We now come to our third and final example of cultural engagement: the early Christian church and its triumph over the pagan culture of Rome. The Roman world was brutal and generally indifferent to suffering. Sympathy and mercy were weaknesses, virtues anathema to those of Rome. The ancient world was both decadent and cruel. The practice of infanticide, for example, was widespread and legal throughout the Greek and Roman world during the early days of Christianity. In fact, abortion, infanticide, and child sacrifice were extremely common throughout the ancient world.
Cicero (106–43 BC), writing in the period before Christ, cited the Twelve Tables of Roman Law when he wrote, “deformed infants should be killed” (De Ligibus 3.8). Similarly, Seneca (4 BC–AD 39) wrote, “We drown children who are at birth weakly and abnormal” (De Ira 1.15). The ancient writer Plutarch (c. AD 46–120), discussing the casual acceptance of child sacrifice, mentions the Carthaginians, who, he says, “offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds while the mother stood by without tear or moan” (Moralia 2.171D). Polybius (ca. 200–118 BC) blamed infanticide for the population decline in Greece (Histories 6).
Historical research reveals that infanticide was common throughout India, China, Japan, and the Brazilian jungles as well as among the Eskimos. Dr. James Dennis, writing in the 1890s, showed how infanticide was common in many parts of Africa and was “well known among the Indians of North and South America” (Social Evils of the Non-Christian World, 1898). Suffice it to say, for much of the world and throughout most of its history the culture of death and brutality has been the rule, and a culture of life, love, and mercy has been the exception. It is to the cause of this exception that we now turn.
In roughly AD 27, a young Jewish carpenter-in an obscure Roman outpost-began to preach and teach, saying he was the Son of God, the savior of the world, the promised Messiah of the Jewish Scriptures. He claimed to be a king whose kingdom was not of this world-a kingdom without end. This king-Jesus-would validate all that had been revealed to the Israelites: there was a God and this God, who was hidden from the world, was a personal being who had made mankind in his image because he desired a relationship with mankind.
And so this Holy God further revealed himself-becoming incarnate. God became flesh and dwelt among us to do what only he could do: reconcile the chasm between God and man that sin had caused. God would implement his plan for reconciling man to God, man to himself, man to man, and man to creation. Suddenly, a radically new conception of reality, the world, and life would take hold. A new ethic and morality would challenge the old. All life would now be understood as precious, the intentional gift of a loving God. The kingdom of God was inaugurated on earth! A new day had dawned, and those who had been drawn into this kingdom began to think and act in new ways. They would strive to live and act in obedience to their king-not their flesh and not their culture.
These early Christ-followers did not organize special interest groups or political parties. They never directly opposed Caesar; they didn’t picket or protest or attempt to overthrow the ruling powers. They didn’t publicly denounce or condemn the pagan world. Instead, they challenged the ruling powers by simply being a faithful, alternative presence-obedient to God. Their most distinguishing characteristic was not their ideology or their politics but their love for others. They lived as those who were, once again, living under the rule and reign of God, a sign and foretaste of what it will be fully, when Christ returns.
They expressed their opposition to infanticide by rescuing the abandoned children of Rome and raising them as their own-an enormously self-sacrificial act at a time when resources were limited and survival was in doubt.
Following the end of the Punic Wars in 146 BC, the breakdown of marriage and the family had begun in earnest. By the time of Christ, Rome was a pornographic culture. Marriage was a “loose and voluntary compact” (Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire [reprint, London: Penguin Books, 1994] 2:813). Sexual licentiousness, adultery, marital dissolution, and pornography were widespread. It was into this depraved cultural context that Christians would introduce a radically new and different view of life, sexuality, marriage, and parenting. In contrast to the Roman concept of Patria Potestas, according to which fathers had the right to kill their wives and children, Christians taught husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church. Eros gave way to agape.
The early Christians, acting in obedience to Christ, began to care for the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. So alien were their charitable acts and self-sacrificial lives that the Romans referred to them as “the third race.” In the centuries to follow, even though Christians were still a demographic minority, their care of the poor and sick, would serve as the first steps in achieving cultural authority. By being seen as those who reached out to and cared for the weak and suffering, the early church would establish its “right to stand for the community as a whole” (John Howard Yoder, For the Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public [Eugene, OR: Wifp and Stock, 1997] p. 8). Sociologist James Davidson Hunter points out, “because Christian charity was beneficial to all, including pagans, imperial authority [political authority] would be weakened” (To Change the World, 2009, p. 55).
Julian the Apostate, the last pagan emperor of Rome, clearly understood the power of these Christians when he wrote the following:
These impious Galileans (Christians) not only feed their own, but ours also; welcoming them with their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted with cakes… Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors. Such practice is common among them, and causes contempt for our gods (Epistle to Pagan High Priests).
Emperor Julian clearly saw the writing on the wall. The Roman Empire would not succumb to political upheaval or force but to love, the love of Christ. Julian’s dying words in AD 363 were “vicisti Galilaee” (You Galileans [Christians] have conquered!).
Once imperial power was discredited by the superior life and ethic of the Christian community, the church would build upon its newfound cultural credibility and eventually ascend to the heights of cultural power and influence. And, Western civilization would become the most successful civilization in history.
If I am correct-and the history of the church bears this out-then the most effective approach to changing the culture in our day begins by being a faithful presence. Being faithfully present-obedient to God-in our families, our marriages, our neighborhoods and communities, and our vocations, a presence woefully lacking in the American church today.
I am reminded that our struggle is not against flesh and blood but “against the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Eph. 6:12 ESV). And how did Christ conquer these powers? By coercive might or worldly conceptions of power? No! Christ overcame the world by the unanticipated and ultimate act of love and humility-he poured out his life on behalf of the world. May we do the same and pray the rulers of our age say on their deathbeds, “vicisti Galilaee” (You Christians have conquered)!