Last year, I read The Myth of Christian Persecution by English academic and theologian Candida Moss. Her premise is that the infant church invented a narrative of systemic Christian persecution, which was only reversed after the conversion of Emperor Constantine early in the fourth century when Christianity was legalised. She argues that this narrative is pure fiction. Christians who were killed were executed because they chose to disobey the law, not because they were being persecuted. The motivation was political, not religious.
As an example, she reminds her readers that it was required of inhabitants of the Roman Empire confess Caesar as lord. Christians who refused to do so were considered to have threatened the political stability of the empire and were therefore frequently executed. But this, she says, was not persecution. The following excerpt summarises her thesis:
Very few Christians died, and when they did, they were often executed for what we in the modern world would call political reasons. There is a difference between persecution and prosecution. A persecutor targets representatives of a specific group for undeserved punishment merely because of their participation in that group. An individual is prosecuted because that person has broken a law…. There is something different about being prosecuted under a law—however unjust—that is not designed to target or rout out any particular group. It may be unfortunate, it may be unfair, but it is not persecution.
She acknowledges that there have been isolated instances throughout history in which Christians were genuinely persecuted, but the narrative of persistent Christian persecution is nothing more than a long-standing myth.
The subject of persecution is an delicate one, which we cannot fully address here, and certainly there are many Christians today who claim to be suffering persecution when they are, in fact, suffering the results of their own belligerence. But we must recognise that early Christians who were killed for their refusal to confess Caesar as lord were, in fact, executed on religious grounds. Christians were driven by their commitment to Christ as Lord to resist confessing Caesar as lord. For them, politics and religious were not mutually exclusive. This has always been a hallmark of God’s people.
Psalm 47 sings praises to God as “a great king over the earth” (v. 2). Significantly, this title was given in ancient times to the king of Assyria. It was recognised throughout the ancient Near East as a political title, but the psalmist turned it on its head by applying it to Israel’s God. Similarly, Roman Caesars were hailed as “lord” long before the birth of Jesus, but Christians adopted this acclamation—“Caesar is lord”—and applied it to Jesus. It was a way of signalling their allegiance to Christ above Caesar. It was their way of publicly declaring that a greater ruler than Caesar—and a greater ruler than the king of Assyria—deserved their allegiance.
In doing so, the ancient Jews and the early Christians made a powerful point. They would not get caught up in the ultimacy of earthly politics. Earthly politics were not entirely irrelevant to their lives, but their ultimate citizenship lay elsewhere. And their Lord—their “great king over all the earth”—was sovereign of all.
Humans have a tendency to place themselves in tribes. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, for God created us to exist in community. The danger is that we allow our tribes to determine our identities. Those may be sporting or political or social tribes, each of which will demand some form of allegiance from us. Christians must recognise that, ultimately, they pledge allegiance to Jesus Christ alone, who is Lord of all and the great King over all the earth.
As you head into the world today, know that your allegiance will be tested on various fronts. But as a Christian—as a follower of Christ—your confession of Jesus Christ as Lord must determine your allegiance above all else. Let’s confess Christ as Lord and live like it.