‘Systematic exploitation’ and the freedom of Christ.

Image result for unbelievable tom holland tom wright

I recently watched the UnBelievable interview with Tom Holland and Tom Wright.

I enjoyed it immensely, and if you haven’t yet watched it, it’s a few years old but still an interesting conversation to listen in on.

One thing that stood out for me was the use of a particular phrase by the writer and historian Tom Holland. Holland claimed that the ancient world was built and sustained through the concept of what he called “systematic exploitation”.

Holland goes on… “the entire economy is founded on slave labour, the sexual economy is founded on the absolute right of free Roman males to have sex with anyone that they want anyway that they like. And, in almost every way, this is a world that is unspeakably cruel to our way of thinking.”

Holland’s comments reveal a cruel and oppressive nature in the ancient world, that, rightly, clashes with our own ways of looking at the world. This is not a blog post aimed at dissecting why it is we are so uncomfortable with such behaviour, though for a timeless book on such questions, I would recommend C S Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

The Oppression of Rome

Holland is speaking of Ancient Rome with these comments (he reflects them back to Greece as well – but his focus is the later ancient power). And the Rome he describes is the Rome in which Jesus lived and died, Paul wrote and travelled, and the Early Church was founded and grew. In the Italian peninsula alone, some studies suggest the slave population was around 3 million by 100 AD. Another study reckons between 5 and 6 million slaves empire wide by 260 AD. That’s nearly 15% of the entire imperial population, enslaved and oppressed.

Holland mentions the sexual oppression of the ancient world, and there was certainly a culture of manipulation and abuse in this regard. Prostitution, adultery and paedophilia were commonplace in the Roman world, some thought of as respectable, some regarded as crass. Little of it was considered wrong or evil.

The ancient world was built on the systematic oppression of the poor, vulnerable, alien and needy. Much of what went on in Ancient Rome ought to repulse us. But this was the everyday world of the Early Church. Before they became Christians, respectable men and women would have viewed sex completely differently, would have happily owned other people for the simple sake of household chores and business matters, and would have turned a blind eye to the brothels, slave markets and sexually licentious drinking parties that they both walked past and engaged in.

Christianity in Context

Such a context ought to shock us when we read passages like these of Paul…

“The body… is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.”

1 Corinthians 6:13-17 (NIV)

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

Colossians 3:22-24 (NIV)

An open sexuality, prostitution and slavery were so commonplace in the ancient world. Let’s take these two cases in turn, because Paul has something to say about the oppression of Ancient Rome, and the way (and reason) Christians ought to respond to it.

Sexually: Christians must be different. Sex is God’s gift to mankind, to be wonderfully and joyfully embraced in marriage. Prostitution contorts this. It breaks this marriage bond, distorting God’s good gift into a broken thing. More than that, the Christian is now united not only with their spouse, but with Christ! The Christian is one with the Lord in Spirit. How could something so holy, pure and good be united with a prostitute? Paul is radical in this teaching. Prostitution isn’t a perfectly fine everyday occurrence, its a distortion of God’s pattern for relationships and the world, and the believer must flee from it. Paul speaks of the prostitute here too. Her body is united in sexual immorality. This is a concerned message. Prostitution, sexual licentiousness, it doesn’t just turn one person from a right view of and relationship with the Lord, it takes two. Paul is urging Christians to flee from this sexual oppression, for their own sake as well as the sake of those they would be oppressing.

Paul is just as radical with slavery. Elsewhere in Scripture, Paul urges masters to be kind to their slaves, forgiving them their errors and treating them justly. But here, Paul speaks to slaves themselves. Paul commands them to obey their masters, to work hard for them, as for the Lord. A radical teaching! It is not a command to flee their oppression, but rather to respond to it in gracious subservience. There is so much that could be said on these two passages, and both betray huge topics that must rightly be explored. But in Paul’s response, there is one unifying theme that stands starkly against the systematic exploitation of the Roman world in which he writes.

Freedom in Christ.

In the Roman world, freedom was a big deal. Paul repeatedly used his freedom as a Roman citizen as defence in Acts, and citizenship (as discussed in my earlier blog) was a big deal. But even such freedom came with the recognition that you were part of the Roman machine. You were subservient to the Emperor, the elites, the laws and cultural quirks of Rome. True freedom, taught the Early Church, is only found in Christ.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Galatians 5:1 (NIV)

Christ has set the believer free. Free from sin, shame, oppression and evil. Free from serving and doing what is wrong. Free from the final and ultimate punishment that our broken and sinful hearts deserve. Christ has set us free to live for Him.

“You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.”

Galatians 5:13 (NIV)

“Live as free men, but do not use your freedom to cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.”

1 Peter 2:16 (NIV)

The Christian in the Roman world, and the Christian today, is called to a wonderful freedom in Christ. But that freedom is a calling from a life of sinful slavery. So, urges Paul and Peter, don’t use your freedom to carry on as you were. Live different.

