18.1. The Pressure to Compromise

In the case of the historic churches of Asia, pressure to compromise came on at least two fronts: (1) pressure by the state to worship the emperor and, 2) pressure by the trade guilds to participate in pagan activities.

Because of its belief in one God the church found itself engaged in a struggle with the Roman state which permitted no compromise and from which eventually only one of the two parties would emerge victorious. The Martyrdom of Polycarp sets out quite clearly both the issue at stake—Lord Christ versus Lord Caesar—and the state’s (as well as the general population’s) view of Christians as disloyal atheists who threatened the well-being of the empire.1

The Christian was faced with a cruel dilemma. His safety was assured only by preparedness, in time of need, to identify Himself either with pagan society, by sacrifice to the emperor and the expected participation in the religious aspects of guilds and social life. . . or with Judaism on whatever terms would gain him acceptance in the synagogue, that is, probably, at least an implicit denial of his Lord. The first inducement was naturally strongest in those places where the pressures of authority and pagan society were most direct (Pergamum and Thyatira, and also Ephesus, where it was steadfastly rejected): the ‘synagogues of Satan’ brought the opposite threat against those who scorned the pagan compromise (Smyrna and Philadelphia, and perhaps the commended minority in Sardis). The situation also introduced a new occasion of disunion between Jewish and Gentile Christians, on whom it impinged differently.2


1 J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, The Apostolic Fathers, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989), 131.

2 Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), 10.