Attention has been called to the divine pattern for the church as it is revealed on the pages of the New Testament. The church as we see it in the New Testament was just as God wanted it. It was characterized by unity of doctrine, organization, worship and work. Various New Testament writers sounded a note of warning that a great apostasy would take place-men would depart from the faith, speaking perverse things.
We now turn to secular history and begin the arduous task of tracing the development of various circumstances and ideas which presented themselves after the close of the New Testament period. The particular period of church history in which we are interested in this lesson is what is known as “The Ante-Nicene Period.” By “Ante-Nicene period” is meant the period between the close of the New Testament and the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) at which the Nicene Creed was adopted.
THE CONDITION OF THE ROMAN WORLD
At the time that Christianity had its beginning, the Roman Empire was ruled by men placed at its head by the army. The population consisted of three classes: the wealthy, the slaves, and the middle class of free-citizens. The wealthy lolled in luxury, being served by their salves.
The poorer classes only lived for bread and circuses. The circuses were brutal, debasing, and bloody;… The nation groaned under heavy taxation that went for such a waste and extravagance… The state came first, the home had little place in Paganism. Women were considered as chattel property : and little children were often cruelly mistreated : and if born deformed, or their parents did not want them, they were exposed to die, or killed.1
Most of the emperors were cruel, wicked and extravagant. “It was into such a morally degenerate, sensual and cruel world that Christianity was thrust, to conquer and raise to a fit place in which to live.”2
PERSECUTIONS AGAINST THE EARLY CHURCH
During the New Testament period of the church its members were subjected to various attacks by the enemies of Christianity. At the first, the source of persecution was the Jews. But, when the Roman government began to recognise Christianity as a religion separate from Judaism, it was regarded as an illegal religion. Christians then came under the fire of heathen persecutors.
In the life-time of the apostles, the two main waves of persecution which swept over the church at the hands of heathen rulers were waged by Nero (A.D.89-96).
Of the persecution by Nero, Fisher says, The first marked instance of heathen enmity on record was the persecution under Nero. It is described by the Roman historian Tacitus. From his account we see that the Christians were then well known as a distinct sect. Nero, who was justly detested for his brutal tyranny, in order to avert form himself what was, perhaps, a groundless suspicion of having set Rome on fire, accused the Christians of having kindled the flames which had laid in ashes a great part of the city.3 Fisher quotes form Tacitus who tells how a “vast multitude were convicted…. And in their death they were made the subjects of sport, for they were convered with hides of wild beasts, and worried to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when day declined were burned to serve for nocturnal lights.”4
The persecution of the emperor Domitian reached its height about A.D.95. Domitian is described by historians as a cruel and worthless ruler with a jealous temper. He caused hundreds of believers to be put to death. Among those who perished was his own cousin. Many were banished and the property of others was confiscated.
SOME PRINCIPAL PERSECUTORS AND SOME PROMINENT MARTRYS AFTER THE CLOSE OF THE NEW TESTAMENT PERIOD
It will be impossible to mention and discuss all heathen rulers who had a part in persecuting the follower of Christ during this period. Reference will be made to some of the principal ones.
About 111 A.D. Pliny, governor of Bithynia, wrote letters to the emperor Trajan calling his attention to a problem that had been created in his district by the increasing number of Christians. He called Christianity a “superstition” and expressed concern because so many had become Christians that the temples of the heathen gods were almost forsaken. Those who made their living by selling animals to be sacrificed to heathen gods had suffered great loss in business.
Pliny desired instructions as to how to treat these Christians. Trajan replied that they were to be left alone unless they were prosecuted by accusers who would given their names. If convicted, they were to be given an opportunity to renounce their faith in Christ. If they refused, they were to be punished. While this appeared to be lenient in a way, at the same time it laid the way open for wholesale persecutions by unscrupulous men who were willing to accuse and testify against the Christian falsely.
One of the most prominent martyrs under the reign of Trajan was Ignatius of Antioch. While being taken to Roman he exhorted Christians on the way and prayed that he might have the honor of dying for Christ. He was thrown to the wild beasts in the Roman amphitheatre about 108 A.D. Fox’s Book of Martyrs says that as Ignatius heard the roaring of the lions, he shouted: “I am the wheat of Christ: I am going to be ground with the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found pure bread.”5
Marcus Aurelius, who reigned from 161 to 180 A.D., is described as a just and virtuous ruler, and yet he poured out bitter persecutions upon the followers of Christ. He was determined to restore the ancient religious practices and the old Roman way of life. He regarded the Christians as innovators and, therefore, sought to suppress them by force. He used many cruel means in putting believers to death.
