Persecution and the Church… Then and Now

I am in the process of developing a Church History 101 course for those who want to learn more about the church since its inception. This course will be about the Early Church, from the first to the fifth-century. One of the things we will be looking at will be the persecution of many early believers. This will be the first of six courses that I will put up on this site. They all will be totally free. Here is a sampling:

Christians, at first, were not seen as distinct from the Jews in the eyes of the Romans. It wasn’t until Nero (around 64 AD) singled out Christians as those to blame for the great fire in Rome, which, by the way, many historians believe Nero himself had set. In this first mass persecution, many Christians died as scapegoats. This was to be the nature of the early persecution of the church—sporadic and local. It grew out of the animosity of the populace towards believers, rather than a deliberate government policy. Pliny the Younger, who was the governor of Bithynia (N. Turkey) and who wrote to Emperor Trajan for clarification on what to do with Christians brought before him by neighbors or local authorities simply because they were Christians. Trajan replied that Christinas should not be sought out, but if they were accused of being Christian and refused to recant, they should be punished. Those who were willing to worship the gods of Rome were to be pardoned and all anonymous accusations were to be ignored. It was the original don’t ask don’t tell policy. But there were still martyrs: Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch, whose last words were, “I am the wheat of God and am ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of God.” And then there was Polycarp, the aged Bishop of Smyrna, who said when asked to swear by the emperor and curse Christ, “For eighty and six years I have served him, and he has done me no evil. How could I curse my king, who saved me?” He was burned at the stake.

A more universal persecution of Christians did not begin until around 161 AD under Marcus Aurelius. Many more died, including the consecrated widow (worked for the church) Felicitas and her seven sons. She was asked to recant and she replied, “For while I live, I shall defeat you; and if you kill me, in my death I shall defeat you all the more.” Then, persecution suddenly ended in 180 AD when Aurelius died. It began again under Septimus Severus in 202 AD and many more more suffered death in the Coliseum, such as a 22 year old nursing mother, Perpetua, and her servant girl, Felicitas. They were whipped by gladiators, run through by a wild bull, and eventually put to death by the sword.

Then persecution abated for fifty years only to start up again in 249-251 AD under Emperor Decius—it was the first one that was empire-wide. Decius used a different method of persecution, because he realized that killing Christians had only succeeded in making more Believers, as the Christian apologist Tertullian had said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Some even volunteered to die, believing that all post-baptismal sins of a martyr were forgiven. Thus, Decius had Christians perform just one pagan observance and they would receive a certificate of sacrifice, with which they would be perpetually safe from harm. Some Christians bribed officials to get certificates without having to sacrifice. However, if they refused to burn incense to the gods, they were beaten and thrown in jail—no longer to the wild beasts. Origen, a famous church apologist, was arrested, tortured, and then released. He died a few hours later. Then there was the persecution under Valerian in 253-260 AD, and another under Diocletian in 284-305 AD. This was called the Great Persecution and it was designed to extinguish Christianity from the empire. It prohibited all Christian gatherings and places of worship, and all clergy should be hunted down. The persecution continued into the reign of Galerius and then suddenly stopped in 311. In 313 AD, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which ended the Roman Empire’s persecution of Christians for good.

It has been estimated that by 325 AD there were 7 million Christians (est. of a total population of 130 million- 40% of the world’s population) scattered throughout the Roman Empire and as many as 2 million martyrs. Why were Christians persecuted? Christianity was considered an “illicit sect” and was on a “no fly” list with the Roman authorities. They were considered dangerous and counter-cultural. They were considered “superstitious.” This word does not mean what you think it does. The Romans were superstitious in the way we understand it with all their gods and legends. But “superstitious” then meant strange, weird, odd, which was part of the reason Christianity was on the list as an illicit sect. Christians refused to worship the gods of the empire and that caused great consternation because of all the superstitions regarding the anger of the gods leading to crop failure or military defeat, etc. They were accused of being atheists because they did not worship an acceptable god (of the empire); they were accused of treason, because they would not burn incense to Caesar or recognize him as Lord; they were accused of immorality, incest, even cannibalism because at their “love feasts” they would call each other brother and sister, greet each other with a holy kiss, and eat the body and blood of Jesus.

After the persecutions were over and Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine, the martyrs and confessors (those who suffered but who were not martyred) were loved, reverenced, idealized and venerated. They were appealed to as intercessors when praying to God. Their bones became relics of veneration. At the Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicea (787 AD) it was decided that relics must be placed on the altar of a new church before it could be consecrated. (Christian History, Issue 27.) These who “overcame by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (Rev. 12:11)—these became a stumbling block to many in their development of a Christ-centered faith.

Today, we are also awed by the stories of those early martyrs as well as modern ones, and for the suffering church in different parts of the world. It has been estimated that in the very first decade of the twenty-first century, 1 million Christians have died for their faith , and average of 100K a year. (JL Allen, 9 Nov 2012, National Catholic Reporter.) We read their stories and hear from various ministries how the church has grown through their witness. Remarkable! But let us not fail to recognize that persecution has also devastated once vibrant Christian communities, especially in the Middle East in particular. Millions have suffered and have been displaced from their homelands. They are facing intense pressure from poverty and starvation, continuing threats and abuse, torture and inhumane imprisonment, and grief over lost loved ones.

One representative of a ministry that deals with the suffering church writes, “Sadly, one-sided stories and perceptions of persecution do not merely blur reality, but they also do damage both to the persecuted and non-suffering church. When persecution is only told as a story of heroism, it blinds us to the reality that Christians living under persecution are human beings who desperately need our care and support… They should not be pressured to share only their ‘heroism’ or ‘miracles’ and to hide from us the depths of their suffering and tears. Similarly, it creates an illusion of an other worldly Christian experience that we do not see in normal settings. The outcome of this is that people think their personal stories and faith do not mean as much as the celebrated persecution stories. They forget that it is grace that saves us all and only grace that sustains all of us. A persecuted Christians is a sinner just like a non-persecuted one. Both need Christ’s redemption….We lack a theology of persecution in the contemporary church.”

The issue for us today is not to idealize persecution or to seek after it if it comes…when it comes…wherever it comes. Our main concern today is to ask “am I willing to live for Jesus”—and to pray for those who are suffering for their faith, whether they have victory stories or not, that they would be comforted and cared for by the Holy Spirit and his church. We can also support ministries that do not glory in the story, but who provide care and material support for our suffering brothers and sisters.

Get ready for the journey into CH 101!

2 thoughts on “Persecution and the Church… Then and Now

  1. Shirley McAllister

    Yea! I look forward to your church history journey. All that history is a blank space in my knowledge foundation. I am ready to read your writing and take it all in. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.
    Daily prayers for you and Gloria from ed and me.

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