In the Roman world, the slaughter of military opponents, the oppression of the weak, the domination of men over women, were not problems. It’s not that ancient Romans were immoral. There was a wide and sustained ethical discourse, but concerns specifically for those who are weak and downtrodden by and large was not on the horizon.
Dominant Ideology of Early Christians
If one had to describe the dominant ideology celebrated by the early Christians, in the simplest terms possible, it would be with the word service. Though not all Christians embraced this ideology, let alone practiced it, nevertheless, it was the one that was taught, preached and urged.
The Christians insisted that love of the other was more important than dominance; that it was more important to serve than to be served. To be clear, these Christian views came out of Judaism. Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites are urged to love one another, to serve one another, and to help those who are in need. Leviticus 19:18—“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Deuteronomy 15:9-11—“Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” No injunction is found in any Roman moral discourse to help the needy and the poor.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Triumph of Christianity. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Sheep and the Goats
These views were picked up by Jesus and his disciples. One of the famous passages on the lips of Jesus comes from Matthew 25, where Jesus is judging the nations of the earth who are called the sheep and the goats.
The sheep are allowed into God’s eternal kingdom because they cared for those who were hungry, ill clad, sick, lonely, or foreign. The goats are sent into the punishment that was reserved for the devil and his demons because they neglected the hungry, the ill clad, the sick, the lonely, and the foreign. This became the standard view among Christian preachers; Christians are there to help those in need.
With the triumph of Christianity this insistence worked its way into the public sphere. For the first time, there started to appear institutions designed to help the poor, the marginalized, the outcast, the weak, the suffering. There were hospitals, orphanages, public funding of welfare, private charities. Odd as it might seem, these things did not exist in the pagan world. They came into being because of the Christian church. Most of us would consider this development a real plus, hugely beneficial to the human race at large and to most of us individually in one way or another.
From Embracing Diversity to Intolerance
At the same time, the triumph of Christianity led to some serious losses in the public sphere. Here, I’ll just mention one. As we know, the religious realm of pagan antiquity embraced massive diversity and tolerance. We can never lose sight of just how varied the thousands of pagan cults were. They involved different gods known from different myths, worshiped through different practices: cults devoted to Zeus, Athena, Apollo, and Aphrodite; to gods of mountains, forests, and streams; to gods of different cities, towns, and villages, and households. These were all worshipped in gloriously diverse ways. This diversity brought a widespread tolerance of difference, a sense that varying paths to the divine were acceptable and even valued.
Most of that was lost with the triumph of Christianity. As a rule, Christians strove for unity. Christian leaders, by and large, insisted that they and they alone had the correct understanding of both human truth and divine reality. They were not inclusive as a rule, but exclusive. This led to intolerance. And we continue to see the results of intolerance today. Not only in religion, but throughout our social, cultural, and political worlds: oppression of others, injustice, racial, and ethnic, and sexual violence. All these in one way or another are silently justified by the age-old view that might makes right.
But in the modern world, it’s supported by an ideology of intolerance for all that is different, by the sense that one way is right and therefore all the others are wrong. One thing is better and therefore another is worse. White is better than black. Male is better than female. Binary is better than non-binary. The people in our country are more important than the people in your country. An exclusivist view of who alone is right and what alone is inherently true. All this is ideologically supported and promoted in the West by religious exclusivism since our cultural heritage notions of truth have been handed down to us for many, many centuries by religious authorities and institutions.
This kind of exclusivism was introduced into our world at the birth of Christianity. It does not have to be that way of course. Many millions of Christians fight against bias, prejudice, exclusion, injustice, and oppression. But many millions of others fight for their right to assert their power because of their innate superiority to those who are different. And so, is the Christianization of the Western world a victory to be celebrated? A defeat to be lamented? Or a bit of both?
However one evaluates the merits of the case, no one can doubt that the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity transformed the history of the West.
Common Questions about Christianity and the Ideology of Exclusivism
In Matthew 25, Jesus judges the nations of the earth who are called the sheep and the goats. The sheep are allowed into God’s eternal kingdom because they cared for those who were hungry, ill clad, sick, lonely, or foreign. The goats are sent into the punishment that was reserved for the devil and his demons because they neglected the hungry, the ill clad, the sick, the lonely, and the foreign.
With the triumph of Christianity, there started to appear institutions designed to help the poor, the marginalized, the outcast, the weak, the suffering. There were hospitals, orphanages, public funding of welfare, private charities.
Christian leaders, by and large, insisted that they and they alone had the correct understanding of both human truth and divine reality. They were not inclusive as a rule, but exclusive. This led to intolerance.