Thoughts on Kingdom, Church, and Grace from an American living in Hong Kong

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Would the Roman Empire Persecute Today's Church?

A friend sent me an article recently from Relevant magazine asking some leading voices in the church whether Christians are doing social justice wrong.   I lay in bed reading the article outloud to Tammy and as we commented on the different responders reply's I  suddenly turned to my wife and asked, "If the modern evangelical church existed 2000 years ago, would Rome have even bothered to persecute it?"

What prompted the thought was my own knowledge of the Roman Empire (I majored in Ancient History for my undergrad...which means nothing more than I remember a couple minor things about Caesar and the gang).  Rome was pretty progressive for the time period.  They were liberal in immigration dispensing citizenship far beyond Italy.  Hence why Paul the Apostle, who trumpeted his Jewish identity and culture, carried a Roman passport.

Rome was also quite liberal in the area of religion.  Although they had state gods, people were pretty much allowed to worship whom, or what, they wished provided they didn't disturb the peace.  The only caveat to that freedom was the firm acknowledgement that Caesar was the emperor and Rome was the kingdom.

Well, then along came Christ who proclaimed a new kingdom ... and he was killed for it.  And then his disciples and the early church took up the message and proclaimed there was a new emperor seated on the throne and that this new king, Jesus, was calling all men and women to come and become citizens of that new kingdom.  They began to live life in a different way which increasingly became a direct challenge to the power structure of the time.

Even progressive Rome could not tolerate a people group who were radically proclaiming a new king and attempting to create an alternative society alongside the current social structure.  Author Brian Zahnd talks about how a social structure built on an axis of love and re-enforced through forgiveness will always be at odds with a structure of power re-enforced through violence. The alternative life that Christ's Kingdom proclaims, with it's equal respect and love for the poor, the hurting, the broken, will chafe against current societies that marginalize such people as some whom, at best, are to be endured.

It was that church that was persecuted.  I would suggest that today's church would not only be free from persecution, it would be welcomed.  A church that focuses on getting people to say some "magic words" to become a member of that religion, and who tend to see God's Kingdom as some reward for after you are dead would not be viewed as much of a threat.  A mostly inward looking group who occasionally did some acts of kindness to appease their guilt and their god could be seen as a necessary part of civic life in the Roman world.

Yep, I'm pretty sure any report given to Caesar on the threat of today's Christian church would simply read, "MOSTLY HARMLESS"