‘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.

The Tragedy of False Teaching

The Early Church faced a lot of challenges in its formative years. One of the greatest problems came from within the Church itself: heresy. Some of my next few posts will look at a few of the common heresies the Early Church had to contend with. As they fought against the oppressive and liberal Roman world, the creation of heretical and schismatic movements within the Church itself meant that brothers and sisters in the Early Church had to fight for the Gospel both within and without.

Gnostics, Donatists, Arians and many more rose up, and they all taught lies and deception, deceiving people from salvation to damnation. These heresies sprung from and depended on false teaching. Peter spoke of the terrible effect that false teaching could have.

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.

2 Peter 2:1-3 (NIV).

This and other clear teachings on the danger of false teachers in the New Testament illustrate the damaging power such people have. Their false teachings are destructive. Their words deny the Lord they claim to profess, and the “many” who follow them will bring the way of truth into disrepute. The Bible is clear on the end of these teachers. Peter tells us they will be destroyed, he goes on to say their reward will be “[to] be paid back with harm for the harm they have done” (2:13).

The true tragedy of these teachers is their followers. The “many” that Peter tells us will follow such teachers ought to break our hearts. Many led astray from the path of life to that of death. Many seduced by evil, away from what is good. Many who appeared saved now lost. As we look at the schism and sinfulness of the Early Church we must not be anaesthetised to the human reality of what we see. Many men and women doomed to an eternity apart from God because of the actions and teachings of false teachers. That is not to say they are not at fault for their sinful hearts, by no means, Peter reminds us here that there is great sin in denying the truth. But wrapped in this sin of false teaching is great tragedy: men and women bent on destruction operating within the church only a few decades after the life and ministry of Jesus Himself.

We shouldn’t let the historical distance between us and the Early Church steel us against the sadness of men and women destined for destruction. Recognising the tragedy of the schisms and heresies of the Early Church ought to prompt us to more readily engage those around us who we know are far from the truth of God with His Gospel. 

Recently a friend of mine became very seriously ill. In his illness he feared that, perhaps, his time on Earth was up. Thinking he had but days left (I am glad to say that he has since recovered considerably), he decided to write letters to some of his close non-Christian friends. I read one of these letters, addressed to a great university friend of his, and it was heartbreaking. It was heartbreaking to hear so candidly the words of a friend who expected such a letter to be read when he was gone, but it was even more distressing to see the emotion behind his plea with his non-christian friend to explore the Gospel. My friend had a great concern for those who were lost, and this challenged me. Even if it were my darkest hour, am I concerned for the lost as I should be?

Does my heart break or am I cruelly indifferent?

I know I struggle to be truly heartbroken for lost souls. It is something I must repent of, something I need to be challenged on. And I suspect this is the case for many of us. Are we truly grieved by the thought of those we know and love quite literally hell-bent on their own eternal destruction?

The great preacher Charles Spurgeon summed up the tragedy of a lost soul.

Lost! Lost! Lost! Better a whole world on fire than a soul lost! Better every star quenched and the skies a wreck than a single soul to be lost!

Charles Spurgeon.

What a tragedy that the outcome of false teaching in any age is lost souls. May we be challenged by that painful reality, and moved to embrace both solid Bible-based teaching and heartfelt evangelism all the more as we think of the challenge of the schisms and sinfulness of the Early Church.

Trouble from the start?

False teaching. Heresy. Harmful doctrines robbing people of their salvation. There’s nothing new under the sun.

The New Testament warns us of the dangers, but also the reality of false teachers. Scripture tells us that they will rise up, that the Evil One will attack through preachers and teachers deceiving people and leading them astray.

At that time many will fall away and will betray and hate one another, and many false prophets will arise and mislead many.

Matthew 24: 10-11.

For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

2 Timothy 4:3-4.

These are just a few of the many New Testament warnings that in the time between Christ’s first and second comings, many will try to lead God’s people astray.

The Early Church faced the reality of these false teachings. As the faith began to establish itself in the Roman empire, false teachers spread with the true faith. Orthodox Christians were soon writing documents called Adversus Haereses, literally ‘Against Heresies.’ These documents preserve many of the heresies that arose during the early years, and Tertullian’s work of this name had this to say of these false teachings:

Some men prefer wondering at heresies, which bring with them eternal death and the heat of a stronger fire… but heresies would have no power…

Tertullian, Against the Heretics, 2.


Tertullian knew that many people came under the sway of these teachings, but he also knew they had no power. They had no true promise of eternal life, their end was destruction.

One of the earliest and most famous heretics to arise in the church was Marcion. This man taught that there was a god split into two parts: a higher being ruling a lower, creating god. This teaching rejected the commandments of Scripture, the divinity of Christ, and the wonder of the Gospel. Yet many believed this man and his false teachings. Many were led astray. And he was not alone in teachings lies and falsehoods. Heretics arose throughout the Roman world. Some, like the Emperor Elagabalus, incorporated Jesus into the Roman pantheon of gods. Some, like Marcion, led hundreds astray. Others, like the leaders of the Arian or Donatist movements, beguiled thousands. In contrast others merely corrupted the local church, twisting Scripture in order to line their own pockets and feed their own bellies.

But all of these men and women had one thing in common. Their teachings were untrue, their spirituality a fraud, and their end was in the promised destruction of all who corrupt the truth of the Gospel.

False teaching was a serious problem as the Church established itself in the ancient world, but it was not unexpected. And in confidence, the Church could proclaim the Gospel, clinging faithfully to Scripture in the knowledge that their God was faithful to keep them, redeem them, and do away with the false teachers. Just as He had promised.

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)— if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority.

2 Peter 2:1-10.