THE controversy between Christianity and Rome was not a dispute between individuals, or a contention between sects or parties; it was a contest between antagonistic principles. On the part of Christianity it was the assertion of the principle of the rights of conscience and of the individual; on the part of Rome it was the assertion of the principle of the absolute absorption of the individual, and his total enslavement to the State in all things; divine as well as human, religious as well as civil.
Jesus Christ came into the world to set men free, and to plant in their souls the genuine principle of liberty,—liberty actuated by love,—liberty too honorable to allow itself to be used as an occasion to the flesh, or for a cloak of maliciousness,—liberty led by a conscience enlightened by the Spirit of God,—liberty in which man may be free from all men, yet made so gentle by love that he would willingly become the servant of all, in order to bring them to the enjoyment of this same liberty. This is freedom indeed. This is the freedom which Christ gave to man; for whom the Son makes free, is free indeed. In giving to men this freedom, such an infinite gift could have no other result than that which Christ intended; namely, to bind them in everlasting, unquestioning, unswerving allegiance to him as the royal benefactor of the race. He thus reveals himself to men as the highest good, and brings them to himself as the manifestation of that highest good, and to obedience to his will as the perfection of conduct. Jesus Christ was God manifest in the flesh. Thus God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, that they might know him, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he sent. He gathered to himself disciples, instructed them in his heavenly doctrine, endued them with power from on high, sent them forth into all the world to preach this gospel of freedom to every creature, and to teach them to observe all things whatsoever he had commanded them.
The Roman Empire then filled the world,—“the sublimest incarnation of power, and a monument the mightiest of greatness built by human hands, which has upon this planet been suffered to appear.” That empire, proud of its conquests, and exceedingly jealous of its claims, asserted its right to rule in all things, human and divine. In the Roman view, the State took precedence of everything. It was entirely out of respect to the State, that either the emperors of the laws ever forbade the exercise of the Christian religion. According to Roman principles, the State was the highest idea of good. Neander says: “The idea of the State was the highest idea of ethics; and within that was included all actual realization of the highest good; hence the development of all other goods pertaining to humanity, was made dependent on this.”
It will be seen at once that for any man to profess the principles and the name of Christ, was virtually to set himself against the Roman Empire; for him to recognize God as revealed in Jesus Christ as the highest good, was but treason against the Roman State. It would not be looked upon by Rome as anything else than high treason, because the Roman State representing to the Roman the highest idea of good, for any man to assert that there was a higher good, and thus make Rome itself subordinate. Consequently the Christians were not only called “atheists,” because they denied the gods, but the accusation against them before the tribunals was for the crime of “high treason,” because they denied the right of the State to interfere with men’s relations to God. The accusation was that they were “irreverent to the Cesars, and enemies of the Cesars and of the Roman people.”
To the Christian, the Word of God asserted with absolute authority: “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.” Ecclesiastes 12:13. To him, obedience to this word through faith in Christ, was eternal life. This to him was the conduct which showed his allegiance to God as the highest good,—a good as much higher than that of the Roman State as the government of God is greater than was the government of Rome.
This idea of the State, was not merely the State as a civil institution, but as a divine institution, and the highest conception of divinity itself. The genius of Rome was the supreme deity. Thus the idea of the State as the highest good was the religious idea, and consequently, religion was inseparable from the State. Hence the maxim, Vox populi, vox dei,—the voice of the people is the voice of God. As this voice gave expression to the will of the supreme deity, and consequently of the highest good; and as this will was expressed in the form of laws, hence again the Roman maxim, “What the law says is right.”
It is very evident that in such a system there was no place for individuality. The State was everything, and the majority was in fact the State. What the majority said should be, that was the voice of the State, that was the voice of God, that was the expression of the highest good, that was the expression of the highest conception of right;—and everybody must assent to that or be considered a traitor to the State. The individual was but a part of the State. There was therefore no such thing as the rights of the people; the right of the State only was to be considered, and that was to be considered absolute. “The first principle of their law was the paramount right of the State over the citizen.”
It is also evident that in such a system there was no such thing as the rights of conscience; because, as the State was supreme also in the realm of religion, all things religious were to be subordinated to the will of the State, which was but the will of the majority. And where the majority presumes to decide in matters of religion, there is no such thing as rights of religion or conscience.
Christianity was directly opposed to this, as shown by the words of Christ, who, when asked by the Pharisees and the Herodians whether it was lawful to give tribute to Cesar or not, answered: “Render therefore unto Cesar the things which are Cesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” In this, Christ established a clear distinction between Cesar and God, and between religion and the State. He separated that which pertains to God from that which pertains to the State. Only that which was Cesar’s was to be rendered to Cesar, while that which is God’s was to be rendered to God, and with no reference whatever to Cesar.
The State being divine, and the Cesar reflecting this divinity, whatever was God’s was Cesar’s. Therefore when Christ made this distinction between God and Cesar, separated that which pertains to God from that which pertains to Cesar, and commanded men to render to God that which is God’s, and to Cesar only that which is Cesar’s, He at once stripped Cesar—the State—of every attribute of divinity. And in doing this he declared the supremacy of the individual conscience; because it rests with the individual to decide what things they are which pertain to God.
Thus Christianity proclaimed the right of the individual to worship according to the dictates of his own conscience; Rome asserted the duty of every man to worship according to the dictates of the State. Christianity asserted the supremacy of God; Rome asserted the supremacy of the State. Christianity set forth God as manifested in Jesus Christ as the chief good; Rome held the State to be the highest good. Christianity set forth the law of God as the expression of the highest conception of right; Rome held the law of the State to be the expression of the highest idea of right. Christianity taught that the fear of God and the keeping of His commandments is the whole duty of man; Rome taught that to be the obedient servant of the State is the whole duty of man. Christianity preached Christ as the sole possessor of power in heaven and in earth; Rome declared the State to be the highest power. Christianity separated that which is God’s from that which is Cesar’s; Rome maintained that that which is God’s is Cesar’s.
This was the contest, and these were the reasons of it, between Christianity and the Roman Empire.