Chapter III. The Democratic Church in the Imperial State
In the sixty-fourth year of the Christian era, about thirty years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, the greater part of the city of Rome was destroyed by fire. This fire broke out in the Circus Maximus, near where the gas works stand in modern Rome. To the mass of the people this fire seemed, not accidental, but intentional. It broke out in several places at once. When under control in one neighborhood, it would blaze forth in another. Men were seen running about with torches, and fire followed in their wake. At the beginning of the fire no efforts were made on the part of the authorities to arrest it. Thousands perished in the flames, and the people were driven into the catacombs and quarries for shelter; women died in bringing forth their children, and the young and the aged, escaping the flames, perished from fatigue and exposure. It was the general belief of the people that the Emperor Nero was guilty of the crime of setting fire to the city. Nero had [56/57] committed every atrocity possible to man. He had caused a large number of the chief citizens of Rome to be put to death; he had put away his wife, Octavia, and had made the imperial palace a shameless place; he had lowered the imperial dignity by making of himself an exhibition to be clapped by the people; having a weak voice, he imagined himself an Apollo, and, because he could write feeble lines claimed the honors of a Homer. He poisoned Britannicus, the son of the Emperor Claudius, while at supper with him, and coolly watched him die. Agrippina, his mother, to whom he owed his elevation to the throne, worried and thwarted him, and he caused her to be murdered in her bed. While Rome was in flames Nero crowned himself with laurel, played upon his fiddle, and imagined himself at the burning of Troy. He would not allow the people to go near their houses to take away their goods, but looted the city for the benefit of the imperial treasury. Under the circumstances, it was natural that the people should hold the Emperor responsible for the destruction of the city, and the murmurs were bitter and ominous. To turn [57/58] suspicion from himself, the Emperor Nero laid the crime of setting fire to the city at the door of a class of people who were despised and hated by all the world round about them. This helpless, friendless people were made the scapegoats of the Emperor's crime, and were compelled to bear both the blame and the punishment.
The celebrated Roman historian, Tacitus, in the 15th book of his Annals, at the 44th chapter, gives an account of this infamous transaction in the following words: "Hence, to suppress the rumors, he (Nero) falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of that name, was put to death as a criminal by Pontius Pilate, Procurator of Judea, in the reign of Tiberius; but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again, not only in Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, whither all things horrible and disgraceful flow, from all quarters, as to a common receptacle, and where they are encouraged. Accordingly, first these were seized who confessed they were Christians; next, on their information, a vast multitude were convicted, not [58/59] so much on the charge of burning the city, as of hating the human race. And in their death they were also made the subject of sport, for they were covered with the hides of wild beasts, and worried to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when day declined burned to serve for nocturnal lights. Nero offered his garden for that spectacle and exhibited a Circensian game, indiscriminately mingling with the common people in the habit of charioteer, or else standing in his chariot. Whence a feeling of compassion arose toward the sufferers. Though guilty and deserving to be made examples of by capital punishment, yet they excited the pity of the people because they seemed not to be cut off for the public good, but victims of the ferocity of one man."
This classical passage from the historian Tacitus is of vast importance to the Christian, because it is the first allusion to Christianity by any Roman or non-Christian writer, and reveals to us the estimation of Christ and his religion by a man remarkable for intellectual insight and humane sentiments. Tacitus was but a child when these events occurred of which he wrote some fifty years after, in the reign of the Emperor Trajan; and you will [59/60] perceive that he carried in his heart through all these years an equal horror for the wickedness and cruelty of the Emperor Nero and for the superstition and depravity of the Christians.
