This article looks at the persecution of the early church by the Roman empire

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1995. 2 pages.

Persecution in the Early Church

That Christians must expect persecution in this world was made perfectly clear by our blessed Lord and Saviour himself. 'If they have persecuted me', he said, 'they will also persecute you'. And the apostle Paul added his own testimony to the same effect: 'All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution'.

The early Christians were already familiar with the persecutions recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. These were, of course, largely Jewish. It was in the synagogues that the apostles met the fiercest opposition to their message. Interestingly enough, it was sometimes the Roman authorities who rescued Christians from the violence of the Jewish mob. Initially, the Romans regarded Christianity as simply an offshoot of Judaism, which was a tolerated religion. It was only after the distinction became clear that the state began that series of persecutions which lasted with varying degrees of intensity down to the fourth century.

It will be as well to ask why men and women of eminent holiness should attract such animosity from the world. A number of reasons may be adduced for this.

In the first place, the Christian Church appeared to pose a threat to the Roman Empire herself. Unlike the Jews, who were a distinct nation whom the 'powers-that-be' recognised, the church was an international organisation whose first loyalty was to Christ. 'The Jews', said the philosopher Celsus, who wrote the first notable attack on Christianity in the second century AD, 'are not to be blamed because each man ought to live according to the cus­tom of his country, but the Christians have forsaken their national rights for the doctrine of Christ'. They were therefore seen as a subversive group, an empire within an empire, a secret society capable of disaffection and sedition.

Again, unlike Judaism, a recognised religion of respectable vintage, Christianity was new. In the words of Suetonius the second-century pagan writer, 'a novel and baneful superstition'. Everyone knew that it had not received the state sanction without which it must remain illegal. The Christian writer Tertullian tells us that the heathen taunted Christians with the jibe: 'the law does not allow of your existence!'

The state religion itself served to accentuate the difference between loyal citizens and these 'new people' called Christians. All were bound as a public duty to venerate the many gods, the number of whom grew with the accession of every emperor on death to the Roman pantheon. Failure to worship was construed not merely as irreligious but as unpatriotic. But how could Christians recognise Caesar as Lord? 'We give honour to Caesar as Caesar', said one martyr, 'we offer worship to God alone'.

This refusal by Christians to worship false gods was to excite popular superstition against them. The ignorant populace construed every natural disaster as an expression of the wrath of an offended deity. Behind every epidemic, flood, drought, famine or earthquake lay the Christian refusal to give the gods their due. 'If the Tiber floods the city', wrote Tertullian, 'or the Nile refuses to rise, or the sky withholds its rain, if there is an earthquake, famine or pestilence, at once the cry is raised: 'Christians to the lion!' ('What! All to one lion?', he added, rather archly).

The envy of pagan priests at the success of the gospel augured ill for the church. Many of these priests were also officers of state, only too ready to enlist state aid in persecution. The pattern is already clear in Acts 16, where the Philippian priests, irked at the conversion of their girl medium, charge Christians with unpatriotic tendencies and procure their punishment.

Christ had declared that he had come to cause divisions in the home: father against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother. The apostle Peter speaks of the problem in the home where only one of the marriage partners is a believer. Tertullian ex­pands on the difficulties met with by Christians in the home situation. He presents the picture of a Christian wife whose unbelieving husband keeps her from church meetings, or who throws dinner parties on her fast days. To the pagan living in the Roman Empire, this divisive element was a serious intrusion into the sacred realm of the family and it was not long before Christians were being accused of 'tampering with domestic relations'.

Some Christians, unfortunately, added fuel to the flames by totally discounting natural ties. Lucian of Antioch, asked by his judge about his parents, replied: 'I am a Christian, and a Christian's only relations are the saints'. It was a distinction maintained right to the grave. Believing husbands would be buried with other Christians; their pagan wives would be laid in separate tombs. These domestic divisions provided subject matter for gossip and proved a further element in the growing antipathy to Christians.

The gospel call to mortification of sin and holiness of life was bound to arouse opposition. Peter tells his readers that pagans 'think it strange that ye run not with them to the same excess of riot, speaking evil of you'.

Christians were avoiding all that pagans held dear. The Epistle of Diognetus tells us that the world hates Christians 'because they set them­selves against its pleasures'. Octavius complains that Christians 'abstain from the pleasures of a gentleman'; by these he meant the theatre and the gladia­torial shows. Tongues started to wag against these puritanical upstarts who had taken it upon themselves to shun the world's pastimes. The impression of aloofness was further heightened by Christian refusal to enter professions which they considered inconsistent with their testimony.

Christians were therefore branded as antisocial. They were branded as: 'a people who skulk and shun the light of day, silent in public but garrulous in their holes and corners'; 'people who separate themselves from the rest of mankind'. What on earth did they do at their private meetings? Atheists they certainly were, for they had no visible gods. But why meet in secret if they had nothing to hide? Ignorant suspicion supplied the sordid answers. Had not Christ spoken of 'eating my flesh' and 'drinking my blood'? What was that if not cannibalism? Word spread that at the Lord's supper babies were sacrificed and eaten; the bread was used 'to collect the gushing blood'.

Add to this the believer's arrogant claim to salvation and his proclamation of doom against the impenitent and one can appreciate why pagan passion sometimes flared into open persecution of these 'haters of the human race'.

They climbed the steep ascent of heaven,
Through peril, toil and pain;
O God, to us may grace be given
To follow in their train.

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.