Over the centuries, Christians have at times been racially, sexually, politically and socially bigoted in ways contrary to the full counsel of Scripture. We have sometimes looked to our own interests more than to the character of Christ or the needs of the world God so loves. We have justified our actions by selective reading of the Bible. If we've grown up believing that the Christian church or our Christian nation or anything other than Christ himself is substantially holier than everyone else, then the attacks of contemporary atheists are actually God's good gift. They invite us to recall that we too need the Savior and that he is not done renovating our lives.
At the same time, if we allow the antitheist's rewriting of history to stand unchallenged, we will sacrifice truth, imperil the future and cripple our ability to present the evangelistic witness still so needed in our day. To paraphrase Max DePree's famous maxim about leadership: "The first responsibility of a witness is to define reality." Here, then, is the larger reality that is the true context for our witness and the greater story into which God is drawing you.
As the witnesses of Jesus began to spread out from Jerusalem in the middle of the first century, Roman civilization was already on the rocks. It was nothing like the Golden Society that Edward Gibbon so romantically pictures. Roman culture was morally wasting, ravaged by political divisions and scandalized by widespread slavery, the commonly accepted abuse of children, and a widening gap between the haves and the never-would-haves. When the Huns, Goths and other northern tribes finally poured down into the heart of Europe they found a society so soft and rotting that they sliced through it like a laser through an overripe tomato. It was not the church but Roman decadence and barbarian pillaging which created the Dark Ages.
People today are routinely taught that it was the support of the Roman Empire under Constantine that led to the explosive growth of Christianity. In reality, however, it was the collapse of that Empire that unleashed the church to play the strategic role God had for it in this part of history. As Dinesh D'Souza observes, "Slowly and surely, Christianity took this backward continent and gave it learning and order, stability and dignity." Bit by bit, the distinctive beliefs and practices of Christ's followers began the profound reshaping of Western civilization.
Learning and literature. Because Christians believed that Christ was Lord of all the earth and that God had left the stamp of his eternal nature in the heart of all people (Ecclesiastes 3:11), Christian monks highly valued what was left of classical civilization, particularly its arts and letters. As Thomas Cahill has documented well, the monks studied, copied and hid away the manuscripts that preserved the learning of late antiquity—saving for us the remaining treasures of Greece and Rome.
Commerce and capitalism. Because Christian theology held that God was the divine Logos (John 1:1-5)—the great mind that brought intelligent structure and order out of chaos—Christian monasteries became radiant centers of organized community and personal industry throughout Europe. They applied biblical principles of private property, civic stewardship and limited government to a world that had largely lost these values. Out of the wasteland of the Dark Ages, Christians produced hamlets, towns and eventually cities. The principles of commerce and elected leadership practiced in those monastic communities created the foundation for capitalism and democratic society as we know them today.