We learn from this passage that, within thirty years of the death of Jesus, the religion which He founded had reached the city of Rome, and His followers were sufficiently numerous and important to attract the attention and to arouse the fears of the imperial authorities. At that early date Christianity had shown itself the implacable foe of the imperial system. The rapid progress of the religion of the Christ is not exceptional in the religious history of mankind. Religious movements are always most rapid and powerful in their beginning; they are violent outbreaks of latent force; they have their origin in that mysterious region of human nature which we now call the subconscious region; that region in which human nature is in touch, not with the seen but with the unseen. Great religious movements are the earthquakes and the volcanic eruptions of human life. For the time being they dethrone the understanding and break through the rocky crust of custom. Under the power of a great religious emotion man becomes intuitive. He does not reason; he [60/61] sees. He does not act from habit; he is the creature of a great impulse. In the eyes of those about him, he is either a madman or a god. He is the destroyer of the old and the creator of the new. He rushes upon the world like lava from the crater. He is a consuming fire.
Now Christianity is one of the four or five great original religious movements of the human race, and of these four or five is by far the greatest and most original. In Jesus the simple human soul burst forth in all its splendor; the face of Jesus glowed with the light of pure intelligence; the heart of Jesus beat with the emotion of pure love. The very garments that Jesus wore radiated light and life from His person. The words of Jesus were living creatures, with wings to carry them to the uttermost part of the earth, having eyes to see into the very secrets of existence, to know God and man. Jesus was not so much the founder of a religion as He was religion itself. He was the pure, white light of truth. He was the piercing fire of unsullied love. He was a glowing flame of holy purpose, and all who came near Him took fire from Him. He was the source of original power to men. His life was the manifestation of the eternal. It [61/62] was as indestructible as air: sin could not touch it: death could not hurt it. Sin and death were destroyed by its presence. To understand religion you must understand religious men; and of all religious men Jesus is the King. St. Francis of Assisi and John Wesley are men of the same type only far inferior to this greatest spiritual genius ever born into the world; in whom the Jew found his Messiah, his long expected Messenger from heaven, and in whom the Greek saw in the flesh the very word or reason of the eternal God. When we stand in the presence of Jesus we are in the presence of destructive and creative force. As His follower, Paul said, in Him old things are passed away, and all things are become new. As we know to-day the estimate put upon the person and power of Jesus falls far short of the truth. He has, says Emerson, not so much written His name, as ploughed it into human history. We are all of us living in the era which He ushered in. Ours is the Christian Era, and the distinctive forces of our civilization are Christian forces.
The creative power of Jesus manifested itself in thought and in life. In the region of thought the personality of Jesus inspired a great literature, and [62/63] in the region of life that personality created a vast institution. When we say that the personality of Jesus gave to the western world the church and the Bible, we can by those two words measure in some degree the extent and duration of His influence.
Of the relation of Jesus to the Bible and of the Bible to the church, we are not called to speak in this lecture. We will only say in passing that Jesus is in no way responsible for that conception of the Bible which prevails in modern life. Jesus was what in these days we should call a higher critic. He sat in judgment on the Scriptures, discarded as useless the greater portion of the writings that had come down from the past, and interpreted the whole in the light of His own reason and conscience. The power of Jesus lay in the fact that He was not a scripturalist: He was a great teacher because He did not rest His teaching upon any book or books, but upon his own intuitive perception of truth. He said: "Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, . . . but I say unto you." And the people were astonished at his teaching. "For He taught them as One having authority, and not as the scribes." As for the New Testament Scriptures, [63/64] while these were inspired by the personality of Jesus, and reflect the spirit of His life and teaching, yet He is not directly responsible for them, as they were not written until long after His death. But, as I have said, this relation of Jesus to the Scriptures, and of the Scriptures to the church, is not germane to our present discussion, and I speak of it only in passing.
It may surprise us to be told that Jesus is as little responsible for the modern conception of the church as He is for the modern notion of the Bible. Jesus did not preach the church, but the Kingdom of God; and, so far as we can gather from the words of Jesus that have come down to us, the Kingdom of God was an inward relation, not an outward institution. Jesus cries again and again: "Say not, lo here, nor lo there, for the Kingdom of God is within you." All the illustrations of the Kingdom have to do with inward dispositions of soul, rather than with outward forms of government and verbal expression of doctrine. The Kingdom of God was to prevail through the glad acceptance of the sovereignty of God by the children of the Kingdom in their own hearts and over their own lives. The Kingdom of God was to come by the simple [64/65] manifestation of its power and life in the world. It was to grow from the seed within the heart, and become a tree of life, yielding its fruit after its kind, whose seed was in itself; it was to drive out the Kingdoms of this world as light drives away darkness, and as heat dissipates cold. Jesus was a pure idealist, and His conception of the Kingdom of God, an ideal conception.
