The majority of the book of Acts plays out against the backdrop of the gospel intersecting, impacting and often changing the surrounding Roman-dominated culture. One example is detailed in Acts 19:23-41 where the proclamation of the gospel had a negative economic impact on artisans and merchants who crafted and sold household idols. They lost enough business as a result of people coming to faith in the One True God that a riot erupted. It represented the contrasting values and priorities of the Roman eagle and the cross of Christ.
Not every intersection of the eagle and the cross was this dramatic (but many were—some even more so). But without any doubt clashes occurred—it was totally unavoidable. Unlike in modern Western cultures, in Rome there was no such thing as separation of the spiritual and the secular. They were completely intertwined with their various gods playing key roles in and overseeing all aspects of life (and thus creating a thriving household god industry—not only was it was necessary to pray to the different gods for different daily needs; these gods represented the spiritual core of a person, of the family and by extension of the empire). Eventually the Roman emperor would be declared a god complete with an imperial worship cult (which often came into conflict with the message of the cross). And while Roman culture might tolerate mystery or foreign religions—any religion that they saw as not assimilating into the overall Roman religious philosophy became a threat to the empire itself. This is why the eagle and the cross could not get along. They saw Christianity as a threat to everything they stood for—and it was, but in the best way possible. Let’s see how this played out in a couple of ways.
Roman Social Order
There was a very well-defined social and economic order within the Roman culture. At the top were the Imperial, provincial and municipal elites that included the senatorial, equestrian, decurion and retired military officer class. Next came the plebian, freedman and slaves. It was possible to be upwardly mobile through marriage, education, military service and accumulation of wealth, but social ranking very much determined who could interact with whom and the terms of such interaction.
The senatorial class were the wealthy nobility who administered in both high level civil and military affairs. Examples of such in the NT are Serguis Paulus, the proconsul of Cyprus and Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia (Acts 13:7; 18:12). The equestrian class were a larger class of less wealthy, but still influential people such as Pontius Pilate, Marcus Felix and Porcius Festus (Luke 3:1; Acts 24:1-3, 27). Dercurions were members of civil councils, often acting as magistrates and leaders of communities. Someone like Erastas, who was described as a city director in Romans 16:23 would have fit into this class. The plebians were of the general citizenry—merchants, owners of small farms. The freedmen were ex-slaves and remained largely dependent upon their former masters—with some occasionally rising up through the classes due to giftedness and connections. Finally, there were the slaves—who were viewed as strictly property with few rights (but who also could benefit if they possessed certain skills and/or belonged to a noble, high ranking household to eventually be able to purchase their freedom).
Christianity presented a challenge to this order both socially and from an economic standpoint. Just think of the problem an upstanding Roman noble woman would encounter having to worship beside a freedman. Or the challenge of a slave owner sharing the communion table with a slave (One reason for all of the texts instruction both slaves and slave owners—Ephesians 5:5-9). This actually plays out in the pages of the NT—in Corinth as those with wealth were unwilling to give up their privilege by inviting others to share the communion meal or their patronage by taking others to court (due to the cost of litigation it most likely meant that the rich were suing the poor in that church). As the gospel reached more people and these people began to put into practice NT teachings—essentially re-orienting their views on class stratification creating new relationships built not upon it, but upon Christ—tensions arose and the eagle pushed back.
As mentioned—the Romans took their religion seriously and it saturated all areas of life, but not in ways we are familiar with. Religion for Romans was not a set of doctrinal beliefs, rather, it centered on cultic ritual—such as prayers to household gods, sacrificing animals in temples—and not necessarily for the purpose of glorifying a god, but rather to seek their favor and court their benevolence and blessing.
If however one reduces secularism to ‘a separation of church and state’ then it is safe to say that the ancient world was far from secular. Political leaders wanted peace and security, and ‘religion’ was one vital way to achieve that. That is why emperors built temples, sponsored religious rites, often attempted to reform religious practices, and sometimes even enforced participation in religious observances by whole cities.*
Emperors would not only consider themselves deity, but also “high priest” of the empire and it was in their best interests (and therefore the entire Roman empire) to make sure everyone fell in line with (or at least did not pose a threat to) this religious system. Religion then was fully integrated into the social and political spheres in Rome.
So when this new mystery religion of Christianity appeared and began to subvert the social, political and religious norms—the eagle and the cross clashed. Christianity had no temples or priesthood. Its rituals (the Lord’s supper and baptism) were simple and perhaps mystifying. Instead of consulting oracles, Christians searched the scripture. Instead of many gods, there was one. The teachings were, in some cases, the exact opposite of Roman practice (“love your enemies”). As mentioned in the previous section, the idea of social classes mixing together where slaves and women were given equal value as men was found nowhere else. Maybe this section of a letter written by a Roman nobleman named Maecenas to the young Octavian (later to become Caesar Augustus) helps illustrate not only the Roman attitude toward religion, but also why the eagle would oppose the cross:
You should not only worship the divine everywhere and in every way in accordance with our ancestral traditions, but also force all others to honor it. Those who attempt to distort our religion with strange rites you should hate and punish, not only for the sake of the gods… but also because such people, by bringing in new divinities, persuade many folks to adopt foreign practices, which lead to conspiracies, revolts, and factions, which are entirely unsuitable for monarchy.*
For the Roman—Christianity threated (and eventually did to a degree) to completely undermine most of what the empire literally held sacred—its systems, its social order, its religion and therefore the empire itself. Little wonder that the eagle and the cross would come into conflict.
*This lesson along with the quotes come from The New Testament in Its World; An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians by N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird