“Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, And changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things.”Romans 1:22-24
At its heart the Romans were tolerant of peoples who espoused a variety of faiths. The empire would not have advanced if it had attempted to eradicate the customs and religions of the various people whom they subjugated. While the legions were powerful they were a continual minority in hostile lands. Therefore Rome chameleon-like, gradually adapted itself to the prevailing local climate.
This was relatively straightforward among pagan peoples as they like Rome, were polytheistic; worshippers of many gods. A few more gods to add to the list didn’t make much difference to Roman theology. The close similarity between the Roman and Greek gods highlight just how close the pagans were to each other in religion and how willing they were to adapt. The Romans even showed great tolerance to a mono-theistic (one God worshipping) religion like Judaism, by granting the Jews extensive liberties in Rome itself. This was probably a politically motivated policy, though, because of the dangers of setting the troublesome province of Judea on fire with a religious war, which would sap stretched resources.
How then did a tolerant empire become so terribly intolerant of this new sect called Christianity? There was firstly, no political motive in not persecuting Christians because they had no support within any culture or indigenous people throughout the vast empire; Christianity was quite diffent from any religion the world had ever seen in that it was truly cross cultural. Also, Rome could not ignore Christianity because it was growing at a rapid rate across Asia and Europe., establishing a congregation in the imperial capital herself. These Christians appeared to be at the centre of much strife wherever they established congregations and they were particularly reviled by the Jews, whom the Romans were inclined not to displease too much. But the ultimate root cause of the Roman persecutions was Christianity’s uncompromising standard, that salvation was through the resurrected Jesus Christ, who alone was the voice of God.
Rome was addicted to her gods. Romans believed their city and empire was founded by the gods and it was essential to be in their favour for future success. When harvests failed or when the legions lost a battle the gods had decided to turn away from the empire. Therefore a new sect who totally repudiated the religious and cultural basis of the empire were an easy target when things went wrong. There was always a reason why the gods were displeased. Ultimately the Romans saw Christianity as a new sub culture which threatened the established order within the Roman Empire where even the Emperor became a god. Time proved that the Romans were correct in considering Christianity a threat because eventually the once despised new sect would continue and take root across the world; Roman civilisation with her many gods would fade into antiquity.
For three hundred years Christians would be constantly in the spotlight, never resting easy. Nevertheless they continued to hold fast to the precious truth, Christ alone, as we must do. May God help us to emulate our forefathers, swimming against the tide of populism, bearing the cross and standing with our Saviour.
I have decided to follow Jesus,
No turning back, no turning back,
The cross before me, the world behind me,
No turning back, no turning back.