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The History of Persecution

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Pastor Mark Montgomery
Ambassador Baptist Church
1926 Babcock Blvd
Pittsburgh, PA 15209
(412)822-7255

  • I.The reasons for persecution.
    • A. Political.
      • 1. Christianity was a "religio illicita".
        • a. At first, Christianity was looked on as being part of Judaism.
          • (1) The Romans tolerated the religions of conquered peoples.
          • (2) The Romans did not allow other religions to try to proselyte the Roman citizens.
          • (3) Judaism was a "religio licita" (legal sect).
        • b. Soon, Christianity became distinguished from Judaism.
          • (1) Christianity was classified as a secret society.
          • (2) Romans would allow no rival for the allegiance of its subjects.
          • (3) The Christians spent much time attempting to proselyte the Romans.
        • c. Christianity became an illegal religion, and was considered a threat to the safety of the Roman state.
          • (1) The leadership of the empire believed that the Roman state was the highest good.
          • (2) Religion could only be tolerated as it contributed to the stability of the state.
        • (a) Christians turned their loyalty from the state to Christ.
        • (b) Christians aspired to the universality of Christ's kingdom.
        • (c) Christians refused to sacrifice at alters devoted to the genius of Roman emperors.
        • (d) Christians held most of their meetings at night and in secret.
    • B. Religious.
      • 1. Rome had its own religion.
        • a. Roman religion was mechanical and external.
        • b. It had alters, priests, rites and professionals for all the world to see.
      • 2. The Christian worship was very different from the Roman.
        • a. The Christians had no idol or objects of worship.
        • b. The worship of the Christians was spiritual and internal.
        • c. Christians prayed with their eyes closed.
        • d. The Romans viewed this as atheism.
      • 3. The Romans misunderstood Christian practices.
        • a. Secret meetings caused the Romans to question the morality of the Christians.
          • (1) Christians were observed to be fond of each other.
          • (2) The "kiss of peace" was twisted to mean an immoral conduct .
        • b. Romans felt that by "eating and drinking the elements", the Christians were practicing cannibalism.
    • C. Social.
      • 1. Christians had great appeal to the lower classes and slaves.
        • a. The aristocrats held the lower classes in contempt.
        • b. The aristocrats also feared the lower classes.
      • 2. The Christians held to the equality of all men.
      • 3. The Christians separated themselves from pagan gatherings.
        • a. They would not attend the temples.
        • b. They would not attend the theater.
        • c. Their purity was a silent rebuke to the scandalous lives of the upper class.
      • 4. The nonconformity of Christians led the Romans to believe that they were "haters of mankind".
      • 5. The zeal of the Christians led the Romans to view them as wild fanatics.
    • D. Economic.
      • 1. Christianity came into conflict with the economic interests of some people.
        • a. The idol makers felt threatened by them.
        • b. Pagan priests felt threatened by them.
        • c. Vendors of sacrificial animals felt threatened by them.
        • d. Soothsayers felt threatened by them.
      • 2. Christianity was blamed for causing natural disasters.
    • E. Christianity was not a licensed religion, and thus had no right to exist.
  • II. The periods of persecution.
    • A. The persecution by the Sadducees (Acts 4:2-4).
      • 1. Sadducees began to fear the Christians when Christ proclaimed Himself to he the Messiah.
        • a. They feared an uprising of the people
        • b. They feared Roman intervention.
      • 2. After the death of Christ, the Sadducees continued their persecution.
        • a. Christ's resurrection was contrary to their doctrine of no resurrection.
        • b. The miracles of Christ and the apostles were contrary to their denial of miracles.
      • 3. A major confrontation occurred between Christians and Sadducees at the gate of the temple. (Acts 3).
        • a. Peter healed a crippled man.
        • b. The Sadducees responded by arresting Peter and John and holding trial before the whole Sanhedrin.
      • 4. Sadducean persecution is revived in Acts 5:17-42.
        • a. Apostles again thrown in prison.
        • b. Gamaliel speaks for the apostles.
      • 5. The Sadducees executed James, the brother of Christ.
    • B. The persecution by the Pharisees (Acts 6:9ff).
