Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme that honorable name which was invoked over you? (James 2:6-7)
One aspect of the persecution of the early Christians that is sometimes overlooked is that very early on in Church history it was economic complaint and concerns that led to Christians being persecuted. The opponents of Christianity did not always directly attack the faith of the Christians, nor even acknowledge that the Christian had a unique faith. Sometimes persecution arose because people saw the Christians as threatening their livelihood. We can look at two examples from the Acts of the Apostles. First, in Acts 16:16-30 we read the following (emphases not in the original text):
As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by soothsaying. She followed Paul and us, crying, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” And this she did for many days. But Paul was annoyed, and turned and said to the spirit, “I charge you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of gain was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market place before the rulers; and when they had brought them to the magistrates they said, “These men are Jews and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs which it is not lawful for us Romans to accept or practice.” The crowd joined in attacking them; and the magistrates tore the garments off them and gave orders to beat them with rods. And when they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, charging the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this charge, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.
It is realizing their loss of potential income that causes the owners of the slave to have Paul and Silas apprehended, then beaten and imprisoned. What enrages them against Paul and Silas is their loss of income, not the faith of the apostles. Note they do not really bring any religious charge against the apostles, nor do they mention their Christian faith. The charge against Paul and Silas is 1) they are Jews (they never mention Christ in their accusation) and 2) they advocate customs which are not lawful for Roman citizens. It is those two charges that inflame the crowd to also attack Paul and Silas. So they are attacked, not because they are followers of Christ nor for proclaiming the Gospel but because they follow some ethics which threaten the financial well being of the slave owners.
Second, we find another such persecution of the apostles in Acts 19:23-39. In Ephesus it again is going to be people who feel their income is threatened by the teachings of Paul that result in the Apostle being persecuted. This time there is some concern that what Paul is teaching seems to oppose the religious beliefs of the local residents. However, the main concern is the artisans might lose income if people begin to listen to Paul. But again in this account the Apostle is not going to be accused of being a Christian, but it is going to be the mention of Judaism which causes an uproar.
About that time there arose no little stir concerning the Way. For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen of like occupation, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only at Ephesus but almost throughout all Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a considerable company of people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may count for nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.” When they heard this they were enraged, and cried out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” So the city was filled with the confusion; and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel. Paul wished to go in among the crowd, but the disciples would not let him; some of the Asiarchs also, who were friends of his, sent to him and begged him not to venture into the theater. Now some cried one thing, some another; for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.
Some of the crowd prompted Alexander, whom the Jews had put forward. And Alexander motioned with his hand, wishing to make a defense to the people. But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all with one voice cried out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” And when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, “Men of Ephesus, what man is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? Seeing then that these things cannot be contradicted, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess. If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against any one, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls; let them bring charges against one another. But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly.
In the above account they don’t accuse the apostles of being Christians, and in fact the ‘town clerk’ defends Paul and his Christian companions saying they “are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers.” He knows of no charge against the Apostles that they have in any way dissed the great goddess of Ephesus. The town clerk seems to recognize the complaint isn’t about religion, but about money. He advises the crowd to take their complaint to court or to the proconsuls who are the proper authorities for dealing with economic disagreements. In the polytheistic Roman Empire, religious tolerance was the norm which allowed people to function together as an empire. What could not be tolerated was a threat to the economic interest of groups.
As is often the case in the world, one can follow the money to discover what is happening in the world of the early Church. People at first seem to have seen the Christians as an economic threat to their way of life. For the most part, they probably could care less what the Christians believed as long as their faith had no economic impact on society. But as soon as Christianity’s presence could be felt at the level of the purse strings of businessmen, business took notice of this faith and began to oppose it. It wasn’t the faith as such they opposed, but that the faith of these people might touch their livelihood. Here we see that sacred and secular interest are intertwined on many levels, and the lives of people are enmeshed in ways that do not allow a perfect separation of church and state. So too today in America it is often economic interests that determine what religious beliefs will be tolerated.