How the Roman Empire Almost Wiped Out Christianity

There are few Christians who are unfamiliar with the ordeals of the early church. I personally spend quite a bit of time on the early church fathers, especially the martyrs and apologists of the first two centuries of Christianity. I will frequently talk about the extreme trials and persecutions against the Christians, and how Roman Emperors tried to systematically stamp out believers throughout the Empire. This effort at eradicating the Gospel back-fired. Christians ended up in the arena, displaying their convictions, bravery and faith in Christ before thousands, who were left to question what it was that instilled such deep faith, endurance and heroism. Tertullian said of this in his letter to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius "For as much as we are mowed down, we spring up; For the blood of Christians is seed." (First Apology). With this clearly evident, the enemies of the gospel had to come up with something more insidious to achieve their ends.

After Constantine legalized Christianity in 312 A.D. it seemed as if Christianity would always play a significant role in the public life of the Empire. The church was coming to ascendancy; converts were being won over beyond number; Christians were entering public office, and rising to the top of academia in the Greek and Roman worlds. Christians skilled in rhetoric and philosophy were debating the pagans of the old world, and the superiority of Christianity was becoming evident. Paganism had one last attempt, however, to turn the tide. That effort was found in the nephew of Constantine, whom is known in history as Julian the Apostate.

As a young man in the mid fourth century, Julian forsook the luxury and prestige of his royal lineage and began his studies in philosophy. Although he publicly participated in all the outward trappings of Christianity, he secretly was a devout pagan, worshipping the classical Roman gods. When he eventually seized the throne in 361 A.D. he openly declared himself to be a pagan, to the horror of the largely Christianized Roman Empire. Knowing that open persecution of the Christians would only strengthen their resolve, he instituted a brilliant plan. He declared toleration for all religions, and made sure that all had a level playing field. And then, in a calculated move, he declared that Christians should not be teaching or be taught in the "pagan" sciences and philosophies. Many Christians actually agreed, reasoning that Christians might be defiled in studying these subjects. Julian also barred Christians from public office, which could be justified in a similar light.

What few people understood, was that Julian had found a way to curb Christianity. He had long complained to his close associates that Christians were "wounding us with our own weapons, and overcoming us with our own arts and sciences". He realized that if he could make the Christian population ignorant of the culture, politics, and sciences, they would eventually become an insignificant force in the empire. The gospel would become a mere triviality. If Christians were ignorant of the society around them, they could never effectively engage their culture, the religion would be marginalized, and ultimately, would be become extinct. Fortunately, Julian died after less than two years, but his insidious plan had set the church back a degree.

Today, we face a similar dilemma. There is a calculated move to segregate Christianity and keep it cloistered within the walls of the church. The mantra of "Separation of Church and State" is used to keep people of faith quiet in the public sector. Even in the church, many ministers mistakenly direct their congregations to avoid any challenging scientific evidence, or variant belief systems which they think might shake a Christian's faith. Cults and false religions go unchecked because few true Christians are equipped to counter them. Many conservative churches actually foster this deplorable situation by speaking derisively of apologetics or anything that might encourage a Christian to utilize some of their brain. On the contrary, I believe that we were made to engage, confront and overcome the errors in our culture. Truth prevails. Sometimes this means utilizing all resources at our disposal. Consider that Moses, Daniel and Paul were all thoroughly acquainted with all of the learning of the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and Greeks respectively. This was providential. When Paul stood up in Athens on Mar's Hill, he was able to cite the Greek poets to support his defense of Christianity. He targeted his audience, and engaged them right where they were at. Today, don't let your faith in Christ become merely your "personal faith in Christ". For all of the dilemmas in the world around us, Jesus offers an answer that relates directly to that need. We have a mandate that, while on this earth, we are to be stewards over everything God gives us to bring the greatest return for the glory of God. That mandate is all-encompassing. It is not merely for the couple of hours we might spend in church every week. It is in our work place, in our schools, in our government, in our homes. This mandate doesn’t allow us to hide in our closets until Christ’s return. It compels us to go into all the world, preaching the gospel. Don’t let the insidious plot of Julian push you to the sidelines. Your life in Christ, although very personal and private, may very well have a public dimension that will be used for the glory of God.

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