      • 1. Stephen preached in the synagogue, was arrested and stoned.
        • a. Homes were invaded.
        • b. Men and women taken violently to court and excuted.
    • C. The persecutions of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 8:1ff).
      • 1. There are five reasons for Saul becoming a persecutor.
        • a. The coming to the front of the Hellenist Stephen who looked to break with Jerusalem and the temple.
        • b. Stephen's Messiah was a Godman and sufferer,not a Jewish hero on David's earthly throne.
        • c. Stephen's preaching was making inroads among Saul's flock.
        • d. Some of Saul's family were converted.
        • e. Saul was defeated in the debate with Stephen.
      • 2. The extent of Saul's persecution was great.
        • a. He went into the homes of individuals.
        • b. He scourged both men and women.
        • c. He imprisoned them.
        • d. He voted to put them to death.
        • e. He compelled them to blaspheme.
        • f. He exiled them.
      • 3. The results of Saul's persectuion were great.
        • a. The believers were scattered.
        • b. The church grew numerically.
        • c. Laymen came to the foreground to evangelize.
    • D. The persecution by Claudius and Herod Agrippa (41-54 A.D.).
      • 1. Agrippa and Claudius were educated together.
        • a. Claudius became the fourth Roman emperor.
        • b. Agrippa became tetrarch of all Judea and Israel.
      • 2. When the conflict came between Jews and Christians, they both sided with Jews.
        • a. Agrippa executed James the apostle.
        • b. He persecuted the church wherever possible. (Acts 12).
      • 3. After the death of Agrippa, Claudius continued the persecution until his death.
    • E. The persecution by Nero (64-68 A.D.).
      • 1. This was mainly a local and unofficial persecution.
      • 2. Nero started the persecution by blaming the Christians for a fire which destroyed much of Rome. Popular opinion had rumored that Nero had started it.
      • 3. Nero was the first to enact laws for the extermination of Christians.
      • 4. The persecutions of Nero were very cruel.
        • a. Christians were sewn into the skins of animals and eaten by dogs.
        • b. Some were crucified.
        • c. Others were covered with pitch, fixed on a sharp spike, and set on fire to light up the sky.
      • 5. A great number were executed by Nero.
      • 6. The torment was so great that the citizens began to take pity towards the Christians.
      • 7. Paul, Peter, Bartholomew, Aristarchus, Thomas, Mathias, Andrew, and Matthew were all executed at this time.
    • F. The persecutions of Vespasian and Titus (68-81 A.D.).
      • 1. Vespasian may have been anti-Christian
      • 2. Titus took action against Christians when suppressing the Jewish revolt.
    • G. The persecution by Domitian (94-96 A.D.).
      • 1. The cause of this was Domitian's fear of losing his empire.
      • 2. This persecution was as harsh as that of Nero.
      • 3. Christians were subjected to confiscation of goods and banishment for godlessness.
      • 4. He executed Flavius Clemens and Flavia Domitilla.
      • 5. He banished John to the isle of Patmos.
    • H. The persecution by Trajan (98-117 A.D.).
      • 1. Trajan renewed the laws against secret societies.
      • 2. Because of this law, Pliny the Younger, the Governor of Bithynia, executed the Christians.
      • 3. Trajan supported Pliny, but told him not to seek out the Christians.
      • 4.This persecution extended to Syria and Palestine.
      • 5.Pliny wrote that Christianity had made great progress.
      • 6.Ignatius and Simeon were martyred at this time.
      • 7. Trajan finally gave an edict of toleration
    • I. The persecution by Hadrian (117138 A.D.).
      • 1. During his reign many Christians were executed at the heathen festivals.
      • 2. Hadrian opposed the rash outbreaks of violence.
      • 3. He ordered the protection of those who were innocent of being Christians, but called for the punishment of those who were guilty.
      • 4. During this time Barcochab committed great outrages against the Christians.
      • 5. This was mainly a local persecution.
    • J. The persecution by Antoninus Pius (138-161 A.D.).
      • 1. Pius attempted to protect the Christians.
      • 2. However, many natural disasters occurred for which the Christians were blamed.
      • 3. This was mainly a local persecution.
