We live in an era that assumes the dignity of human beings. We protest things we don’t like with the expectation that we will be seen, heard, and hopefully heeded. We demand that our rights be respected and that we be treated with the consideration we deserve. What many people do not understand is that this expectation stems from Christianity’s influence upon Western civilization.
Some claim that the Bible diminishes human dignity. Critics argue that Christianity started wars throughout history, discriminates against women, and permitted slavery to flourish. In reality, Christianity began a new epoch for human rights in at least four ways.
First, Christianity elevates the value of humanlife. The Roman view of humanity would shock most people today. Slaves could be tortured when giving evidence before a court of law, with the assumption being that they would only tell the truth under duress. A newborn that did not meet with the approval of the father—usually because it was sickly, weak, or had an apparent congenital disability—would be disposed of. Such infants would be discarded upon trash heaps where they would die or be taken by slavers who would often press them into a life of forced prostitution.
Second, Christianity helped bring an end to violence as entertainment. Many people today consider sports such as boxing, mixed martial arts, and football to be violent and barbaric. Ancient games were much more so. Gladiatorial combat was not usually deadly, but people did die in the arena. Historians estimate that at least 20% of gladiatorial fights ended with one combatant dead. Believers helped bring an end to the sport at the turn of the fifth century.
Third, the Bible prescribes a higher sexual ethic. Roman society expected wives to be utterly faithful, while married men had much more sexual freedom. Men did observe some rules and restrictions about how they could express themselves (usually because it impacted their social standing), but the double standard is obvious. The biblical writers expect men and women to observe the same principles regarding sexual behavior (1 Corinthians 7:2-4; also 1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6). Pederasty (sexual activity between a man and a boy) was so common that modern laws against pedophilia and child molestation would no doubt have struck the ancient Romans as strange.
Finally, believers created a scandal by accepting people of all kinds into the church. The Romans could be described as xenophobic. Consul Manius Acilius said in a speech that peoples such as Syrians and Asiatic Greeks were worthless people born for slavery (c. 191 BC). Other Roman writers such as Julian the Apostate (AD 332-363) expressed contempt for Christians (whom he called the “godless Galileans”) because they accepted people of all kinds. The apostle Paul argues that all people are one in Christ regardless of ethnicity, gender, or socio-economic standing (Galatians 3:28; cf. Genesis 1:27).
Ethnocentrism, xenophobia, exclusion of “the other,” and discrimination of all kinds had become commonplace in the Roman when the church first appeared. Sadly, it still exists today. Thankfully, the gospel of Christ serves to demolish this kind of thinking and put every person, everywhere, on the same level.