Lots of people are critiquing church and lots of people are leaving. The critiques run the gamut from worship to doctrine to cultural relevancy. In of itself this is nothing new. But something seems to be crystallizing in a growing number of formerly committed but still believing Christians described in an article by Thom Schultz on developing research as “done with church.”
It has occurred to me I might be missing something far more basic. Thinking about how Christianity spread underground in a frequently hostile ancient world could provide some clarity. Historical accounts are generally focused on specific events behind these events are often hints of something else. The writing of Eusebius of Caesarea are no exception. Eusebius documented the imprisonment, torture, and martyrdom of his teacher Pamphilus, along with members of his household. These included the slave Porphyrius who spoke out after the condemnation of Pamphilus asking for the burial of the bodies. There was more connecting Porphyrius and Pamphilus than their relative social positions would suggest.
Over a period of roughly 300 years Christianity grew from a local splinter sect within Judaism to become a very large minority within the Roman empire at the accession of Constantine. But in the interim treatment of Christians varied from times of toleration to periods of targeted persecution. Christians weren’t always direct objects of persecution. Sometimes they were swept up in general campaigns to restore traditional Roman values which included worship of traditional gods. Judaism was tolerated because it was backed by the history and traditions of the Jewish people. But once Christianity became distinct from Judaism it was viewed as novel superstition and inherently impious*. A refusal to sacrifice to Roman gods carried at least a possibility of impoverishment, imprisonment, torture, and death.
An aspect of Roman judicial process heightened this risk. Rome frequently relied on informants who might benefit from their involvement. These included accused criminals, delatores (paid a fee or a portion of asset confiscation), and slaves, who could benefit by emancipation. The testimony of slaves would be verified by torture which would serve to dampen but not remove the incentive.
The incentive to inform provided by the judicial system meant that persecution need not be driven by direct edict by an official. Trajan advised a governor not to hunt for Christians, but to punish them if they were denounced and convicted. If a local official was known to be hostile the prospect of personal benefit could drive the process of denunciation, particularly as Christianity penetrated the households of the well-to-do. In this context, involvement in Christianity would take on aspects of a criminal conspiracy, albeit one which placed a suicidal premium on telling the truth when caught. It would necessarily spread through networks of personal relationships between people who knew and trusted each other.
And spread it did, across class, racial, and economic boundaries, driven by belief in the resurrection and aided by a bit of corrosive equality unique in the ancient world:
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female–for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28).
As Porphyrius and Pamphilus appeared to be. The question about why people are leaving church might hinge on answering questions about the state of our personal relationships.
Would those relationships survive contact with a hostile government? Do I know people in my local church well enough to trust them with my personal safety?
And would they trust me with theirs?