    • K. The persecution by Marcus Aurelius (161-180 A.D.).
      • 1. This was mainly a local persecution.
      • 2. He was a Stoic.
        • a. He was disturbed by the fanaticism of the Christians.
        • b. He looked upon their faithfulness to God as obstinacy to authority.
      • 3. He blamed the Christians for natural disasters.
      • 4. He persecuted the Christians more than any emperor since Nero, whose cruelties he personally abhorred.
        • a. He organized a system of espionage.
        • b. He used torture to get Christians to recant.
        • c. Justin Martyr and Polycarp were executed.
      • 5. This persecution was favorable to the spread of Christianity.
        • a. It advertised Christianity.
        • b. The ability of Christians to stand influenced others.
        • c. Christianity became more aggressive in literature.
    • L. The persecution by Commodus (180-192 A.D.).
      • 1. He was more favorable towards Christians than any of his predecessors, because of Marcia, his mistress.
      • 2. Persecutions at this time in North Africa were a result of Marcus Aurelisu.
    • M. The persecution by Septimus Severus (193-211 A.D.).
      • 1. Up until the year 202, Severus was not hostile to Christianity.
      • 2. In the year 202, Severus made a decree forbidding conversion to Christianity.
      • 3. This began a heated persecution, mostly in Egypt, and North Africa.
      • 4. The father of Origen was executed.
    • N. The persecution by Curacalla (211-217 A.D.).
      • 1. He was a very immoral and cruel man.
      • 2. He did tolerate Christianity.
    • 0. The persecution by Heliogabalus (218-222 A.D.).
      • 1. Christianity was given no place among his senseless and absurd religions.
      • 2. He was tolerant toward Christianity.
    • P. The persecution by Alexander Severus (222-235 A.D.).
      • 1. He was very friendly towards Christianity.
      • 2. He put an idol of Christ in his domestic chapel.
      • 3. There were still some martyrs during this time.
    • Q. The persecution by Maximus Thrax (235-238 A.D.).
      • 1. This was considered a local persecution.
      • 2. It was excited by the great hatred of Maximus for Alexander Severus and all those associated with him.
      • 3. He was one of the coarsest and most brutal barbarians.
      • 4. He directed his attack against church leaders.
    • R. The persecutions by Gordianus and Philip (238-245 A.D.).
      • 1. Christians had rest under these emperors.
      • 2. Philip has been considered the first Christian emperor.
      • 3. Any persecutions at this time were on a very minor level.
    • S. The persecution by Decius Trajan (249-251 A.D.).
      • 1. This was a universal and official persecution.
      • 2. Decius believed that the Empire could be saved only through a return to ancient Roman religions.
      • 3. He set up a systmatic method of persecuting Christians.
        • a. He made a decree that there must be an annual sacrifice to the gods and The Genius of the Emperor.
        • b. Those who sacrificed received a certificate.
        • c. Those who had no certificate were severly punished.
          • (1) Their goods were confiscated.
          • (2) They were banished.
          • (3) They were severly tortured.
          • (4) Many were executed, including the bishops of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome.
          • (5) Many were jailed, and some died there.
      • 4. This persecution was more cruel and terrible than any that preceeded it.
      • 5. This persecution had many results.
        • a. Many Christians lost their lives.
        • b. Many renounced their faith to receive certificates.
          • (1) Because of recent periods of tranquility, many Christians had forgotten that there was a price to pay for being a Christian.
          • (2) Those who lapsed in persecution were called Lapsi, Sacrificers, Incensers, the Certified, and other names of derision.
    • T. The persecution by Gallus (251-253 A.D.).
      • 1. Gallus revived the persecution of Christians.
      • 2. Most of the persecution was caused by natural disasters which were blamed on the Christians.
      • 3. The persecution was restricted by political embarrassment.
    • U. The persecution by Valerianus (253-260 A.D.).
      • 1. Valerianus was very kind to Christians for the first five years of his reign.
      • 2. Under the persuasion of Macrianus, his pagan prime minister, he began to persecute the Christians without bloodshed.
        • a. He forbid the Christians from holding meetings.
        • b. He ordered the bishops into exile.
