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By Pat Knapp

Our culture is permeated with various forms of "Aberrant Christianity."(1) Examples include much of the current "church growth movement" with its over-emphasis on felt needs; the health/ wealth "gospel" with its abhorrence of pain, suffering and cost of discipleship; the name it and claim it (a.k.a. "blab it and grab it") philosophy; and the general trend of seeking blessing over obedience.(2)

Roman faceMany who promote these heretical views of God's redemptive and sanctifying work, interestingly enough, attempt to identify themselves with the early Church.

The Roman persecution of Christians ended under emperor Constantine in 313 AD. Prior to this, Christians who were obedient suffered much according to God's design and plan. A recent chapel sermon at Denver Seminary rightfully spoke of the benefits (from God's perspective) of being a "looser" (in the world's eyes). Not an enjoyable or pleasant thought, but decidedly Scriptural (John 12:25,26; Heb 11:35-40).

Thesis: Like many things in life, persecution (and suffering in general) is a double-edged sword. It seems quite unnecessary and painful at the time. Yet, on retrospect, we can find a considerable measure of comfort and understanding.

God is faithful to always bring about what is best for His people and His kingdom (Rom 8:28-30). Nothing goes to waste, including the suffering of believers. (Matt 5:11,12). There is purpose, and therefore hope, even during persecution.

In examining this topic, it will prove helpful to look closely at the historic roots of the persecution of the early Christians by the Roman empire.

What Brought About the Roman Persecutions?

Sociological Reasons: One of the lessons I acquired during my time in the Army came during eight weeks of "Basic Training" at Ft. Leonardwood, Missouri. Paraphrasing and cleaning it up, the thought ran: blend, blend, blend, be quiet, and, whatever you do, do not volunteer for ANYTHING.

The task at hand was to become as "invisible" as possible and thus obtain an increased level of safety from the demands of those in charge. This attitude stands in direct contrast with the early Christians and their survival in very hard times.

Bruce Shelley, professor of Church History at Denver Seminary, makes a case for Christians being hated by the general population due to their distinctive lifestyle (Shelley, pp.52-60). Early Christians were people who were fundamentally different.Food basket

The Christian ethic lived out became itself a criticism of pagan life. Meals at heathen feasts and social parties began with a liquid offering and a prayer to the pagan gods. As such, serious Christians would not participate in them. By such actions, the early Christians were frequently labeled as being unsociable, prudish, non-tolerant, boorish, and the like.

The Christian view of slavery and human life were decidedly different from the surrounding culture. Human life had greater value for the believer. The body was seen as the temple of the Holy Spirit. This attitude was an uncompromising condemnation of a morally corrupt world's acceptance of unchastity. And the belief that family life was a sacred calling ran against the cultural norm.

Even in the treatment of the dead there were differences. The Romans burned their dead; the Christians had a higher respect for their dead and buried them.

Many false views on the part of the Romans about Christianity added to the prejudice leveled at Christians. Accusations of sexual orgies were brought about due to misunderstandings of the "Love Feast" (which the general public was barred from) and the custom of the "holy kiss" (see Rom 16:16; 1Cor 16:20; 1Thes 5:26). The extreme love seen among the Christians and the habit of calling each other "brothers and sisters" caused some to accuse the Christians of practicing incest.Communion elements

Unbelievably, the Christians were charged with cannibalism. When it came time for the Lord's Supper during the Christian worship service, all non-Christians had to leave. Rumors that the Christians were "eating flesh" and "drinking blood" in these closed meetings led to this ghastly charge (compare 1Cor 11:23-26).

And, ironically, Christians were denounced as "atheists." This accusation arose due to the lack of physical idols in their places of worship and their refusal to worship the gods of Rome (Ferguson). These practices were in contrast to that of the rest of the religious of the day (with the notable exception of the Jews).

In short, the Christians stood out. They did not make for a good "fit" with the culture and therefore came under considerable mistrust and ridicule.

Political/ Economic Reasons: There was a "balance" of power Rome insisted upon holding when questions of loyalty to the imperial authorities were concerned. Rome was quite tolerant of various forms of religion while welding its authority among its people.

