Church History: A Biblical View
Part II - The Ante-Nicene Age: Lesson No. 12 Final Struggles
This lesson covers a much longer span of time than previous lessons have covered - about three hundred years (30-313 A.D.). It is a brief historical survey of the conflicts which the church experienced with the political forces arrayed against it, particularly in the latter parts of this period. Though by 313 A.D. the church had wandered in many ways from the pure and simple pattern provided for it in the New Testament, nevertheless, the basic principles of the gospel which had originally made the church an object of hatred and persecution were the ones to which it adhered and with which it triumphed when it was granted official toleration. The story of the church in the Second and Third Centuries is the story of its "final struggles" against overwhelming political and religious forces and its ultimate triumph.
To Tertullian (C. 150-225) is attributed the famous statement: "The blood of the Christians is the seed of the church." Even if the statement is not precisely correct, its sentiment carries more than a grain of truth. Just as truthful and certainly more accurately stated is that the word of God is the church's seed, which is watered by the sweat, tears, and blood of Christians (Lk. 8:11). The church began and grew in the face of severe opposition. The very nature of the gospel and of Christians who stand for it will inevitably draw forth the hostility of the unbelieving masses (II Tim. 3:12). The world will never change nor relent. Hence, when the church enjoys peace with the world, or seeks it, this is prima facie evidence that compromise on the part of the church is at work. It is noteworthy that the New Testament does not tell Christians how to avoid persecution but how to cope with it (Matt. 5:1012). The fact of the matter is that, not only does the church invite persecution, it requires it. It is one of the gospel's surest evidences of divine validity that it flourished in the midst of a most hostile environment. Beyond this, nothing purges the faithless, strengthens the faithful, and tests the mettle of Christians like persecution (Jas. 1: 2-4; I Pet. 1:6,7; 4:12,13). Not surprisingly, the New Testament never intimates that persecution is a threat to the well-being of the church (cp. Acts 8:1-4; Rev. 2:8-10).
II. Church-State Relations
A. Prior to Neronian Persecution. Part of the Roman policy toward native peoples under domination of the Empire was to allow them to retain and practice their customary religions. However, they were not allowed to proselytize Roman citizens. Neither were they allowed to introduce new religions into the Empire. Those religions which met these qualifications were known as religio licita. Naturally, Judaism was one of them. Because the Roman government did not distinguish between Jews and Christians for the first few decades of the church's existence, the latter enjoyed the legal protection of the former. However, Jewish opposition, as well as a better understanding of the church, soon set Christians apart as adherents of a new and different religion. The fact that the emperor Nero made Christians the scapegoats for the great fire which ravaged so much of Rome in 64 A.D. is indicative of the number and prominence of Christians in that city at that date.
B. Change in official attitude. The bitter and prolonged severity with which the Roman government persecuted Christians is almost legendary. Why did the Roman government become so intolerant of Christians?
(1) Christians were zealously evangelistic. Unlike the Jews and other pagan religionists, Christians were not content to leave their neighbors as they were. They wanted to convert as many people to Christ as they could.
(2) They denied the old gods and the validity of the traditional pagan religions. Though the peoples of the Roman Empire adhered to a variety of religious beliefs, they acknowledged the existence of the pagan gods and tolerated different beliefs. To them religion was merely a formality or matter of personal preference. Christians saw things far differently. Their religion was not just the best one; it was the only true one. Ironically, because of their denial of the pagan gods, Christians were often charged with atheism.
(3) Christians were reclusive. This spirit affected every aspect of their lives. (a) Religious. Because Christians refused to participate in emperor worship, the state religion, they were viewed as treasonous. (b) Political. Christians refused to participate in the political process, including the holding of offices. (c) Military. Christians refused to serve in the Roman army. (d) Social. Christians remained on the fringes of Roman society, refusing many of the amusements which were popular among Romans.
C. Roman governmental persecutions. As the church began to grow and
become better organized it became a force to be reckoned with. Thus, the church suffered intermittent persecutions from Nero to Constantine (64-313 A.D.). The severity of these persecutions depended upon who the emperor was. There were some emperors who practiced practical toleration of Christians. One of the severest persecutions occurred during the reign of Decius (249-251). The thousandth anniversary of Rome's founding, 248 A.D., found the Empire in a state of decline. Romans viewed this decline as a result of the abandonment of the old pagan gods. Consequently, Decius was induced to sign edicts which brought the church under severe persecution. Perhaps the worst persecution occurred during the reign of Diocletian (284-305). Not only were church buildings and Scriptures burned, and church leaders slain, but ordinary Christians were ferreted out, tortured, enslaved, or put to death if they refused to give up their faith.
D. Triumph of the gospel. None of the Roman persecutions succeeded in stamping out the church. It only continued to grow. In the confusion that followed Diocletian's abdication and death a young Roman official arose and saw the futility of fighting the church. Instead, Constantine determined to embrace the church and use it for the benefit of the Empire. Shortly before the decisive battle which brought him victory and undisputed mastery of the Empire, as legend has it, he was told in a dream, "By this sign you will conquer." This sign, , was composed of the first two letters in the name of Christ. In 313 Constantine issued the famous "Edict of Milan" which granted full legality and freedom to the church. The gospel had survived its bitterest enemies and was triumphant in the hearts of believers.
III. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)
(1) (T or F) Some churches in the New Testament were destroyed by persecution.
(2) (T or F) If they are living right, Christians should not suffer persecution.
(3) What are some benefits of persecution?
(4) Why did the Roman government persecute Christians?
(5) __________and _____________ were two bitter persecutors of Christians, but ______________ granted full legal recognition in _____ A.D.
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