The Next Faithful Step
Rome occupies an interesting place in the history of earliest Christianity. It is more than a city; it is a system. And this system most often casts a long and menacing shadow over the early centuries of our faith. Read the book of Revelation, where the system of Rome is a thinly veiled character throughout—beasts (chs. 12-13), Babylon (chs. 17-18).
This is all with good reason, of course. Peter and Paul likely lost their lives in Rome in the earliest Roman persecution of Christians under the emperor Nero (tradition tells us that Paul was beheaded and Peter crucified upside down). Nero was a maniac. He had no scruples about killing his own mother in his paranoid defense of his own power and found the early Christians to be a convenient scapegoat to be used to distract critics of his own self-destructive behaviors. (There is a story that he used impaled Christian martyrs dipped in oil and set on fire to light his garden.) Rome antagonized Christianity throughout the faith’s early centuries, adding “martyr” to the list of revered offices of the early Church. From Nero to the late third-century Great Persecution under the emperor Diocletian, Rome was indeed beastly.
But that is not the entire story. Rome was also an astonishing accomplishment. The western portion of the empire lasted for 1200 years, the eastern empire surviving another thousand after the fall of the west. This is almost dizzying considering most ancient states lasted only a few generations to a couple of centuries (rarely) at most. And it was the peculiar characteristics of the empire that worked to bring about its health and stability.
The Roman Empire had little sense of racial exclusiveness. It made a practice of giving citizenship away to deserving foreigners and allowed slaves to become citizens through appropriate provisions in their owners’ wills. This produced an ever-widening circle of people interested in the stability and survival of the empire. Rome was also innovative. “All roads lead to Rome,” the saying goes and there was a time when this was basically true. The Roman road system, ranging from leveled earth paths to more sophisticated paved roads, snaked throughout the Empire, ensuring eased and increased travel for both military and commerce. These characteristics—inclusivity and innovation—combined to create a uniquely cohesive society and culture across massive expanses of land.
Few benefitted more from this than the early Christian movement. Peter and Paul suffered martyrdom at the hands of the beastly system in Rome. But is it not amazing that this Galilean fisherman and Turkish Pharisee were in the city in the first place? The truth is that the uniquely cohesive society and culture of the Roman Empire and the ease of travel brought about by the Roman road system enabled Christianity—that very religion that Rome would try to snuff out—to spread and grow so effectively. What better conditions for the spread of the Gospel than common language, similar world-views, and easy access? And so while Rome was indeed a Babylon and a beast in the experience of the early Church, it was also a most effective vehicle for the spread of the message of salvation.
Any analogy or comparison between the Church in ancient Rome and the Church in modern America is going to be misplaced and trite. We simply do not live in the same world of experience. So it is best to leave aside any wondering about how the Church of today suffers in any similar way to the Church of the first through third centuries. To do so would be an insult to the early Christian martyrs (and Christians today in other parts of the world that do undergo real suffering). But it is worth noting the deep and real ambiguity of Rome as it relates to the Church. God works in mysterious ways—and often, mysteriously, doesn’t appear to be doing anything at all. And I don’t think I have come into contact with that ambiguity more directly than while pastoring. I have seen deep tragedies bring families closer—reconciliation, forgiveness, and a new start—in ways that did not seem possible apart from terrible events. How are we supposed to think about these things? To simply quote a convenient scripture passage (“God works all things together for good…”) is probably an easy out, enabling us to avoid wrestling with the mystery and difficulty of reality.
And even on a much smaller and less theologically tough level, ambiguity is almost always at work in the Church. Every decision has consequences. I still have someone at my last church who will not speak to me because he didn’t like my answer when he asked my pastoral opinion on some decisions he was making. He and I were very close and he had become more involved with and concerned about the Church than he even had. What was I to do? On the one hand I had my pastoral integrity as I saw it, and on the other the risk of losing an entryway for the Gospel into his life as I was the only pastor that he had really responded to. My choice appears to have turned out to be both a stand for the whole Gospel and a hindrance to its growth in someone’s life.
Pastoral work can be maddeningly ambiguous at times. It seems often unfair and leads me to wonder what God is doing in it all. But if Rome is both a beast to and vehicle for the early Church, I guess that is just the way it is.