In the three centuries after the ascension of Jesus Christ, Christians increased in number, eventually flourishing and coming to dominate the whole of the Roman world and beyond. Similarly, in the centuries following Mohammad’s death, Islam flourished and spread from Arabia across the whole of North Africa into Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), up through the Levant into Byzantine lands, across Mesopotamia and into India. Christianity and Islam developed quite differently, even as they began quite differently. This article offers a bird’s-eye view of the growing dominion of these two faiths.
The New Testament provides the early history of Jesus and his followers. Imitating Jesus’ example of submission to earthly authorities – even unto death, early Christians showed a willingness to lay down their lives as witnesses (Greek: martyrs) to the Gospel. Beginning with Stephen (Acts 6-7) and the persecutions following his martyrdom, Christians were willing to suffer the loss of property and even their very lives. Christians suffered greatly at the hands of Jewish persecutions. Indeed, one of the themes of the Acts of the Apostles is this Jewish persecution, around the Empire but especially in Jerusalem. In A.D. 64, Emperor Nero added to his infamies by officially outlawing Christianity. From that time to A.D. 313 — for almost 250 years — Christians were subject to various persecutions at the hands of Roman officials. The Christians in these early centuries (that is, before Constantine) did not take up arms or suppress others. Christianity flourished and eventually permeated the Roman world not by force of arms, but by the humble submission of faith, even a submission unto the glories of martyrdom. Christians witnessed to the faith in Christ before the Jewish and Roman authorities, and they were put to death. The blood of those glorious martyrs, their imitation of Jesus, proved the overturning of the world.
By contrast, Islam violently exploded into world. Muslims, following their prophet, took up arms and spread the Islam through violence. By his death in A.D. 632, Mohammad had come to dominate Arabia militarily, economically, and religiously. Having no clear plan of succession, internal strife rapidly culminated in the exceedingly violent division between the Shia and Sunni. The Calif (successor) to Mohammad was a hotly and violently contested office and is at the center of Islam’s deepest internal division. Despite Islam’s persistent internal violence, Muslim-led armies extended out in nearly every direction over the face of the earth. By A.D. 750, Islamic dominions stretched from the Iberian Peninsula in the West all the way to India in the East. The conquered masses of people were not typically forced to convert to Islam. In fact, it was often to the advantage of the Muslim rulers that natives convert slowly, as Islamic law provided for special taxation of non-Muslims. Unquestionably, Islamic rule was imposed in these conquered lands and, in time, many of the inhabitants submitted to the rule of Islam and converted.
The foregoing (partial) summary of the early expansion of both Christianity and Islam provides us with some clear contrasts between the two. The most impressive contrast, however, is not between their followers, but between the respective heads of the two groups. Jesus humbled himself even to the accursed death of the cross, and his Father raised him up and gave him a name above all names. Mohammad utilized politics and the force of arms from the beginning to impose his will on others. Jesus served others by pouring himself out unto death; Mohammad sought power by putting others to death. Early Muslims, sword in hand, continued in that vein. Jesus poured himself out for others. His early followers tended to follow him.
Early Christianity, lacking worldly forms of power, was “weak” and thus overcame only through the power of Christ’s Spirit in them. God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. The lines get blurred when Christianity passes from long generations of intermittent persecutions (beginning A.D. 64) which come to a terrible head in the great persecutions (303-313). From an oppressed and persecuted minority group, Christianity then moved into a favored position under Emperor Constantine (d. 337) and eventually to become the official Roman religion under Theodosius I (d. 395). Once Christians find themselves in positions of power, they are faced with the dilemmas of when and how to use worldly power. Further, should worldly power be used for the protection or advancement of Christianity? As a matter of fact, Nicene Christianity was defined, propagated and enforced by Imperial authority and power. From the time of Constantine right to the present, Christianity was and is hopelessly intermingled with worldly power, in a fashion often not dissimilar from that of Mohammad and his followers.
Drawing this together, the reader should not think that worldly power is evil in itself. It is not. Christianity does not reject or overturn the natural authority of a husband/father over his household. Rather, that paternal authority is called into service to the King of Kings. In just that same vein, the kings of the earth are to bow down and honor the Son (see Psalm 2). When they do, they will be called on, by God, to govern as a faithful Christian. There are many thorny issues surrounding this vocation, but they are issues about which we must seek the commandments, precepts and examples set down in Scripture for our admonition, on whom the end of ages has come (see 1 Cor. 10:11).