Ramifications of Roman Law
When Nik Ripken heard that house churches in Turkey weren’t able to openly worship, he was perplexed. He asked a leader of a Muslim-background Christian community why they refused to do what the Bible instructed them to do. The leader’s response was a strong rebuke about Roman law:
You were born under common law. All of us, and Jesus himself, were born under Roman law. Common law says you were born with the right to everything, and Roman law says you’re born with the right to nothing. Nothing. It’s a blank slate, and it’s the role of government – be it as it may – to tell you what your rights are.
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How Roman Law Affects Christianity Today
Nik journeyed from modern-day İzmir (formerly Smyrna) to Selƈuk (formerly Ephesus), Turkey in the car with a local Christian leader. Here he had a powerful moment of insight into the effects of Roman law. Nik discovered that these old regulations still play a major role in daily life and control people’s spiritual practices.
The legal system in Turkey and China is heavily influenced by ancient Rome which has ultimately led to restrictions on religious freedom and opportunities for evangelization. “If I can choose my God to follow, just by inference, then I can choose everything else. That’s why they are terrorized by religion,” Nik explains. Arrest, imprisonment, and death are typical government responses. Freedom of choice is not commonly observed in societies governed by Roman law.
12 Tables of Roman Law
The twelve tables of Roman law have a lasting impact on the legal systems of many countries. They originated in the 5th century BCE and were the first written laws created by the Romans. Similar laws limit the spread of Christianity in the Middle East and Asia by restricting religious freedom and expression at the will of the state. Nik experienced this first-hand while living with persecuted believers overseas.
In the presence of security police, a Chinese lady delivered a powerful sermon about Jesus talking with the woman at the well (John 4). However, Nik noticed that she omitted the historical context of Jesus’ ministry: why, how, and what He was doing to build His followers. This female pastor later explained, “If I had included the context of this story, along with the content of the story, I would have been arrested and been in jail right now. In China, you can’t teach the context.”
Not in China, nor in Rome. Roman law covered a range of topics from family law to public safety regulations. Religious activity was strictly regulated by the patricians, the privileged class responsible for government. Even today, the influence of Roman law still reaches far and wide.
Patricians vs. Plebeians
The conflict between patricians and plebeians has existed since early Rome. This is due to the interplay of religion and social class that has been in existence for centuries. The patricians were the upper class of Roman citizens, while the plebeians made up the lower classes. Strict control of religion gave higher classes more power and influence than lower classes.
The patrician class had exclusive access to priesthood and religious knowledge that determined their place in society. As a result, they maintained control over political decisions which kept them in positions of privilege and authority. On the other hand, plebeians were excluded from religious knowledge and therefore political power.
Give to Caesar What is Caesar’s
When Christ said “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he was committing an act of high treason. Under Roman law, it was a revolutionary declaration with fatal consequences.
“Jesus was saying there are things that don’t belong to Caesar,” Nik explains. “That was enough to trap him and have him killed.”
In Roman-occupied Judea at the time of Christ’s ministry, loyalty to Rome was paramount. To suggest that there should be a higher authority than Caesar was treason in the eyes of Rome. By saying “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s”, Christ was not only challenging Roman authority but also claiming a higher power for himself; one which ultimately superseded those of earthly rulers.
Plebeians Dreamed of Freedom
The ancient Roman plebeians were a class of citizens that had few rights and freedoms. They worked in the fields to provide food for the city, but their dreams of freedom went largely unheard by their oppressors – the patrician upper class. While they may have dreamt of liberation from oppressive conditions, could they ever have imagined achieving a lasting level of liberty?
Along with little freedom came widespread poverty and economic hardship among the plebeians. Nevertheless, despite these difficulties, they continued to strive for a better life. This fight, known as the Conflict of the Orders, would eventually lead to the fall of the Roman Republic in 27 BCE. Class warfare still occurs today in the persecuted nations.
Freedom in Christ
Christians around the world share a message of hope and freedom. Despite their oppressive circumstances, persecuted believers proclaim that God’s kingdom is a place of true liberation.
“You can never successfully persecute someone who sees that their freedom is grounded at the throne of Heaven,” Nik remarks.
The Bible speaks of God defeating oppression and lifting up those who feel weak so they can stand firm with Him on holy ground. This is why persecuted Christians focus on God’s throne as the source of ultimate freedom.