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Being the Church When Empires Fall

July 2, 2011
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Last week I wrote about how the moral descent of the American “empire” closely parallels that of ancient Rome. In the Roman Empire, as sexual activity increased beyond the confines of legal marriage, sexual profligacy worsened, sexual perversion was normalized, and the social benefits essential to a thriving society that marriage fosters, disappeared. Family dissolution increased—fracturing the cornerstone of society—as a result, crime exploded, productivity and creativity diminished, cynicism and apathy ensued; the Empire began to crumble.

I also pointed out that Roman officials, recognizing the societal danger of such licentiousness, enacted laws in an effort to arrest the sexual extravagance and ensuing social decline. Unfortunately, these laws had little effect as the moral consensus, which was accepting of these behaviors, was well established within the culture at large.

Unlike the Romans, however, we once had a number of laws in place that were designed to protect marriage by penalizing “crimes against marriage” through adultery and fornication laws. Such public policy measures were generally supported by the moral consensus that sex was exclusive to marriage. Over the last four to five decades, these laws have been either ignored or abolished as the moral consensus shifted.

In the sixties, No-Fault divorce was established, ushering in an era of easy divorce, which would eventually produce the highest family dissolution rates in the world. These changes represent both a cause and effect of our increasingly secularized and selfish culture. In the wake of these monumental moral and philosophical changes, marriage has become a “loose and voluntary compact” as it did in ancient Rome. This is particularly true among those under age 35, of which more than two-thirds now cohabitate prior to marriage; the number of unmarried families has increased steadily since the 1970s and children born to unwed parents have reached historic highs.

So, here in the face of redefining marriage to now include couples of the same sex, it seems unlikely that we will be able to arrest the ongoing erosion of marriage, when over the course of the last fifty years we have been systematically dismantling the very protections that have brought us to this point. The current moral consensus simply does not appear to support a return to more modest public policies regarding marriage and the natural family and the church is largely compromised (which I will get to). Despite the present futility, I do believe we should always strive—while we still can—to pass legislative measures that promote the well being of individuals and society.

Returning to our historical analysis, it was at the pinnacle of Roman debauchery that the Christian church appeared. As one historian observed, “There was nothing in which they [the Romans] did not indulge or which they thought a disgrace.” The apostle Paul, writing to the fledgling church in Rome, commented on the condition as well when he wrote, “…they became fools … because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator [sexual idolatry] … God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those contrary to nature; and men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men … God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness and evil…” (Romans 1:22–29). Roman culture had, by this time, descended into a sexually obsessed state in which every form of perversion became permissible.

It was into this sexually immoral environment that Christians would bring forth a radically different sexual ethic. Believing that sex between unmarried men and women was a violation of the commandment against adultery, the early Christians took seriously the words found in the epistle to the Hebrews that said, “The marriage bed should be honored by all, and … kept pure” (Hebrews 13:4). So strong was the influence of this Christian “creative minority” that by the fourth century, the Roman emperor Constantine “revolutionized the state’s view of marriage in order to bring it more into line with Christian ideas” (Schmidt, How Christianity Changed the World, p. 85). This was the establishment of what we now refer to as “traditional marriage,” the cornerstone of Western civilization for more than 1600 years—and we owe it all to the early Christians who refused to conform to the world. Famed historian Edward Gibbon noted in his classic, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “The dignity of marriage was restored by the Christians” (p. 813).

A pressing concern for us today is that unlike our first and second-century brothers and sisters, we all-too-often appear similar to the surrounding culture. This is especially true among the forthcoming generation. As Christianity Today reported more than seven years ago, “Specific studies of sexual trends among Christian teens have been limited, but all indications are that, on average, there is little difference between their sexual behavior and that of non-Christian youths…” (Jennifer Parker, “The Sex Lives of Christians,” Mar/Apr 2003). Mark Regenerus, a sociologist and Christian, published a study in 2004 entitled, Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teens. Regenerus’ study revealed that evangelical teens may actually be having premarital sex at younger ages and more frequently than their non-evangelical counterparts.

Ironically, one of the most talked about subjects in today’s culture is sex and yet it is probably one of the least talked about in our churches. Is it any wonder that the next generation has adopted the values of the culture rather than those of the church when it comes to sex? Knowing this, what hope does the church have of restoring the dignity of marriage?

