In the midst of the high octane culture wars of the last ten years, Christians have been labelled all sorts of things: intolerant, bigoted, arrogant, narrow, dogmatic, just to name a few.
But, one noteworthy word stands out. Christians have been labelled haters. Despite the fact that Christians are to be known by their love (John 13:35), it seems the world often associates us with hate.
A couple observations are worth noting about this phenomenon. First, this sort of accusation against Christians is, at its core, a moral objection. Rather than the standard historical or logical objections often leveled against the faith, this one is fundamentally about ethics. It is claiming that Christian behavior violates some moral standard that all should follow.
In other words, the claim isn’t merely that Christianity is false, but that Christianity is bad.
Of course, such an objection raises a number of intellectual challenges for the one making it. After all, one can’t accuse Christians of violating moral norms if there are no such things as moral norms! So the one making this claim must explain where moral absolutes come from, and how they know what they are.
Needless to say, that’s not an easy task for the average postmodern thinker who decries all absolutes, and is typically agnostic or atheistic when it comes to the existence of God. In order for the accusation to stick, such a person would have to actually become the very thing they are against, namely a person who is dogmatic about the truth of their own beliefs.
Perhaps there’s no greater irony than a person complaining about moral dogmatism by making claims that are morally dogmatic.
But there is a second observation to be made, namely that such accusations are far from new. It’s easy in the heat of the current cultural moment to think that our situation is unique. No Christians have ever faced what we face, we might think.
But, that’s simply not the case. Christians in the early centuries faced precisely the same accusations, and often much worse. Let me offer just two examples: Pliny the Younger and Emperor Nero.
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.
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 our current culture.
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).
Bruce Cooper says
Excellent observation of our current cultural confrontation with those of differing worldviews (objective versus subjective), Sir. All Christians would do well to be mindful of those who have gone before us. I took the liberty of reposting. Blessings!
Michael Kruger says
Thanks, Bruce. Grateful for the kind remarks. As for “reposting,” please know that I don’t allow other sites to repost my articles. Feel free to link to them, but I ask others not to repost. Thanks!
Bruce Cooper says
Hi Michael, bad choice of words on my part when I said “repost”. It actually was a link to your article. https://bcooper.wordpress.com/2023/01/17/when-were-christians-first-regarded-as-intolerant-haters/
Hoping that is acceptable.
Michael Kruger says
Yes, that’s fine! Thanks for the clarification….
c.f. leach says
Encouraging and inspiring. Blessings and Peace!
Gregg Doyle says
There are multiples forms of Intolerance that are based on the social dynamics of the different groups sharing the same place. The one you discuss in this blog, is when Christianity was the outsider breaking into the dominate roman culture. See Matthew chap 11 for Jesus words on the threat he posed to the Hebrew institutions. In Rome the Christians would not “believe or behave” like the dominate culture, therefore they posed a danger to the existing order.
The situation today is different in that Christianity is the dominate culture. Until recently it used laws and ingroup power to force non-believers to comply with its beliefs and behaviors. As a great example of this, see the biography of Alan Turing who is considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence.
The world expects us to be like Jesus’s with his words about accepting of tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners. Instead, we have acted like the Roman and Hebrew leaders.
David Reich says
Christianity is hardly the “dominant culture” today and has not been for decades (just look back at the hostility leveled at Christians in the media during the mid-1990’s). Today, every institution in America (all levels of government, media, Corporate America, sports, entertainment, and even science agencies such as the NIH, and NAS) promotes a worldview of secularism, postmodernism and even various forms of Marxism. Even the evangelical church is capitulating to these non-Christian ideologies – just observe the Ligonier surveys. On the contrary, Christians are now on the outside looking in, and are being forced in most of these institutions to support and be “allies for” same-sex marriage, transgenderism, and climate change, while simultaneously being forced to take the COVID jab, take diversity, equity and inclusion training, and if you are a medical provider, perform abortions. Jesus never “accepted” the lifestyles of tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. On the contrary, he invited them into his kingdom by asking them to repent of sin and to believe.
Scott Davis says
Great reminder, Jim. It is at one time, both encouraging and convicting. Sometimes I feel like we believers in the U.S. have become rather soft when it comes to any kind of rejection or opposition. Our predecessors in the faith have much to teach us about the strength of our faith.
Scott Davis says
Great article, Dr. Kruger. It is at the same time both encouraging and convicting. Sometimes I feel like we believers in the U.S. have gotten soft in regards to any kind of seeming persecution or opposition. Our predecessors have much to teach us about the strength of our faith.
Francis Quarshie says
Hi Dr. Kruger,
Bruce Cooper’s link to this great work of yours is a blessing; his post lead me here.
Yes, we’ll always face persecution whether we like it or not. But our approach in our ministry as ministers of reconciliation in Christ count. The immature condemn people and preach judgement instead of the Gospel, which is God’s love.
The immature in Christ don’t even know when to escape when unbelievers want to kill them. Dying for Christ when your time to leave this world isn’t due; our Lord Jesus knew when to escape. We need you guys alive till the right time for you to exit, please. The right time can also be the time the baby in Christ is killed. Watch brethren. Learn to walk by the Holy Spirit, He leads.
It all have to do with the right knowledge of God’s Word. “My people without knowledge perish” is the issue here. The misinformation is too much in churches. Most Christians are lazy to open the bible to discover things for themselves. Hmm, God help us.
Anyway, thanks to Him. We’re are blessed in all these things that are happening to us. Prejudice against Christians is a blessing.
You’re a blessing, sir Micheal. Have fruitful days ahead.
John Paulsen says
Thank you Jim. I’ve been following a progressive website and interacting with the people there. The absolute they proclaim is “love your neighbor “.
So I have been doing my best to be quick to listen and slow to speak. But when I speak I do my best to speak respectfully and with genuine care and interest.
My best has fallen short more than once and I have confessed, asked forgiveness a pledged to repent.
Your words are an encouragement and support to me as I seek to be a loving Emily.
Guymon Hall says
“For the time already past is sufficient for you to have worked out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties, and abominable idolatries. In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, maligning you,” 1 Pet. 4:3-4
Gregg, while I don’t doubt that Christians and churches have acted the part of the Pharisee, the Christian culture you speak of has often had little to do with Christ. Instead, Christian culture has been a veneer for wolves in sheep’s clothing to abuse, steal, and kill. In many cases, the same players who claimed to bow at the cross are the same ones who quickly dropped their cloak when it became expedient to stop identifying as a Christ-follower.
Don’t get me wrong–I am in no way excusing hypocrisy or legalism, no more than I excuse lust, drunkeness, adultery, gossip, backbiting, idolatry, or any other sin. I am just advising caution in how we read the signs of the times. True followers of Christ have always been in the minority in my humble estimation, even during the “golden age” of Christendom.
All that said, I do thank you for identifying our tendency to forget who we are, in bad times AND good times. May the Lord keep us humble and thankful.