Paul urged men and women to live sexually pure lives, they are now free in Christ to pursue sex in its right place, in marriage. They are now free to show love to the oppressed by treating them lovingly, not abusively. And Paul commanded slaves to live humble, hardworking lives. Because they are free to do so. Free to honour their masters, submitting to them as though to the Lord, because they are free to live for Him. Knowing, as every Christian knows, that their freedom is eternal and far outlasts the cares and worries of this earth, no matter how great they may be.

The Roman world was built on a systematic oppression of minorities, the impoverished and the vulnerable. Christ’s Church is built of free men and women, of brothers and sisters born not of the same earthly parent, but won through the wondrous actions of Christ on the cross. The Roman world was never truly free. But in the Early Church, men and women were living truly free lives in the ancient world. Living different, living free.

Outcasts. The social stigma facing Early Christians.

To become a Christian is a huge decision. It’s life changing. It’s transformative. It’s hopeful.

And in the Roman world, it was a really, really hard thing to do.

When the Christian accepted Christ, he was rejecting the other gods of the Roman world. He wasn’t just adding in another god to a crowded pantheon, he was rejecting the rest in favour of this one true God. This was because the radical call to Christian belief was completely at odds with the whole Roman understanding of their world. There was a real stigma attached to accepting Christ, because it involved rejecting the gods of Rome.

The scholar Larry Hurtado lays this out clearly in his 2016 book on the Early Church.

“Practically everyone was presumed to honour the gods, and your own gods were supplied as part of your birthright.”

Hurtado, Destroyer of Gods, 2016, 78.

To become a Christian, to accept only one true God, is to turn your back on your whole prior understanding of yourself. Such a statement rings true today, but the stigma attached to this choice in Roman times was wide reaching. Religious belief defined every civic event, the Christian rejected that. Religious belief determined every legal and social process, the Christian rejected that. Religious belief shaped how the family interacted. The household gods (known in Latin as the lares), intimately personal to every household, were now in stark opposition to the new faith of the convert. And so the family religion, the makeup of how the very family unit defined itself? The Christian rejected that.

The Christian went from socially ‘in’ to a societal outcast overnight. The stigma around these believers was so real and so painful because their belief was so offensive to the Roman worldview. How dare these Jesus-followers reject the gods of their fathers? How dare they claim that their God is the only way?

They did it because of the wonderful answer Jesus made to that very question.

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

John 14:6.

The Jesus these early Christians followed was the only true God, and trusting in Him was the only way that any man or woman throughout the Empire could be right with this God.
The same is true today. The Christian life is hard, trusting in Christ requires the believer to turn his or her back on the world. It can make us societal outcasts. It can make our families, friends, even our spouses reject us and deride us. But at the end of the day it is wonderfully worth it because it is the only way we can be right with God. Jesus Christ is the only truth we can be sure of in a world of fake news and post-truth. Jesus Christ is a God who is wonderfully unchanging. And though following Him can be as hard in the twenty first century as it was in the first, it is just as worth it.

Athenagoras: Unknown Apologist

Though known for his Plea for the Christians, Athenagoras is one of the least well known Ante-Nicene apologists.


Athenagoras was born in c.133 AD. Known as Athenagoras of Athens, his birthplace may well not have been in the city, but he certainly lived and flourished there. Like other Early Church figures such as Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, Athenagoras came from an educated background. Coming from Athens, with its rich history in philosophy and education, he’d had plenty of opportunity to engage with the Stoics, Platonists and every other school of thought on offer.

So much like Justin, Athenagoras looked into them all, and as a young man he converted to Christianity. He styles himself an “Athenian, Philosopher and a Christian” in his Plea, and this sense is certainly carried through his writings.

Though he was believed to be a prolific and well known writer, with a long list of works likely circulating round the Western Mediterranean, only a few have survived antiquity. He is known as an apologist, and his career fell shortly after the first generation of Christian apologists. He was also a scholar. His treatise On the Resurrection of the Dead is notable for being the first complete exposition of this doctrine in Christian literature. But his most famous work was his apologetic Plea for the Christians. This work was written as an ‘embassy’ on behalf of the Christians, made by a philosopher to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Lucius, his son and co-ruler. The speaker presents his case in the philosophical style, addressing the emperors eloquently and logically. The work claims the treatment of the Christians to be unjust, and by a careful setting out of the beliefs and doctrines to which these Christ-followers ascribe, he presents his case.

The work is rich in ancient literature, quoting pagan poets and philosophers as well as Christian texts and Scripture. The work states three common accusations the Christians face: atheism, cannabalism and incest. It then answers each charge, pointing to the God they believe in in answer to this opposition. Athenagoras’ Plea answers the charges by pointing to the truths that drive the Christian faith. Amongst other things, he elaborates on monotheism, on the Gospel and on love as a key motivation for the Christian believer.

His Plea also provides a wonderful quote on the character of the Early Christians he is defending and it makes for wonderful reading.

Among us you will find uneducated persons, craftsmen, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds they exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth. They do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves.

Athenagoras, Plea for the Christians, 11.