As Christians, we must reclaim and re-humanize the topic of sex by giving our young people a comprehensive theology of sex that is grounded in the gift of intimacy and relationship, rather than a self-satisfying animalistic act. We must move beyond our prudishness that simply teaches teens what not to do and celebrate the gift of sex as God intended it to be. The biblical view of sex as the ultimate integrating act of two persons united physically, psychologically, and spiritually in marriage is far superior to the world’s cheap and superficial alternative. However, until we start teaching the superiority of sex as defined by God and demonstrating our commitment to marriage as the only appropriate context, our young people and the world will likely continue to “exchange the truth of God for [the] lie.”

© 2011 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : Greg Williams  

July 5, 2011 12:00 PM


Once again a profound and provocative article for our day and culture, brother! I was asked by the KY coordinators of the National Day of Prayer to pray at our Capitol in Frankfort for Marriage and the Family. As I was seeking the Lord for direction on this prayer, He kept laying on my heart and mind this thought in line with your article today - Why are we, as the Church, so angered with the current state of, and attacks on, marriage when it is simply the natural, and now unnatural, progression of all that we have excused and/or ignored regarding relationships, sexuality and marriage/family over the past several decades? And, this has been done in our schools, govt., media and yes, as you pointed out, even in our churches!

Thanks again and may we continue to follow Paul's encouragement in Gal. 6:9 and not grow weary in doing good and trust the Lord to bring forth harvest from the seeds of Truth and Love that we are sowing!

Keep the Faith and keep on fighting!

God bless in Christ!

In His service


Response from : Lawrence Shields  

July 6, 2011 2:18 AM

In the sixties, No-Fault divorce was established, ushering in an era of easy divorce, which would eventually produce the highest family dissolution rates in the world. My first marriage was in 1969 now my third marriage going 20years a God thing not a fall of any empire. Everyone should try it that is take in the forsaken widow and the fatherless it is called pure religion by James and a marriage bed undefiled by Paul. Once again please shorten the book and give us just the message. That message being the GOOD NEWS not the crap about the Roman Empire underground and the four hidden dynasties. My 4th marriage and her first marriage after 7 children and now 2 of our own going on 20 years is GOOD NEWS not an empire falling nor a church rising but an act of faith. A lifestyle given us by Jesus and not by default nor by the state. Give us the Adam and Eve God version not the Roman Ceaser junk Jesus said to return to him and to God his stuff.

Response from : Edgar Bowen  

July 7, 2011 6:52 AM

Important lessons are missed when fundamentalists choose to place a literal interpretation on Genesis 1-11, ignoring the powerful symbolism that is contained therein. Adam was the first being on earth to receive spirituality. Through him the human race received its spirituality starting with Eve. Her heart of stone was replaced with a heart of flesh, hence the significance of Adam's rib. It may be infered from this that spirituality is mysteriously confered at sexual union: which raises the significance of human sexuality far above mere reproduction and morality to a height not recognised previously.

Response from : Helen Cameron  

July 7, 2011 6:57 AM

I don't understand Lawrence's comments. Perhaps he would like to expand.

Response from : Diane Woerner  

July 14, 2011 9:13 AM

"As Christians, we must reclaim and re-humanize the topic of sex by giving our young people a comprehensive theology of sex that is grounded in the gift of intimacy and relationship, rather than a self-satisfying animalistic act."

Personally, I think it's going to take something more drastic than this, although this is part of it. Our sexual drifting may well be the most dramatic evidence of our spiritual disconnection from God, but in a very real sense it is only a symptom.

For example, homosexuality can only fully be countered by the realization that our maleness or femaleness is ours by assignment, and that we owe it to God to adjust our life choices to the assignment He gives us as men or women. Every other rationale (such as tradition or social benefit or even personal benefit) is not strong enough to stay the tides of deception in our present culture.

Response from : S. Michael Craven  

July 14, 2011 2:01 PM

Dear Dianne,

Thank you for your comments. In response, I would certainly agree that our “sexual drifting” is symptomatic of the larger disconnection from God. This would be true of every other manifestation of sin in the world as well. The problem with trying to emphasize sin as merely a symptom of our broken relationship with God is that we can spiritualize the problem to such an extent that we ignore the material condition itself. In the case of my article, I am addressing the very real and present condition of sexual immorality as both cause and effect. In the context of life and reality, this is an essential starting point for engaging the larger subject of our spiritual reality from the material reality in which we actually live. Since we are not Platonic dualists, we cannot disregard one for the other. So, while I understand your point, I don’t think I am diminishing the need for reconciliation with God by calling on the church to advocate and demonstrate a superior sexual ethic.


Response from : Patrick Beal  

August 24, 2011 7:12 PM

Can someone explain how same-gender couples valuing and desiring to express a lifetime commitment to each other through access to marriage (as opposed to social/sexual "castration" or isolation) would de-value marriage?


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