked the silent crowd: The minister read Sewall’s confession of guilt in the Salem witch trials five years earlier in 1692, at which he served as a judge. Twenty accused witches had been executed upon Sewall’s judgment, and all likely were innocent. None of the other eight judges admitted wrongdoing, but that did not stop Sewall from making the matter right with God. So Willard announced on his behalf, “[H]e desires to take the blame and shame of it … desiring prayers that God … would pardon that sin” (see Eve LaPlante, Salem Witch Judge: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall).

The witch craze began when the daughter and niece of a Salem, Massachusetts, minister started acting strangely. They disobeyed, had fits and spasms of pain, and even made noises like animals. Worse, the doctor found no medical explanation. So the minister suspected an evil spirit and asked the girls, “Who tortures you?” They named three local women, insisting that their ghosts urged the girls to make a pact with the devil. When they refused, the ghosts forced them to act like animals, they said. One of the accused was, in fact, a Carib Indian slave who entertained the girls with fortunetelling and incantations to the devil. Yet the accusation of their ghosts committing crimes was farfetched at best. Still, that accusation sparked a senseless frenzy. Over the next seven months, Salem residents accused scores of their innocent neighbors of witchcraft.

So numerous were the accusations that Governor William Phips created a special court to try witches, with Sewall as one of its judges. Throughout the summer of 1692 the court miscarried justice time and again. Contrary to English law, the judges admitted spectral evidence—testimony of a crime committed by the ghost of a person not physically present. And a person whose ghost committed crimes was believed to be a witch. Accused witches who confessed, many of whom were coerced by torture, remained alive. The 19 who refused to confess were hanged. One man, who would not enter a plea, had boulders piled atop a door placed on his chest. In attempts to coerce a plea, local officials continued to stack boulders until he died. The trials ended only when public opinion shifted and Governor Phips disbanded the court. In total, 185 people were accused of witchcraft.

During the years following the trials, guilt weighed on Sewall. Months and perhaps even years of Scripture reading and prayer convinced him that he had violated the laws of God and those of England. His conscience was particularly stung in 1696 when his son recited Matthew 12:7, “If ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.” He knew he had condemned the guiltless, and he recorded in his diary that the verse “did awfully bring to mind the Salem tragedy.”

When repentance finally came, it generated more than a single public confession. For the rest of his life, Sewall wore a hair shirt under his clothing as a sign of contrition (A hair shirt was a rough undergarment of goat hair worn for penance because of its discomfort against the skin. It is akin to the sackcloth worn in the Bible as a sign of repentance). He also became an early champion of the victimized, writing against slavery, the mistreatment of Native Americans, and the demeaning of women. Through this, he experienced spiritual relief and renewed intimacy with Christ.

Sewall’s repentance demonstrated that contrition and turning from sin are neither easy nor painless. He also illustrated the way prominent citizens must repent publicly for public sins. Yet most importantly, he proved that God grants grace to repentant sinners regardless of how horrible their offenses.

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.