By around the year 200, despite widespread persecution, the church was still growing rapidly, and so was opposition from the Roman rulers. Early in the third century, the Emperor Severus (193-211 AD) instituted the death penalty for any exclusive religion – which included both Jews and Christians. The Emperor Decius (249 to 251 AD) insisted that everyone should make sacrifices to the Roman gods and goddesses. The Emperor Valerian (253 – 260 AD) made it illegal to be a Christian. Many believers refused to recant their faith, so there were vast numbers of Christian martyrs in this era.
Then the greatest major persecution of all took place under the Emperor Diocletian (284-305 AD). He was a strong militarist, and counted all Christians as his enemies. In March 303 he made an official edict or announcement: all services were to be disbanded, all Bibles were to be burned, all church officers were to be deposed, all church buildings were to be destroyed, and all resistors were to be imprisoned.
Besides that, all Christians were required to sacrifice to pagan gods, or die. One of the most significant early writers of church history, Eusebius, says that the prisons were so full of Christians that there was no room for criminals.
Many people in Rome hid in the catacombs, which were originally tombs. Christians lived and worshipped there as they waited for freedom. Paintings and inscriptions dating from then are some of the earliest Christian art. When caught, some of them were sent to slave labour camps, others were sent into exile, or tortured and then martyred. Others were sent to fight wild animals in the arenas.
In 305, Diocletian abdicated. His successor, Emperor Galerius, continued the persecutions; he only lived until 311 but on his deathbed passed an edict of toleration of Christianity, on condition that Christians should not violate the peace of the Empire. Persecutions came to a complete halt in 313 when the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, an official recognition of religious toleration throughout the whole Roman Empire.
Christian worship in the Church in the first three centuries
The central core of Christian worship during this period, from the mid-first century to the end of the third century, was the celebration of Communion – when groups of believers would break bread and drink wine together, as Jesus told them to do at the Last Supper before he died. This ceremony was used to remember the Resurrection, and also as a foretaste of the banquet which will be prepared for believers in heaven. A communion service usually took place on a Sunday, since the Resurrection was a Sunday, and included a full meal.
Baptism was also important. This was a ritual where new believers and their families would be immersed in water, usually in a river, as a picture of having been washed clean of all their sins by Jesus. They would make some promises before the other believers, that they would follow Jesus for the rest of their lives. Baptisms usually took place on Easter Sunday, after a lengthy period of preparation. During the last few weeks before Easter, believers who had already been baptised would also prepare themselves to re-affirm their promises at the same time. This was the origin of the season which we now know as Lent.
There were various forms of Church government in the church. The people in charge of the earliest groups of believers were usually known as ‘elders’ or ‘bishops’, and the two titles were roughly equivalent. By the end of the second century, a hierarchy had developed, with Bishops at the top, taking charge of several areas. Elders were those who oversaw individual congregations, and deacons were the people who saw to the practical matters.
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