According to Theodoret of Cyrrhus, on January 1, A.D. 404, an ascetic monk named Telemachus jumped to the floor of the arena during a gladiatorial match and begged the competitors to stop. The crowd was so angry at the interruption that they stoned him to death. When Christian Emperor Honorius heard about Telemachus’ act of bravery, he ordered an end to gladiatorial combat.
Telemachus’ stand led to martyrdom, but it changed a culture. Throughout history, similar stands made in Jesus’ name yielded similar results. Though they often came at great cost, and transformation was not instantaneous, in the end, a culture was left better.
Telemachus’ brave act occurred 91 years after Christianity was legalized by Constantine, and 24 years after it was made the state religion of Rome by Emperor Theodosius I. Earlier Christians denounced other evils, such as abusive sexual mores. They insisted that sex be limited to marriage and, following the Jews, rejected abortion and infanticide. They treated women and slaves as the spiritual equals of men. As a result, woman and slaves became leaders in the church. Pliny the Younger, in a letter dated about 111, mentions deaconesses, and a slave was made a bishop of Ephesus in the early second century.
Christians didn’t kill baby girls, a practice common among the pagans. Nor did they pressure girls into early marriage, or Christian widows into remarriage. As a result, Christian churches had a higher percentage of women than did society at large. In fact, Christianity was held in contempt by the Romans as “a religion of women and slaves.”
The Church’s response to slavery is more complex. Though the early Church did not outright oppose slavery, they opposed the abusive conduct normal to the slave trade, and often purchased slaves in order to free them. Eventually, as the implications of the Gospel’s insistence on the spiritual and moral equality of all people sank in, medieval theologians such as Thomas Aquinas declared slavery a sin.
Nonetheless, many Christians continued the horrible practice, particularly with the discovery of the Americas. Other Christians, most notably William Wilberforce and the Clapham Circle, actively sought the abolition of the slave trade. After decades of persistent effort in the face of opposition from cultural elites and an apathetic public, slavery was brought to an end in the British Empire.
Similar examples can be found in other cultures. Christian missionaries led the fight against sati, the practice of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands, against the opposition of the Hindu elites in India. Native Chinese Christians fought against foot binding, the breaking of bones to compress the feet of girls, a trait considered desirable among the Chinese people. Christian diplomats saved Jews from the Holocaust, often bucking instructions from their home government and direct superiors. Many leaders and activists in the U.S. civil rights movement faced beatings, dogs, lynchings, and fire hoses. Though these courageous actions led to the renewal of various aspects of those cultures, change was not immediate.
Christians had to oppose cultures before change took place. Of course, they had no way of knowing whether or not their actions would bring change. Telemachus did not live to see the redemptive consequences of his courage. They acted because they had to, not because they knew their actions would work.
As T.S. Eliot said, “For us there is only the trying. The rest is none of our business.” Christians today must oppose cultural evils, such as the taking of preborn life, the buying and selling of preborn lives, the ideological sexual abuse of children, and the persecution of religious minorities. Though the rapid changes in our society are confusing and distressing, we must understand them if we are to know when, where, and how we must take a stand.
So that we can join in the long history of Christian redemptive influence, the Colson Center is offering an in-depth study of our culture, particularly recent shifts in sex, gender, and identity, with the help of Dr. Carl Trueman’s new book, Strange New World. For a donation of any amount to the Colson Center, we’ll send you a copy of Dr. Trueman’s book, an accompanying study guide, access to a four-week course with Dr. Trueman and Colson Center theologian-in-residence Dr. Tim Padgett, and access to Dr. Trueman’s powerful presentation at last year’s Wilberforce Weekend.
To sign-up for this offer, simply make a donation of any amount to the Colson Center at www.breakpoint.org/april.
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