At the beginning of His ministry Jesus was all aglow with enthusiasm. He expected that the Kingdom of God which He preached would be accepted by His own people with joyful acclaim. He judged others by Himself. To Him the Kingdom of God was the simplest thing in the world. It was to love the Lord His God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love his neighbor as himself. To Him righteousness was the supreme good, and pure love the supreme motive, of life. Let absolute righteousness be the end for which man lives, and pure love the motive of all his actions, and the Kingdom of God is here, for the Kingdom of God is righteousness and holiness, perfect justice and burning love.
There is nothing more pathetic in human history than the sublime confidence with which the Prophet [65/66] of Galilee set forth these ideal truths to the men of his generation. To Him they were axioms,--the self-evident truths of the moral life. Their rejection by the leaders of His people filled Him with astonishment, indignation, and anger. Jesus had no patience with the coldness, the blindness, the stupidity, the wickedness of the men who professing to teach the way of God, would not see that the only way was the way of truth, of righteousness, and holiness. Finding that He could make no impression on the higher classes of Jewish society, Jesus turned to the common people for support. He found the mass of the people eager to listen to His preaching, but wholly incapable of entering into the spirit and power of His word. Sadly and sternly Jesus said of them that they were a wicked and adulterous generation; a stony-hearted, thorn-choked generation, in which the seed of the word of God could find no root nor place to grow.
But for all this Jesus did not despair of the Kingdom of God, for to despair of the Kingdom was to despair of God Himself. As in the days of Elijah there were in the midst of the national apostacy seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal, and who had not kissed him; so in the days of Jesus [66/67] there were a few whose ears were open and whose hearts obedient to the word of God. And in these few would the Kingdom of God be established.
Jesus saw very soon after the opening of His ministry that the preaching of the Kingdom of God was fraught with great danger to Himself. He read His own doom in the doom of the prophets that were before Him. He saw in His own oncoming death the culmination of the wickedness of His people. Their rejection of Him was their final rejection of God. So great a catastrophe did this seem to Jesus that He expected it to be followed at once by an equally great catastrophe in nature. The rejection of the Kingdom of God by His people was to Jesus the end of the world. There are no sayings of His better authenticated than those which He uttered concerning the coming of the last day when the sun should be darkened, and the moon should not give her light; when the stars should fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven should be shaken. [St. Matthew, xxiv.: 29.] And there is nothing in all the teaching of Jesus that so proves His faith in the Kingdom of God as this belief of His, that the existence of the universe was [67/68] dependent upon the acceptance of His conception of that Kingdom.
And the church was simply the outward expression of this belief of Jesus. The church does not owe its existence in the world to any formal plan of Jesus, nor to any far-seeing design on the part of His immediate disciples. So far as we can learn from His teaching, Jesus had no conception of an organic body at all,--at least not an organic body of long standing. The only officers that He appointed were apostles or messengers,--men who were to hurry from place to place and warn the people of the coming of the Kingdom; and these men should not have passed through all the cities of Israel before that Kingdom should come. It was not a far-distant event; it was to happen in the lifetime of men then living. "Verily, I say unto you that this generation shall not pass till all these things be done."* It has been said that the Christian church rests upon the resurrection of Jesus as upon a foundation. But this is not true, unless we include in the resurrection the belief in the second and immediate coming of Jesus.
