Persecution of the early church

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Persecution of the Early Church

For about 250 years after the death of Jesus there was almost a constant threat of persecution against Christians. Christians suffered from persecutions for various reasons, including their refusal to worship the Roman emperor who was the leader of all the land surrounding the Mediterranean from Spain to Israel (which was where the majority of evangelism and church growth was occurring). Failure to worship the Emperor was considered treasonous and punishable by execution. There were persecutions under Nero, Domitian, Trajan and the other Antonines, Maximinus Thrax, Decius, Valerian, Diocletian and Galerius. Many Christians were willing to die for their faith.

The first martyr known of was the apostle Stephen who was stoned by the Jewish religious leaders - the story is told in Acts 7. The response of early Christians ranged from seeking martyrdom to acceptance of martyrdom to hiding or fleeing persecution to apostatizing (renouncing their faith). A number of Christians began to circulate writings aimed at explaining Christianity and calling for Christians to be treated justly. These were people were known as apologists.

Significant Emperors, events and edicts

The first Emperor to strongly target Christians specifically was Nero about 30 years after the death of Jesus. Nero used the Christians, who were generally not well liked at the time, as scapegoats for problems in his empire, and arrested large groups of Christians in Rome and had them executed. His persecution was so severe that it aroused pity in the general Roman population.

The next major bout of persecution in the Roman Empire occurred later in the first century under Domitian who insisted that all people took oaths to him. Where Christians failed to do this there was persecution. It was during his reign that the Book of Revelation was probably written.

Persecution continued in the Roman Empire on an occasional basis until the reign of Trajan from 98 AD to 117 AD. During his reign the issue of Christians not worshipping the Emperor came to the fore-front and Trajan issued an edict that instructed local officials not to actively search out Christians, but to require accused Christians to prove their worship of other idols or else be punished by death. This edict had long reaching effects becoming the usual approach to Christianity in the Roman Empire for the next two centuries.

The short reign of Decius from 249 AD to 251 AD was an especially significant reign for Christianity. Decius commanded that all citizens required officially signed documentations proving that they had offered sacrifices to other gods. Decius' intentions was to force Christians to become apostates (worship other gods). Many Christians did sacrifice to other gods to avoid punishment, creating a problem in the church in later decades which had to deal with the question of forgiveness and re-entry into the church of apostates.

In the late third and early fourth centuries, torture of Christians and destruction of churches became increasingly pursued under Galerius and Diocletian. Finally however, in the fourth century, Galerius recognized that he was fighting a losing battle trying to stop Christianity and legalized Christianity in 311 AD.

During these first three centuries there were times of relative peace for Christians however. Hadrian, for example, ensured that those who accused Christians without cause were punished. Gallenius was particularly tolerant, legalizing Christianity in 261 AD and restoring churches. But these pockets of peace were not long lasting and were dependant on the Emperor.

The response of the church to persecution

Many Christians in the first three centuries would rather accept torture and death peacefully than deny their faith or resort to violent struggle. A famous ancient quote suggested that this peaceful acceptance of death actually increased the spread of Christianity - "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church". Later, many people killed for the faith became revered by Christians.

Some Christians produced academic works to explain Christianity and call for the cessation of persecution. These Christians were known as apologists.

One issue that caused division in the church, however, was how to approach those Christians who had renounced their faith under threat of persecution, but now wanted readmission to the church. Some church leaders felt that these "apostates" could return to the church on the condition that they performed acts of penance. There was great debate about whether baptism needed to be performed again in these individuals.



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