Pliny served his years’ service in a Syrian legion in AD 81 and later that decade, thanks to the patronage of prominent Roman families, entered the Senate of Rome. While in the Senate, Pliny prosecuted provincial governors guilty of extortion. Due to his success in civil matters, he rose through the ranks in the Senate acquiring the praetorship in the early to mid-90s, and consulship in 100. By the middle of the first decade of the second century, Pliny was appointed by Emperor Trajan to govern Bithynia-Pontus. There he encountered Christians.
During the time in which Pliny encountered Christians, various groups had risen up and caused disturbances throughout the Empire. Trajan was so suspect of groups that he even forbad a company of firemen from assembling because, in his experiences, when groups assemble it wasn’t long before they turned into a society set against the state. This was the cause of several disturbances in Pliny’s province. Trajan thought it better to have an inefficient fire brigade than to have a well-organized one that could possibly turn into a group of dissenters. Therefore, Christians began to be viewed the same way.
Trajan wrote to Pliny about political clubs (hetaeria), and Pliny had used the same Greek term to refer to the Christians. Hence, Christianity was viewed, in Pliny’s province at least, as a political club. In the governor’s mind, because Christians refused to purchase meat used in Roman religious rites, and to pinch incense to the Emperor, they disturbed the public peace and were, therefore, an economic and political threat (1). To not render obeisance to the Roman orders, Christians threatened to welcome the wrath of the gods, but more so, as people converted to Christianity, they ceased frequenting the pagan temples which ultimately withheld revenue from those temples in various ways. Christianity’s proclamation that Christ alone was God ultimately was to stick their hands into the Roman purse and hold its funds captive.
As you might imagine, this only led to the state-sponsored persecution of Christians. Many died because of this, but what the Romans misunderstood was that Christianity was not a political club, and it still isn’t—or at least it shouldn’t be. Christianity was and is a kingdom centered people who cast aside state alliances in favor of standing with Christ. Christianity is a way of life that abandons all that is opposed to fidelity to Christ. We would do well to remember this lesson.
- Christopher A. Hall, Living Wisely With the Church Fathers (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017), 34–35.