A prominent martyr during his reign was Polycarp. He was brought before the governor and called upon to curse the name of Jesus Christ. His reply was: “Six and eighty years have I served him, and he has done me nothing but good; and how could I curse him, my Lord and Saviour!”6 Whereupon, he was burned to death (155 A.D).
The followers of Christ were persecuted by emperor after emperor through the years, some fierce, others mild. A period of peace from persecutions was introduced by the reign of Gallineus in 260 A.D. which lasted for about forty years. During this period, large expensive church buildings were erected and the church became rich, its members worldly and contentious.
The most formidable and systematic of all the persecutions of this period was the last one which was waged by Diocletian in 303. He was a man of great talents as a statesman and was a conservative Roman. He “determined to exterminate Christianity and to reinstate the ancient system of worship.”7
Hurlbut describes the drastic measures of Diocletian in the following statement:
In a series of edicts it was ordered that every copy of the Bible should be burned; that all churches-which had arisen throughout the empire during the half-century of comparative rest from persecutions-should be torn down; that all who would not renounce the Christian religion should lose their citizenship and be outside the protection of the law. In some places the Christians were assembled in their churches, which were set on fire, and burned with all the worshipers within their wall.8
Rest came to the church from persecution by heathen emperor in 313 A.D. When Constantine issued his Edict of Toleration. “By this law Christianity was sanctioned, its worship was made lawful, and all persecution ceased, not to be renewed while the Roman Empire endured.”9
REASONS FOR THESE PERSECUTIONS
Upon first thought it might be regarded as strange that a body of religious believers so harmless as the followers of Christ should be the object of such bitter wrath as that which was poured out by these heathen rulers. But a reflection upon certain facts and circumstances will help one to see why this occurred.
- Heathenism welcomed many gods. The Romans were noted for their multiplicity of gods. Christianity, however, opposed all worship except to the one God, Jehovah.
- Idol worship was interwoven with all phases of life among the Roman citizens. Christians refused to offer sacrifices to these false gods. Consequently, they were branded as atheists and enemies of their fellowmen.
- Emperor worship was required of all, Christians refused to “bow down” before the emperor’s image. For this reason they failed to pass the chief test of loyalty to the State.
- After the destruction of Jerusalem, Christianity came to be regarded as an offspring of Jewish fanaticism.
- The secret meetings of the Christians, a they assembled in the caves and catacombs for worship, aroused suspicion. Wild rumors spread abroad as to the real purpose of these meetings.
- Christianity looked upon all as equals. It made no distinction between masters and slaves. This, of course was contrary to the spirit of the Roman world.
- Business interests often caused Christians to be persecuted. When those who made and sold images saw their business hindered because multitudes were turning from idol gods to serve the living God, they sought to suppress Christianity.
- Another cause of persecution against believers was superstition. They were charged with causing famines. Pestilences, and plagues in the land.
- The influence of pagan philosophies which were propagated by the Stoics and Epicureans caused men to look down upon Christianity because it was accepted by the common and unlettered class, and because it preached a system of faith and did not prove anything on philosophical grounds. Modernists object to Christianity on the same ground today-that it is a system of blind faith.
Those who reject Christ as the Son of God may profess great learning and depth of thought as they talk glibly of the blindness of Christianity. But, it should be remembered that this idea is not a new discovery with them; they borrowed it from pagan philosophers!
BEHAVIOUR OF CHRISTIANS UNDER PERSECUTION
Under the terrors of persecution, there were many who lacked the courage to endure and so renounced their faith in Christ to save their lives. Thousands, however, held their faith as dearer than their lives and all earthly things. These suffered untold agony, and many died rather than to deny Christ who died for them. The meekness and undaunted faith and courage of those Christians under persecution became more than a match for all the armed power of Rome. Their example is an inspiration to Christians in all ages to stand firm in the faith. Persecutions of today may be in different forms from those suffered by early Christians, but regardless of whether it comes in the form of bodily harm, ridicule, or slander we must endure. Christ suffered for us; Why should we not be willing to suffer for him?
- Homer Hailey, “The Church In The Ante-Nicene Period,” Abilene Christian College Lectures (Abilene, Texas, 1934), 18.
- Ibid. 1, 19.
- George P. Fisher, History of the Christian Church (New York, 1945), 31.
- Fox’s Book of Martyrs, William B. Forbush, ed. (Philadelphia, 1926), 8.
- Fisher, History of the Christian Church, 48.
- Ibid. 50.
- Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, The Story of the Christian Church (Philadelphia 1933), 56.
- Ibid. 57.