Celsus “just can’t stand Christians.”
So, writes James O’Donnell (Pagans, 101) as he describes the vicious opposition to Christians in the earliest centuries, particularly from the second-century critic Celsus.
A few weeks ago, I began a short, three-part blog series about what people in the ancient world thought of Christians. In the prior post, we explored how Celsus viewed Christians as ignorant, uneducated simpletons.
In other words, one of the main problems with Christians was intellectual in nature.
But Celsus is by no means finished. In this post, we will see that he thinks that Christians also have a behavioral problem. Their actions are rude, anti-social, and morally repugnant.
So, what did Christians do that caused such irritation in Celsus? In short, Celsus thought Christians were bad citizens. Job number one for any Roman citizen was to participate in the public, corporate worship of the Roman gods.
And it was precisely this that Christians refused to do. After all, they were monotheists. They worshiped Jesus and him alone.
Why was worshiping the Roman gods so important? Because it was the gods who gave victory in war, rain for crops, and prosperity to the state. To neglect the gods was to put the welfare of Rome at risk.
Thus, Christians were viewed as insubordinate to the state.
But, Celsus’ complaint is not just political. It is also social. The refusal to worship the gods was seen as anti-social and downright rude. Instead of joining with their fellow Romans, Christians slinked off to their private, secret meetings where they did who knows what.
Such behavior was suspicious. In the mind of Celsus, it showed that Christians were an “obscure and secret society” (8.49) that threatened the stability of the Empire. Christians “suffer from the disease of sedition” (8.49).
As a result, the insults towards Christians rolled easily off of Celsus’ tongue. Christians were like ants or bats swarming out of their nests; like worms crawling out of a hole; like frogs croaking in a marsh (4.23). Christians were a menace.
What then should be done with these Christians? Celsus’ answer is chilling:
If they refuse to render due service to the gods. . . let them not come to manhood, or marry wives, or have children, or indeed take any share in the affairs of life; but let them depart hence with all speed, and leave no posterity behind them, that such a race may become extinct from the face of the earth (8.55)
Translation: get rid of them. Or, at a minimum, don’t let them participate in the normal parts of society.
In many ways, little has changed for two-thousands years. In our modern cultural climate, Christians are still seen as a threat to the stability of society because they won’t publicly and corporately bow down to the cultural gods.
And make no mistake, the culture always demands that Christians do this publicly. Everyone has to conform. Or else.
By way of example, this is why US Women’s National Team soccer player Jaelene Hinkle, widely regarded as one of the best defenders in the nation, is no longer able to play for her country. The players were required to wear rainbow jerseys to support “gay pride.” And Hinkle, a committed Christian, wouldn’t do it. See story here.
It is ironic, really. In a culture that so claims to value “tolerance,” Christians who refuse to publicly affirm the cultural gods are given none.
But, the lesson from the early church is clear. We will not be accepted as citizens of this earthly Kingdom. But, that is a reason to be even more thankful that Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
Cheryl Zach says
And yet Christenddom today, especially the evangelical wing, has hitched its wagon to the political world, using its power to determine the outcome of elections. In doing so the church has alienated many and compromised its influence. We take stands on certain issues and ignore others, which is very confusing and frustrating to the onlooker, who discards us as hypocrites (with evidence). Taking a counter-cultural stand may come to include censuring the power structure and political attachment of the church.
Jeff B says
Oh my, Cheryl. Read Proverbs 29, then pray and listen to God. If he is in you, He will speak, confirming His word.
Why shouldn’t Christian leadership of a country be sought? Be promoted? Be extolled? Be rejoiced over? Be regretted if evil leads?
When the church chases cultural acceptance and to be the “movers and shakers” in society, it betrays our identity in Christ in many ways, not least of all, our identity with his suffering in this world, and the joy of our present eschatological life.
Joey E says
China is the new Rome?
Great article! I love anything that has to do with history and this had me hooked.
Steve West says
Larry Hurtado’s book “Destroyer of the Gods” gives a fascinating insight into the moral revolution that was brought about by the early Christians. Before the influence of Christianity, the pagan world had accepted infanticide, prostitution, child abuse and homosexuality. The basis for this moral revolution seems to be the belief that we are all bearers of God’s image. Therefore we have an obligation not just to treat others with respect, but to treat ourselves with respect. The prostitute degrades herself by plying her trade and thereby fails to respect herself as a bearer of God’s image.
This is quite at odds with the modern secular view of morality, according to which we have an obligation to treat other people in a certain way but complete freedom to do what we want with our own bodies. So if homosexual relations take place between two consenting adults, there cannot, by definition, be any question of immorality. But this is the road to Hell. Once we deny our obligations as bearers of God’s image, we are inevitably embarked on a path to self-destruction.
They burned the Alexandria Library…yeah, they were dangerous.
Actually, the library was destroyed by the army of the Muslim invader Caliph Omar in 642. But why let facts get in the way of a slander of Christianity?