Athenagoras is describing the church. In this mix of people, there are some unskilled, some uneducated and some old women, cast offs from society. But, he says, though they may not possess the education or the eloquence to defend the doctrines of the faith rhetorically, they live out the Gospel in their deeds. By sharing their God in the way they act, they are persuading their neighbours, friends and family of the truth. It is a wonderful snapshot of Early Church life, and a wonderful side note to the main thrust of his work: on the value each member of God’s family had. Some of the church, says Athenagoras, were not valuable to the world, and may not have been all too clever with words or rich with possessions. But they had incredible value in living Christ centered lives, loving others and living out the Gospel day in day out. The Church had educated figures such as Athenagoras, who could (and did!) write long defences of the faith. But Athenagoras reminds both his critics then and his readers now that living out a life faithful to the Gospel offers genuine witness to the transformative power of the cross.

The Gospel was good news for everyone in Roman society. And every member of the local church had the wonderful responsibility of sharing that Gospel in their words and deeds. And they didn’t need the philosophical education of the Athenian elite to do it.

Athenagoras died in around 190 AD. His exact date of death is unknown, as are the circumstances in which he died. But what is known is that he was a brilliant and in many ways respected scholar. He engaged with emperors, governors, philosophers and peasants, and he saw the hope of every man as lying in the acceptance of the Gospel of Christ.

Taking the First Steps

The remains of ancient Philippi

Huge amounts of writing survives from the Early Church. A lot of it is unhelpful, some of it downright false. But some of it displays a Gospel-centered church keeping on at the mission of the New Testament: to make disciples of all nations, baptising them in God’s name and teaching them in the truths of the Gospel.

But how was the church to do this as it took its first steps without the Apostles at the helm? By the end of the first century the disciples of Jesus were dead or dying and the church faced the question: how do we keep on, how do we take our first steps by ourselves?

Well the wonderful truth is that they weren’t by themselves. And the historical record shows that their faithful God kept them faithful to the Gospel.

Not Alone

“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”

John 14:15-17

Thought the first generation of human leadership had passed away, the Early Church could take confidence in knowing they were not alone. Unlike any other religion, cult or sect in the Roman world, the church had something so much more. In the verses from John’s Gospel above, Jesus promises that those who trust in him will receive the blessing of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit will live inside the believer, transforming them from the inside, helping and equipping them to live for Christ in a hostile world.

Their human leadership was dead, but their God was far from it. Their God was as with them as he had ever been. The Spirit is promised to every believer, then and now, and not only is he with us, but as Jesus reminds us above, he advocates for us.

The Spirit advocates for the believer, he fights the case of the believer, he intercedes for us. When we pray, it is through the Spirit, our advocate, that we can be confident that God hears and receives our prayers.

The Early Church knew this. So they were not alone. As they took their first steps in the hostile and powerful pagan world, their God was with them and their God was for them.

Faithful Steps

So what happened? The great disappointment in studying the first few centuries of the church is that so much of it is lost. We know so little about so many faithful brothers and sisters who held out the word of life in a hostile Roman world. But the wonderful encouragement of studying Early Church history, is that from what survives to us, we can see the Gospel going out and going on.

As the church continued and as history moved further away from the ministry of Jesus and the lives of the Apostles, the church continued in the Gospel.

The quote below is from the first letter by a man named Clement of Rome, to the church in Corinth. Written around 96 AD and imaginatively known as  ‘1 Clement’ today, this letter is one of the first examples of post-canonical Christian writing. And in it? The Gospel is spoken.

“And we, therefore…are not justified of ourselves or by our wisdom or insight or religious devotion or the holy deeds we have done from the heart, but by that faith by which almighty God has justified all men from the very beginning.”

Clement of Rome, First Clement, 32:4.

The great rediscovery of the sixteenth century reformation was that we are justified by faith alone. Works cannot help us. Religious devotion and holy deeds have no saving power. But here is that truth, clear as day, in the writings of this Early Church leader.

Or how about this, an extract from the letter of Ignatius of Antioch to the Magnesian church, written in the first decades of the second century.

Therefore, let us not be ungrateful for His kindness. For if He were to reward us according to our works, we would cease to be.”

Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Magnesians, 5.

Here is Ignatius, reminding his readers that the Gospel they believe in is one of grace. Glorious grace. They have no merit before God themselves, it is only through the saving work of Christ on the cross that the Christian can have the hope of Heaven. And this is something that Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna and famous for his well-recorded martyrdom, writes in a letter to the church at Philippi.

…knowing that ‘you are saved by grace, not because of works’ (Eph. 2:5,9,9), namely, by the will of God through Jesus Christ”

Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians, 1:3 (c.140 AD)

This is the church taking its first steps. With the end of the Apostolic Era comes the need to move forward after the deaths of this first generation of Christian leaders. And how is it the church does this? By looking back. By looking to the cross. By clinging to the truth of the Gospel, in the knowledge that God is with them, and in the Spirit he works for them. The Early Church were God’s representatives here on earth, and their first steps were taken by clinging on to, and teaching, the Gospel they were saved by.