The Christian church had its historical origin in [68/69] a little band of Jewish men and women, who were drawn together by the common belief that Jesus, who had died on the cross, was not in Sheol or Hades, not in the underground region with the spirits in prison; but that He had risen from the dead, and had gone up into heaven; and that He was to come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead. Without this expectation of the immediate coming of Christ the church, humanly speaking, would never have come into existence. At first the church was purely Jewish in character and membership. When the need of organization was felt the church simply adopted the organization of the Jewish synagogue; in fact, the church was at first only a Jewish synagogue or congregation, differing from other Jewish synagogues or congregations by the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah promised by the prophets; that in Him God had established His Kingdom, and by Him God would judge the world; and that the judgment of God was nigh at hand, even at the doors.
Membership in the church was then confined to Jews by birth or Jews by adoption. Only the circumcised could share in the coming salvation. If a man of another nation wished to become a member [69/70] of the Christian synagogue, and share with that synagogue in the hope and expectation of the coming of Christ in His Kingdom, then that man must become a circumcised Jew, and keep all the law of Moses. The first great controversy in the Christian church raged round the question whether salvation in Christ was national or universal; whether the essence of the doctrine of Christ was ceremonial or moral and spiritual. Under the leadership of Paul and other like minded men, universalism won the day, and membership in the church was determined by ethical, not by national or ceremonial, conditions. The rapidity of the progress of Christianity was owing to the fact that already large numbers of men and women were looking to the Jewish religion as the one way to escape from the foulness and silliness of the prevailing religions of the day. It was no longer possible for decent and sensible men or women to believe in Jupiter, the adulterer, or in Venus, the courtesan, or even in Minerva, or any of the twelve gods of Olympus. The Greek Mythos was dead and buried beyond the hope of any resurrection. Still less could men embrace the vague mysticism, and practice the foul rites of the orgiastic religions of Syria, Egypt, and the East. Everywhere [70/71] men were looking to Judaism as a possible solution of the religious problem for mankind. The stern monotheism of the Jew; the teachings of the Jewish prophets, which were the common property ot the world, declaring that righteousness and holiness were the essential attributes of God, and that by the righteous and holy only could God be worshiped; all these considerations drew men to the religion of the Jews as to the only religion which they could respect and reverence. But, while they were attracted by the purity of Jehovah, they were repelled by his sternness. [The Jehovah of the prophets, not of the histories.] He was the God of the Jews only. He hated and despised and condemned men of other nations. His justice was partial, and His love was limited. The attitude of the Jew to the Gentile prevented the Jew from becoming a missionary nation. You can never convert a people whom you hate and despise.
But when men like Paul, Barnabas, and Silas came to a world that was hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and taught that the righteousness of God was not to be found in circumcision or un-circumcision, but in faith and love; that Christ Jesus was the wisdom of God and the power of [71/72] God; that in Him dwelt all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; that His unblemished character and untiring service manifested the true life of man, the only life acceptable to God,--then the people heard them gladly, and the new religion spread from heart to heart as fire spreads when driven by the wind.
The first effect of the preaching of Jesus in the Greek and Roman world was the moral renovation of that world. As soon as men heard of Jesus and began to worship Him that worship purified the heart. Expecting every day that Jesus would come with all His holy angels, they were anxious lest they should not be ready on the day of His coming. It is difficult for us to exaggerate the influence which the belief in the immediate coming of Christ had on the first generation of Christians, in the Roman, as well as in the Jewish, world. It came as a great hope and an awful fear. If Christ came and found them ready they would hear His voice, stand at His right hand, and enter into His joy; if they were not ready then they would hear not the voice of the Saviour, but of the judge saying: "Depart from me ye cursed into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels;" and they would be shut out from the Kingdom of God.
 It is hard, I say, for us to comprehend this faith of the primitive believer. It was naive and childlike: the Christian waited for Christ as a child waits for its mother in the dark. And the hoping and the fearing kept the heart from sinning, and a desire for that holiness without which no man can see the Lord became an overmastering passion, leading men to even wild extremes of asceticism. Christianity, as we have seen, was a reaction from the prevailing religion of the world, and rushed from the extreme of sensuality to the extreme of self-mortification. Marriage was despised, and men ran away from the world to macerate themselves in the desert, to fast and weep and pray, crying day and night: "Have mercy, Lord, and take away my sin."
