In the midst of the high-octane cultural wars of the last several years—particularly the debate over homosexual marriage—evangelical Christians have been slapped with all sorts of pejorative labels. Words such as bigoted, arrogant, exclusive, dogmatic, and homophobic are just a few.
But two labels particularly stand out. First, Christians are regularly regarded as intolerant. Christians are not only regarded as intolerant religiously—because they affirm the words of Jesus that “no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)—but they are regarded as intolerant ethically, because they refuse to approve any and all behaviors as morally good.
Christians are also regularly (and ironically) regarded as haters. Apparently, our modern world regards the act of telling people they’re wrong as a form of hatred. It is never explained how the charge does not apply equally in the other direction, since those who make this charge are telling Christians they are wrong.
Needless to say, such a situation can discourage Christians in the modern day. We might be tempted to despair and think that the church is entering into dark days. But a little historical perspective might be useful. Truth be told, this is not the first time Christians have received such labels. Indeed, pejoratives were given to Christians from the beginning.
Pliny the Younger: Christians Are Intolerant
It is well-known that in the Greco-Roman world there was a pantheon of gods. Every group had its own deities, and they were easily and naturally placed alongside other deities. For the most part, no one objected to the existence of other gods. It was a polytheistic world.
Of course, the earliest Christians were as monotheistic as their Jewish predecessors and quite unwilling to play along with the standard religious practices of Greco-Roman culture. For Roman rulers trying to keep the peace, Christian intolerance of other gods was a perennial frustration.
Pliny the Younger, Roman governor of Bythinia (writing c.111-113), expressed his frustration over the fact that Christians would not “invoke the gods.” In a letter to emperor Trajan, he lamented their “stubborness and unyielding obstinancy.” In other words, he was angry over their intolerance.
Why was Pliny so bothered? Because the influence of the Christians had caused the pagan temples to be “deserted” and thus “very few purchasers could be found” for the sacrificial animals.
In other words, they were losing money.
To fix the problem, Pliny decided to force Christians to worship the pagan gods and curse Christ, and if they refused they were put to death. He says, “As I am informed that people who are really Christians cannot possibly be made to do any of those things.”
It is interesting to note that Pliny, while torturing these Christians, acknowledged their high moral standards: “[Christians] bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so.”
Apparently, intolerance of the Roman gods was enough of a reason to kill Christians, despite their holy lives.
Nero: Christians Are Haters
In the late first century, the Roman emperor Nero made himself famous for his persecution of Christians. The Roman historian Tacitus tells us that under Nero,
Mockery of every sort was added to their [Christians’] death. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, as exhibiting a show in the circus.
So what awful crimes did Christians commit to warrant such unthinkable torture? Tacitus acknowledged that Christians weren’t really guilty of the trumped-up charges of setting fire to the city. Instead, he admits they were killed for “hatred against mankind.”
What had Christians done to warrant the charge of “haters”? Again, they refused to condone the pantheon of gods and the religious practices that went along with them.
In sum, the stories of Pliny and Nero are both encouraging and frightening. They are frightening because they sound eerily similar to the kind of language and accusations being used today against Christians. But instead of Christians being asked to pay homage to the Roman gods to prove their acceptability, they are now being asked to pay homage to the gods of tolerance or homosexual marriage or other practices forbidden by Scripture.
At the same time, these stories are encouraging. They remind us that this sort of persecution isn’t new. Indeed, this persecution was not the end of Christianity but the beginning. In the midst of it, the church thrived and expanded.
Jesus promised as much: “I will build my church. And the gates of hell shall not stand against it” (Matt. 16:18).