Challenges to Christianity: Then and Now

Kermit the Frog famously sang, “It’s not easy being green.” But looking around at our wider culture, you can make a case that it’s not easy to be a faithful follower of Christ. In some respects at least, things seem to be changing for the worse.

A few examples:

  • A U. S. Army Reserve Equal Opportunity training brief recently listed Evangelical Christians and Catholics as examples of religious extremism. Other groups listed included Al Qaeda, Hamas, and the KKK.
  • In Christian Legal Society v. Martinez (2010), the Supreme Court ruled that public universities may legally refuse to recognize an organization that fails to admit all students, even those who don’t hold to their core beliefs. Likewise, many Christian have felt compelled to challenge the Affordable Care Act’s legality on the grounds that it forces them to provide conscience violating health care services like abortion.  
  • Prominent cultural figures (e.g., Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins) routinely lampoon Christians as ignorant, superstitious rubes.
  • Popular entertainment often appears to be in race to push boundaries ever further, containing increasing amounts of gratuitous sensuality, violence, etc.
  • More and more people view those that hold the biblical view of marriage as not only wrong, but bigoted. Those wishing to protect unborn life on biblical grounds also face being socially ostracized in certain circles. Both of these situations are tied to a wider belief that tolerance—or rather a certain conception of it—is the highest virtue (regardless of how problematic it is to practice). 
  • There are perhaps more religious alternatives with a noticeable presence in our society than there’s ever been. And we have no shortage of those who argue that Christianity itself should change in significant ways. Some claim it needs to adapt with the changing culture. Others maintain that our historic understanding of the faith is wrong.

In light of these examples and the larger realities driving them, what should we react? What should we do? Panic? Get depressed? Complain?

Certainly much can and should be said in answer to those questions. But here I simply want to offer a little perspective. Consider, for a moment, what life was like in the Greco-Roman world around the time the Christian church began:

  • At various times and places over the first three centuries, Christians suffered significant persecution, even to the point of being executed. There’s a historical reality behind the cliché of feeding the Christians to the lions.
  • Christians were objects of ridicule and variously thought of as practicing atheism, cannibalism, and incest. They were sometimes used as scapegoats for natural disasters.
  • In the ancient world, entertainment included actual—and horrific—violence. Men and animals fought and died before huge crowds in the gladiatorial arena.
  • Sexual immorality of all kinds was common, as was divorce. People not only aborted children, but exposed newly born infants.
  • The ancient world had a dizzying array of competing religious options, including the Greek and Roman pantheons, more local and household gods and spirits, mystery religions, philosophical schools, astrology, and, eventually, the emperor cult.
  • Christianity regularly was challenged by heresy and error (e.g., the Gnostics and Arians) in the first few centuries, necessitating clear and thoughtful responses.

Why do I bring all of this up? First to suggest that what might seem new to our perspective, well, isn’t. Much of what we experience now by way of challenges is old hat to the Christian faith, and we can learn much from those who’ve gone before us.

Secondly, the context of the ancient world is the very climate in which the church went from a few hundred followers concentrated in one locale to become, in relatively short order, a presence that not only stretched across different people groups and the breadth of the entire Mediterranean world, but also made a cultural impact that continues to echo into the present day. 

That, I submit, is an encouraging thing. And it wouldn’t be the last time that the church flourished in spite of seemingly much more difficult circumstances than we have today. No doubt, those circumstances often witnessed faith in a Savior who once said this:

“The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:26-32)

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