The preaching of Christ not only resulted in this moral reformation, but, as a further consequence, brought about, also, a social reorganization.
The Roman world was in a state of social anarchy in the first century of the Christian era. The imperial government had broken down of its own weight; the old Roman families, both patrician and plebeian, had perished in the civil wars, or had been destroyed by the jealousy of the Emperors. Base-freedmen like Pallas and Narcissus were the [73/74] ministers to imperial vices, and the instruments of imperial cruelty. All dignity, as well as security, had departed from human life. No man could trust his neighbor. Women were betrayed to the lust of the Emperor by their own husbands, and men to his anger by their wives. The government was an irresponsible tyranny resting upon the military power, and the Roman was no longer a citizen; he was a subject. He was no longer governed by law, but by will. There was nothing between him and destruction but the caprice of a vicious man. The whole Roman world groaned under this awful degradation from which death was the only release.
Into this world of social disorganization the Christian religion came with its doctrine of the Brotherhood of Man. And this to the Christian of the first age was no mere phrase; it was the great fact. All men were equal before God, for all were His children. He was the father of the slave, as well as the master; the Father of the harlot, as well as the matron. The Christian church was simply the household of God, in which His children lived, and, as the love of the mother is strongest for the youngest and weakest of her children, so the love of God went out to those of His family who needed that love [74/75] the most. The church attracted to its membership the outcasts of Roman society; the spiritually halt and lame and blind came flocking in; the sick came for healing, and the weary for rest.
The Christian communities were so many little democracies scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Each congregation elected its own officers and regulated its own affairs. Within the church a man was a man, having the rights of man. The democratic spirit of ancient Greece and Rome came to life again in the Christian communities. But Christian democracy was not simply a revival of ancient democracy; it was an advance on that democracy. In ancient times the man existed for the sake of the community. In primitive Christianity the community existed for the sake of the man. The church was for the people; not the people for the church. The church was an organization for social service; not an organization for self aggrandizement. Office holders in the church were taken from the people to serve the people. To the Christian church we owe that conception of government which is the underlying conception of modern times, and which found its perfect expression in the immortal words of Lincoln: "Government of the people, for the [75/76] people, by the people," describes to a word the government of the Christian communities in the first and second centuries of the Christian era.
Between these democratic churches and the imperial state there could be nothing but deadly hostility. The imperial government feared, hated, and despised the churches; feared them because it had a vague misgiving that the church was undermining the foundations of the Empire. The government hated the Christians because the Christians held aloof from all political affairs, and would not join in the worship of the state. And finally, the rulers of the Empire despised the church because the church was made up for the most part of the off-scouring of the Roman world. A society of slaves, and thieves and harlots was beneath the contempt of a Roman gentleman, and we have seen in the historian Tacitus an example of the attitude of the ordinary Roman to the Christian of his day.
And if the Empire feared, hated, and despised the church, the church looked upon the Empire with horror. It saw in the Empire organized rebellion against God, and it expected every day to see the Empire go down before the wrath of God. In the book of Revelation you can read the judgment of the church upon the Roman world. It was the beast [76/77] risen up out of the sea; it was the mouth speaking blasphemies; it was Babylon the great, the mother of harlots, and abominations of the earth. The only hope of the world lay in the destruction of the Empire. And the Christian expected that destruction by an immediate act of God. So wicked was that old world in the eyes of the Christian, that the earth itself and the sky above it were involved in the guilt of man. Nothing but the annihilation of the whole present order could cure the evil of the times. So the Christian looked for the speedy coming of a day when the elements should melt with fervent heat, and the heavens and the earth then existing should be burnt with fire, and from their ashes should rise a new heaven and a new earth, in which righteousness should dwell. [II. Peter, III.: 10, 11.]
We know that the Christian was mistaken in his belief that the visible universe would be destroyed because of the sin of man. But his mistake was an illusion, not a delusion. That old world was perishing, burning itself up in the fires of its own wickedness; and out of its ashes a new world was rising. The Christian church was itself the new heaven and the new earth, in which dwelleth righteousness.