January 28, 2014

Christians, Atheism, Incest, and Cannibalism

For the first three centuries Christians had to endure many flare ups of severe persecution. Among other things, Christians were crucified, fed to lions, dragged behind mad bulls, burned at the stake in Nero’s garden to light his parties, sews inside animal carcasses and then torn apart by the dogs, and subjected to the iron chair—a metal chair was heated until it was red hot and then a naked Christian was brought out and forced to sit in it.

Christians were not persecuted by Rome simply because they worshipped Jesus. The Romans had many gods and they really didn’t care if Jesus got added to the mix. It was other things that drew the ire of the crowds and the crown. In his excellent book Church History in Plain Language, Bruce Shelly lists three main reasons why Christians were persecuted. These included (1) life-style, (2) slander, and (3) Caesar worship.

1. Life-style
The Christians sought after holiness and lived lives that were very different from the pagans around them. They didn’t worship the pagan gods. They didn’t frequent the temples and offer sacrifices. They didn’t approve of the violence of the gladiatorial games. They didn’t practice infanticide (but instead rescued abandoned infants). And they had a sexual ethic vastly different from the promiscuous world around them. Christians were therefore scorned because they refused to go along with the normal practices of society. Shelly writes,

Thus, simply by living according to the teachings of Jesus, the Christian was a constant unspoken condemnation of the pagan way of life.  It was not that the Christian went about criticizing and condemning and disapproving, nor was he consciously self-righteous and superior. It was simply that the Christian ethic itself was a criticism of pagan life.

2. Slander
It may sound strange, but early Christians were accused of (a) atheism, (b) incest, and (c) cannibalism. They were accused of atheism because they denied the existence of the pagan gods. They were accused of incest and sexual immorality because Christians met together for “love feasts.” Love feasts were simply the early version of the Lord’s Supper, but the hyper-sexualized non-Christians around them assumed that anything with the name “love feast” must be something erotic. Also, since the Christians referred to each other as “brother” and “sister” the rumor was that Christians met for incestuous orgies at their secret meetings. Finally, Christians were also accused of cannibalism because at these meetings Christians would, of course, eat and drink the body and blood of their founder.

3. Caesar Worship
Finally, Christians were persecuted because they did not participate in the state-mandated worship of Ceasar. By the time of Decius’ reign (249-251) emperor worship was universal and compulsory. Again, it wasn’t as if Rome was telling the Christians that they needed to stop worshipping Jesus. All they needed to do was to burn a pinch of incense to Caesar and say with their lips, “Caesar is Lord.” But Christians were unwilling to do that.

By way of application, there is a lot that we can learn from each of these.

(1) When we live according to God’s plan, people of the world will resent us because of our different lifestyle. No matter how loving and kind we are, this will happen—even if we never open our mouths to “judge” anyone else. Sin loves company, not a contrast.

(2) Christians in the early church were slandered unfairly with wild accusations. We shouldn’t be surprised when the same thing happens to us today. Followers of Jesus today are unfairly accused of being narrow-minded fools, hateful bigots, anti-scientific cavemen, judgmental tyrants, hypocrites, and more. If you expected to be treated fairly by the world, I’m sorry you had that illusion.

(3) Pluralism is the order of the day. Most people won’t care if you worship Jesus—as long as you don’t think that He is the only way. That type of exclusiveness is something that our tolerant society simply cannot tolerate. Also, we may not be asked to burn incense to Caesar, but don’t be surprised when you run into other ways that you will expected to compromise your integrity in order to be considered a good citizen.

Persecution comes in many forms. Will you acquiesce or will you declare that Jesus is Lord?


  1. Do you think the reason Christians don't get persecuted as severely nowadays in the US is because they aren't as strong as believers in the early church? People think Christianity is stupid, but I don't see really overt persecution around me. Or do you think it is a different reason

    1. What are you implying? What made you ask that question?


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