Various forms of Emperor worship were required among the conglomeration of religious groups. The only exception Rome made to this rule was the Jews. Their loyalty was to the one and only God of the Hebrew Scriptures. While the early Christians were identified with Jewish roots and practices, they also enjoyed this exception. However, as time marched on and Christians lost this identification, they lost this protecting wing of Judaism (Canfield, pp.17-42).

With a unifying political force of "Caesar worship" having become the "keystone" of imperial policy, several accusations were brought upon the Christians. They were looked upon as being unpatriotic and potential sources of chaos to an already faltering political and economic system. Additionally, employment was frequently dependent upon direct involvement in the support of the idolatry of the day.

As Shelley points out:
A mason might be involved in building the walls of a heathen temple, a tailor in making robes for a heathen priest, an incense-maker in making incense for the heathen sacrifices. Tertullian (c.160-c.220 AD) even forbade a Christian to be a schoolteacher, because such teaching involved using textbooks that told the ancient stories of the gods, and called for observing the religious festivals of the pagan year (Shelley, p.55).

All these above behaviors and "effects" have their place in understanding what happened. But we need to also keep in mind Scripture teaches thoughts precede actions (Matt 15:18,19). As a foundation ultimately determines a building's stability, one's worldview determines how one responds to those around and how one interprets history.

Religious/ Philosophic Reasons: Francis Schaeffer, in How Should We then Live?, emphasizes a different aspect of the reasons for the early Christian's persecutions. While he acknowledges the role of politics, economics, and sociological issues, he additionally presents a philosophical, pre-suppositional perspective. He views the antagonism as the key to the whole consideration.

The worldview expressed by the official Roman elite was a combination of ideas from many sources. The only "absolute" clearly distinguishable was taken from Greek thought and concerned the support of the polis (city-state). All values had meaning only in reference to the polis (Schaeffer, pp.20-23).

Christians were thus not killed because they worshipped Jesus; but because they would not worship Jesus AND Caesar. As such, they were considered rebels. They did not accept the right of the polis to be their ultimate reference point. It was to the infinite-personal God only that they gave their ultimate allegiance.(3)

Further, "No totalitarian authority nor authoritarian state can tolerate those who have an absolute by which to judge that state and its actions. The Christians had that absolute in God's revelation. Because the Christians had an absolute, universal standard by which to judge not only personal morals but the state, they were counted as enemies of totalitarian Rome and thrown to the beasts" (Schaeffer, p.26).

Was There Validity to the Accusations? Justin Martyr (c.100-165 AD) wrote three main works defending the Christians (First Apology, Second Apology, and the longest of his surviving works, Dialogue with Trypho). These writings give evidence of how early apologists (defenders of the Christian faith) felt about the accusations. He argued strongly against the prejudices towards and misunderstandings of Christianity.

The Christians were certainly not guilty of cannibalism and sexual immorality. These were, at best, merely misunderstandings on the part of the misinformed. Or, perhaps, the charges provided justification to hate those who were challenging the sins of the culture and the populace.

However, some of the accusations were true. It was certainly true Christians had a tentative view of the state. This showed through in their refusal to serve in the military and hold government offices.(4) They could not honor the Emperor in the way citizens were expected to. But, as defended by many of the early apologists, Christians were decidedly good citizens.

Positive and Negative Results: There were many significant POSITIVE results from the persecution of believers:

One of the strongest positive results lay in the effect persecution had in defining and purifying the Church. As with any new social movement that seeks to affect the culture, clarity both in acceptable beliefs (theology) and actions need to be identified. Persecution nudged the early Church into more clearly defining Christian beliefs and practices.

Examples of Christian martyrs frequently give us models of godly behavior through suffering. Scripture is replete with such examples of people who served God irrespective of environment.

Persecution served as an advertisement for the early Church. Seen from the world's perspective this was a small, non-influential (at least at first) group of people devoted to some dead, insignificant, self-proclaimed prophet. But sympathy and interest were perked by the passion and commitment displayed by those persecuted.

Of course, there were many NEGATIVE results of the early persecution: First, temporal pain and suffering are very real and significant; they should not be glossed over with a light theological flick of the hand.

Persecution shows forth the hard and unpleasant truth of man's total depravity and rebellion against the God of the Bible. Much of our time is spent trying to heal that which is wounded.

