Doing a little reading on the motives for Roman authorities to persecute the early church, I was struck by parallels to contemporary criticisms of 2k from the likes of neo-Calvinists, theonomists, or those who pine for Christendom or Christian America. According to Robert Wilken:
Traditional Roman religion emphasized the utilitas (usefulness) of religious belief for the well-being of the commonwealth, the res publica. Hence, it has been easy, especially for a civilization nurtured on the “personal” religion of Christianity, to assume that the Romans did not actually believe in the gods, but rather deemed belief in the gods merely advantageous to the life of society and to the state. . . .
In the cities of the Roman Empire, religion was inextricably intertwined with social and political life. Piety toward the gods was thought to insure the well-being of the city, to promote a spirit of kinship and mutual responsibility, to bind together the citizenry. “In all probability,” wrote Cicero, “disappearance of piety toward the gods will entail the disappearance of loyalty and social union among men as well, and of justice itself, the queen of all the virtues.” In the most profound sense, then, impiety toward the gods disrupted society, and when piety disappears, said Cicero, “life soon becomes a welter of disorder and confusion.”
By the standards of the individual and personal religion familiar to most Westerners, it is difficult for us to appreciate the social and public character of Roman religion. But “separation of the concept of piety into a familiar and a cultic half is clearly a product of modern sensibilities; in antiquity piety formed a unity.” For the Romans, religion sustained the life of the state. The new Christian superstition undermined it.
Isn’t that what 2kers regularly hear from their critics, that 2k relegates Christianity to the private and personal sphere when Christianity really should be part of the social order, a mechanism for protecting the well-being of society? But that is precisely what Christianity’s critics saw in Christianity. Which suggests that anti-2kers are using pagan categories for evaluating 2k, not ones that the first Christians new.
By the beginning of the fourth century Christianity was a large and influential social and religious force within Roman society, no longer a tiny, unknown foreign sect. Yet from the perspective of Roman officials Christians remained a people apart. They contributed little to the public life of society, and by their devotion to their own deity, Jesus of Nazareth, they undermined the religious foundations of the cities in which they lived.
Again, that sounds a lot like what 2kers hear from their critics. We don’t speak up in the public square. Our faith is irrelevant. Our understanding of Christianity undermines the cause of Christ in the United States (and elsewhere).
If I were a critic of 2k, I’m not sure I’d want to be on the side of an argument that Roman emperors and officials used to persecute and execute Christians.