      • 3. When this appeared futile he made an edict that was more bloody than that of Decius.
        • a. Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons were to immediately be put to death, among them Cyprian.
        • b. Those of wealth were to immediately lose their dignity. If they still did not recant they were to be executed.
      • 4. The aim of this persecution was the complete destruction of Christianity.
      • 5. The results of this persecution were many.
        • a. The faith of Christians was put to the test, and many were found wanting.
        • b. Many controversies arose in regards to treatment of the Lapsi, and the Novatian schism.
        • c. The ability of Christianity as a whole to stand was demonstrated.
      • 6. This had been a universal persecution.
    • V. The persecutions under Gallienus, Claudius, Aurelian, and Probus (260-282 A.D.).
      • 1. These were years of quiet and peace for the Christian.
      • 2. A few minor persecutions took place on a local level.
    • W. The persecutions by Diocletian (284-305 A.D.).
      • 1. Christianity had grown in the empire.
      • 2. Some of Diocletian's household were Christians.
      • 3. Until 303, no persecution of Christians took place.
      • 4. In 303, the worst persecution of Christians took place.
      • 5. Diocletian made three major edicts.
        • a. He called for the destruction of churches, the burning of the Scripture, the degradation of Christians in places of honor and the deprivation of freedom for Christian servants.
        • b. He called for the imprisonment of all church leaders.
        • c. He offered freedom to those who would sacrifice, and tortured those who would not.
      • 6. First, the church at Nicomedia was burned.
      • 7. A nobleman tore down the edict and was executed.
      • 8. All manner of vile tortures were invented and used.
      • 9. The reasons for Diocletian's persecution are unknown.
        • a. He was probably pushed into it by Galerius, one of three other emperors with Diocletian.
        • b. Some think that he was motivated by a political desire to rule the pagan west in addition to the Christian east.
      • 10. This persecution was universal, save in Britain where Constantius was favorable towards Christians.
      • 11. In 305, Diocletian stepped down but the persecutions continued until Constantine, the son of Constantius of Britain embraced Christianity in 313 A.D.

Bibliography

Bigg, Charles.
The Origins of Christianity. Oxford: The Clarnedon Press, 1909. Dr. Bigg was the professor of Ecclesiastical History at Christ Church, Oxford. His book deals with the church through the persecutions.
Cairns, Earle E.
Christianity Through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Chruch. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1961.
Carroll, B.H.
The Acts. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973. Dr. Carroll is a Bapitst. His commentaries are perhaps the best of any written by true Baptist.
Cowan, Henry.
Landmarks of Church History to the Reformation. London: A. & C. Black, 1896.
De Pressense, E.
The Early Years of Christianity: A Comprehensive History of the First Three Centuries of the Christian Church, vol. II. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1879.
Fisher, George Park.
History of the Christian Church. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1915.
Kurtz.
Church History, vol. I. New York: Funk and Wagnells, n.d.
Latourette, Kenneth Scott.
A History of Christianity, vol. I Beginnings to A.D. 1500. New York: Harper and Rwo Publishers, 1975. Latourette is a liberal Baptist, but a fine historian. His work here is an extremely broad and comprehensive view of the overall picture of history.
Latourette, K.S.
The First Five Centuries. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1937. This is another excellent work by the skilled historian. This volume differs from the previous one in that it is much more precise in dealing with the early centuries of Christianity.
Newman, Albert Henry.
A Manual of Church History, vol I. Valley Forge: judson Press, 1933. Dr. Newman is a strong Baptist with much knowledge in the field of Baptist history. His is an easy to read style which still deals with the difficult facts of history.
Von Mosheim, John Laurence.
Institutes of Ecclesiastical History, Ancient and Modern, vol. I. New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1861. Dr. Von Mosheim is referred to as, "The father of Modern Ecclesistical History". This is perhaps the greatest work on the history of Christianity in modern times.
Orr, James ed. et. al.
The International Standard Bibole Encyclopedia, vol. I. Chicago: The Howard-Severance company, 1937.
Orr, James, ed. et. al.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. III. Chicaago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1937.
Orr, James, ed. et. al.
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. IV. Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1937.



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