The continuing American cultural debate on what is good and bad in the body politic again brings up the question that the first Christians asked in their totally different and hostile milieu. The great early American statesman and orator Daniel Webster once stated that “whatever makes men good Christians makes them good citizens.” This declaration poses the key question-Is Christianity essential to a good and just society? Does a free society depend on the influence of Christianity? Ironically, many in contemporary America charge conservative Christians as being an influence that would deny some people their rights as citizens. In essence, many Americans see Christians as a negative influence upon society, if not a threat.
Because many Christians stand for prenatal life and campaign for its preservation, a majority of Americans (many Christians included) counter that this is against a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy if she chooses. Because many Christians stand against euthanasia, an increasing number of Americans see this as a violation of a citizen’s right to die if they choose. Because many Christians wish to express their faith in the public arena, many Americans are offended because this violates the rights of those individuals holding contrary beliefs. Because many Christians believe that gay rights are special rights, they are labeled as homophobic and discriminatory. Because Christians believe in a traditional family of one husband, one wife, and children, some Americans view this as a biased and narrow definition of family. Many women’s groups see traditional Christian belief as not only a hindrance to but the instigator of historic chauvinism against women. And the list goes on.
But let us turn the situation around to where Christianity is a newcomer on the scene and the society is pluralistic (like today), yet exhibiting values completely contrary to Judeo-Christian values and ethics. Let’s look at how the early church handled itself amid accusations, exclusivity, and misunderstanding in a pagan culture.
As Christianity began to impact the larger Roman world it found itself at odds with prevailing culture and opinion in its earliest years of existence. Roman officials and society at large began to take note of this new system of belief in a Jewish Messiah. Christianity gradually became seen as distinct from Judaism. Judaism, though satirized and belittled by many Romans, was respected as an ancient tradition, thereby gaining some status within the empire as a legal religion. Christianity did not have such status for a long time.
Rome tended to see Christianity not as a religion but as an atheistic superstition (superstitio). The Romans saw themselves as religious (religiosus) and pious (pius), and considered Christianity an offshoot superstition. A superstition was seen as any belief or practice that deviated from Roman custom. They viewed Christianity as vulgar and exclusive, since Christians refused to participate in state celebrations and festivals. Later Christians would be charged with the greatest offense-refusing to pay tribute to the emperor.
Christian beliefs and practices were misunderstood, with rumors spreading that they were cannibalistic (“Take and eat; this is my body broken for you” = Eucharist), incestuous (believers greeting each other as brothers and sisters with a “holy kiss”), secretive (closed Eucharist services), sexually perverted (confused with Gnosticism), ignorant and poor (most converts were of the lower classes), philosophically bankrupt (compared to classical Greek-Roman philosophy), and fanatical (martyrdom by choice). Christianity had a huge public-relations problem.
Christian Apologists to the Rescue
Beginning with the apostles, Christians sought to answer the charges brought against them by the surrounding culture. The word apologetics (apologeo) came into vogue. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason (apologian) for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15, NIV). “I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3, NIV). Christians would take this concept and expand it to a very sophisticated defense of their faith in the succeeding centuries.
What did the apostles tell their readers and hearers about relating to the empire? This is a crucial question insofar as Christians today are confronted with similar issues. Not coincidentally, they took their cue from their Saviour. This fact demonstrates the continuity between the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of the apostles.
Jesus laid the groundwork with His famous and provocative statement in Matthew 22:21 (cf. Mark 12:17), “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (NIV).* The reaction to this statement by the religious establishment was amazement, because in the Jewish and Roman world the religious and civil authority were one. To separate obligation to one and then to the other was truly without precedent.
This groundbreaking teaching provided the impetus for later apostolic declarations of loyalty to God first and then to the state. “But Peter and John replied, ‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God” (Acts 4:19, NIV). This view was unanimous among the other apostles. “We must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29, NIV). This was a truly revolutionary statement.