Persecutions in the Early Church

Pentecost – the birth of the church – happened in about AD 30, and Paul’s missionary journeys lasted until about AD 68. The Christian church started in a society which had encompassed both Greek and Roman influences. Greek was the spoken and written language of the region, while travel and technology were developed by the Romans. Plato‘s philosophies were widely followed. They included the idea of the immortality of the soul, and an ideal heavenly world of which everything on earth was a copy.

But the rulers were Romans, and the Emperors had absolute authority. They insisted on varying amounts of obedience or worship. During the earlier part of Paul’s missionary journeys, most of the opposition to Christianity came from the Jewish religious leaders. They were not impressed by the new teachings about Jesus as Messiah. In many cases, it was the secular authorities who put a stop to the persecution. But this changed when Nero was made Emperor in AD 54.

Nero is remembered as one of the most unpleasant rulers of history, and he particularly distrusted Christians. In the summer of AD 64 a terrible fire broke out in Rome. Nobody knew who started it, but Nero decided to blame it on the Christians. He saw them as a threat to peace. He ordered that many of them be thrown to the dogs, or burned to death. You can read more about him on the Wikipedia page about Nero.

Persecutions in the early church

By this time, persecution – the arrest, torture and killing of Christians – was become more widespread. Part of this was due to the concern that this growing group would pose a danger to the Roman authorities. Part of it was due to misunderstandings, and claims of illogic. It was rumoured that Christians were cannibals, for instance, because their communion service referred to the Body and Blood of Jesus.

Some people whom we call apologists then wrote books to deny some of these rumours, and to explain the sound Christian beliefs. Some were hostile to the Greek and Roman culture, which probably made things worse. Others tried to argue that any value in the pagan religions must have grown out of Judaism, which came first. So Plato, they claimed, must have got his ideas from Moses’ teaching.

Most of the persecution was somewhat sporadic. If people were brought before the courts for any reason, and found to be Christians, they would be asked to recant – to deny their faith in Jesus. If they refused, they would be killed. But on the whole, the government didn’t seek them out as such. Sometimes angry mobs killed Christians and looted their homes, but there were also periods of peace where there was steady growth in the Christian communities.

Christian martyrs in the second century

The people who died for their faith are known as martyrs. We don’t know even the names of most of these early Christians. However a few have become famous. Ignatius of Antioch was a martyr during the first part of the second century AD. He was the bishop of Antioch in Syria, and wrote several letters to young churches.

This was the period when one bishop – or overseer – was appointed for each town. Ignatius thought it was important to have strong church leaders during the persecutions, so suggested that each church should have a bishop, and that no baptism or communion should take place unless a bishop was present. Ignatius said he would rather die for Christ than rule the earth – and was fed to the wild animals at the Colosseum in Rome.

In the middle of the second century, an enraged mob brought several Christians to the authorities. One of them was Polycarp of Smyrna, another bishop who had served God for many years. He was asked to recant his faith, and told that he would live if he did so. But he insisted that he had served God for 86 years and was not about to renounce him at this stage. So he was burned at the stake.

Perhaps the greatest second century apologist was Justin; he said the LOGOS (or living word) of God gives light to all in the world, from its creation. Anything good is due to God and the LOGOS, whom we know as Jesus, who was born as a man. Thus, he claimed, any value in pagan culture or philosophy is good – and so it must come originally from God. So it should not automatically be rejected, because God is the source of all truth and light.

Justin spoke out against some of the heresies (false teachings) within the church. You can read more about these at the page on heresies in the early church. However, the Emperor of the time, Marcus Aurelius, had been turned against Christians. He was persuaded that most of the problems in the Roman Empire were due to the church. So once again Christians were persecuted, and Justin was among many who were beheaded, for refusing to recant. For this reason, Justin is often known as Justin Martyr.

More church history pages:

Church history begins
Paul’s Missionary Journeys
Heresies in the Early Church
Christian martyrs in the third century
Constantine and the council of Nicea