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In its early days, as throughout most of its history, the church faced both external and internal problems. The external problems mostly took the form of persecutions. Before A.D. 250, persecutions were local, sporadic, and often the result of mob action rather than of civil policy.
One reason for the persecutions was political. Christianity grew very fast, and it made exclusive claims. One could not be a Christian and worship local deities or participate in the emperor cult (see Emperor Worship). This eventually began to be considered disloyalty to the state, and after A.D.. 250 Christianity was classed as an illegal secret society and a threat to the safety of the empire.
Another reason was social. Christianity had great appeal to the lower classes, which caused the aristocracy to fear it, especially since it taught that in Christ all are equal—even slaves and masters.
Christians were hated for economic reasons. Those who made a living from idol worship and various occult practices saw Christianity as a threat to their livelihood (Acts 16:16–19; 19:24–27), and Christians were blamed for plagues and famines.
Finally, Christianity was considered by many to be atheism, since it had no images and worship was spiritual and internal rather than focused on rituals and sacrifices.
After the Jews, Emperor Nero was the first persecutor of the church. In A.D. 64 he needed a scapegoat to take the blame for the burning of Rome (a fire that from the very beginning was generally believed to have been set by Nero himself), so he had Christians accused of arson and had them killed in cruel ways. Peter and Paul died in this persecution.
In A.D. 95, the Jews had refused to pay a tax levied to support one of the Roman deities. Since Christians were still associated with the Jews, they also suffered the consequences under Emperor Domitian. During this persecution John was exiled to the island of Patmos, where he received the visions recorded in the book of Revelation.
Christianity then was officially under a state ban that was only loosely enforced until about A.D. 250. In A.D. 112 a governor, Pliny, wrote to Emperor Trajan asking for clarification of policy toward Christians. Pliny’s approach, when someone informed on a Christian, was to have the Christian brought before a tribunal and asked three times if he or she were a Christian. If the answer was yes, the Christian was sentenced to death. Trajan wrote that this was indeed correct procedure: Christians were not to be sought out, but they were to be killed if someone informed on them, and they confessed.
However, in A.D. 250, Emperor Decius issued an edict that demanded an annual offering of sacrifices to the gods and the emperor. After offering a sacrifice, one received a certificate of compliance. Christians generally refused to do this, and Christianity now became illegal.
Decius was followed by Emperor Diocletian, who faced a deteriorating empire. He believed that a strong monarchy supported by a strong military could save the empire, and he saw the refusal of the Christians to support the state religion as a threat to what remained of the empire’s stability. In A.D. 303, he issued the first edicts for the active persecution of Christians, who by now numbered 50–75 million, or as much as 15 percent of the total population of the empire. They were now to be sought out and imprisoned if they persisted in loyalty to Christ, and killed if they refused to sacrifice to the emperor. Scriptures were confiscated and burned. Prisons became so crowded with Christians that there was no room for criminals, so Christians were exiled, stripped of property, killed by sword or wild beasts, or sent to labor camps where they were worked to death.
- Henry Hampton Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook with the New International Version., Completely rev. and expanded. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000).
- David S. Dockery, ed., Holman Bible Handbook (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992).
- Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988).
- Philip Schaff, History of the Apostolic Church; With a General Introduction to Church History, trans. Edward D. Yeomans (New York: Charles Scribner, 1859).
- Christopher M. Leighton and Charles Arian, The Encyclopedia of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill, 1999–2003).
- Ferguson, Everett. Church History, Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context: 1. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
- Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.
- Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. Eerdmans Publishing Co – A. Kindle Edition.