What ended the Roman Empire's vicious — and wildly popular — blood sport, the gladiatorial games? In large part, Christians did. More precisely, one single Christian.
Tom Minnery tells the story in Why You Can't Stay Silent: A Biblical Mandate to Shape Our Culture.
The spectacles came to an end at the turn of the fifth century, when an eastern monk named Telemachus journeyed to the mighty city of Rome. He was determined to put a stop to the madness, armed only with faith in God and the belief that human beings made in His image should not tear each other to pieces like wild animals. Entering the Coliseum one day as a spectator, he bided his time in the stands until the fighting had raised the crowd to a frenzy. Then he leaped into the arena and separated the combatants. He was cut to pieces, but he won the day. The spectacles ceased when the emperor Honorius abolished them, moved by what had happened in the arena that day. The end of the gladiatorial contests was a significant victory for the emerging church against an entrenched pagan custom.Minnery, Tom, Why You Can't Stay Silent: A Biblical Mandate to Shape Our Culture (Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2001), p. 22.
That's an especially dramatic example of how early Christians in the Roman Empire took action to change the culture and the laws of their society. But it's far from the only example.
In Roman society, fathers wielded tyrannical power and women had the status of virtual household slaves. Children could be abused, sold or murdered: Unwanted infants (usually girls) were commonly “exposed” — abandoned in the streets, to be used in pagan sacrifices, raised as beggars or sold into slavery.
Christians campaigned relentlessly against these horrors and — after decades, and in some cases centuries, of pressure — got results. For the first time, rape became a crime with severe penalties. Women gained unprecedented property rights and divorce laws were tightened to protect them against serial divorce. Abandoned children sold as slaves were freed.
In these and many other ways — the treatment of slaves, the poor, the sick, the vulnerable, the imprisoned — Christians radically reformed the ancient world. They did it without anything close to the freedoms we enjoy, and sometimes at great personal risk.
And they've kept doing it throughout the centuries. Author George Grant collects many of their stories in his book Third Time Around: A History of the Pro-Life Movement from the First Century to the Present. He tells, for example, of believers during the Enlightenment who left behind comforts and ventured into the streets of Europe and colonies abroad to save lives of the downtrodden, especially children. “Homes for girls in crisis were established, maternity and foundling hospitals were established, lobbying efforts were begun, legislation was enacted, research was funded, and direct action rescues were launched,” he writes.Grant, George, Third Time Around: A History of the Pro-Life Movement from the First Century to the Present (Wolgemuth and Hyatt Publishers, Inc., 1991, p. 59). The stories can be found on pages 59-64 of the online book.)
One especially inspiring example of Christianity at work in the culture is 19th century English Member of Parliament William Wilberforce. Wilberforce worked tirelessly for 20 years to persuade his fellow lawmakers to outlaw Britain's slave trade. He fought this good fight while in poor health and often standing alone in the legislature.
But Wilberforce had support from a Christian community. He was supported by a group of Christian friends known as the Clapham Group, who shared both his faith and his moral concerns. At one point after his conversion to Christianity, he questioned whether he should remain in public office. These friends convinced him to stay in Parliament and use his influence to promote policies consistent with his religious faith.
Finally, the British Parliament passed the Abolition of Slavery Act on July 26, 1833 — three days before Wilberforce died.
Why did all these believers take on these challenges throughout the ages? They did it because they were compelled by conscience. And while they badly wanted to win every soul to Christ, they also knew that they couldn't stand back and ignore evils in society around them in the meantime. They stepped out and took action to change their cultures — and their laws — for the sake of righteousness.
The fact is, when hearts are changed by the gospel, sometimes those hearts begin to beat in new rhythms. These are the people who, renewed in Christ, begin to see with fresh eyes what is wrong, because the gospel has taught them what is right. They are the ones who cannot ignore what is happening around them, the ones who stand up and say, 'Somebody has to do something!'Minnery, p. 11.