Furthermore, asceticism, legalism, and an overemphasis on "end-time" prophecy increased as a result of the early persecution. A persecution mentality at times took over. This often brought divisions and "reforming factions" within the early Church (such as those started by Marcion and Montanus).

Persecution: Good or Bad?

Examining the good or bad qualities of persecution is akin to the question of the merits of suffering in general. John P. Newport, of Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary, provides several excellent considerations to this discussion (pp.217-255).

On this topic ones needs to see, first of all, that suffering is one of the universal conditions of life. And our interpretation of it must be deep and broad.

Newport describes eight basic Biblical principles that give us some insight into understanding/ interpreting the value of suffering. All eight have some bearing on this topic of persecution. But due to available time and space I will address only three that I believe are most significant to this subject.

The Disciplinary or Educational Principle: This principle sees affliction as given from God, but not for vindication or punishment. God brings upon His people discipline, individually as well as collectively, so that people may be brought closer to Him. Teaching lessons, training, and fostering maturity are His goals.

Proverbs 3:11,12 and Jeremiah 18:1-10 give examples of what this discipline might look like. New Testament examples can be seen in the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:16-22) and in the Book of Hebrews (2:10; 5:8,9; 12:5-11).

The Revelational Principle: This principle basically states suffering comes as the occasion of humankind's entry into a fuller knowledge of God. Hosea serves as a classic example. Through much domestic suffering Hosea finds new insight into God, His mission for him, and the message he is to deliver (Hosea 1-3).

Job, Jeremiah, and the apostle Paul also gained new insights into God through personal suffering (Job 42;1-6; Jer 20:1-13; 2Tim 4:6-18).

The Redemptive Principle: This principle has two sides of application. First, suffering comes as a given to the Christian life, as modeled by Jesus Christ.Jesus with thorns

The Suffering Servant passages of Isaiah 40-55 give the primary illustration of this view. It says we are called upon to sometimes suffer for others, for their benefit and edification in the life of faith. New Testament passages also confirm the possibility of Christians bearing suffering for others (see 2Cor 12:15; Eph 3:13; Phil 1:12-14; Col 1:24).

The second half of this principle deals with the Biblical teaching that God sometimes chooses to turn suffering from defeat to personal benefit. Paul applies this thought to himself in 2Cor 12:7-10.

While suffering and persecution are never pleasant at the time, larger, more important considerations, hopefully, will drive our thinking. Two thoughts on this topic need to be grasped, however difficult it seems:

1) Temporally: The above three principles see suffering as coming from God. This attitude provides a basic overview of the benefits served by persecution. It does not, however, somehow negate a person's guilt in inflicting suffering upon others. People are still morally culpable for their actions (Acts 2:22-24,36-38).

2) Ultimately: While Christians have often pondered the question of whether persecution is good or bad, the evaluation of this in terms of human experience is subjective. Thus, the question (at least in an ultimate sense) cannot be logically answered. Only God ultimately knows the true value of persecution and suffering.

Conclusion/ Implications

The 300+ elders who attended the Council of Nicea (325 AD) were qualified by the immediate memory of persecution to speak clearly on the nature of God. The resulting Nicene Creed gives Christians a clearer understanding of who God is and what He has accomplished in history. In the related "Canons" we can draw much, from a practical standpoint, on Church government and application (Canons, pp.5-21).

Our modern society knows little to nothing of persecution, which may well explain part of the reason the Church has such a difficult time with the knowledge of God and His works among humankind.

While the early Christians certainly had their problems, both doctrinally and behaviorally, we have much to learn from these passionate believers:

1) Addressing the issues of syncretism is not popular, never has been. But God uses and honors those who are willing to stand in the "fire" and fight against the intrusion of non-Christian beliefs into the Christian belief system (2Tim 4:2-4).

2) The history of God among His people, while certainly bringing us joy, comes frequently through the hard and painful realities of life (2Cor 4:7-15).

3) Having a passion for Christ even unto death rewards the one who has suffered, as well as benefits others whom God has chosen (Phil 1:12-14).

4) Having a willingness to "stand out" rather than to "fit in" and to be fundamentally different from the prevailing religious climate and culture of the day can be rewarded and honored by God (Dan 3:1-30).

5) Allowing God to define our experiences (to be our ultimate reference point) through His Scriptures brings about His life in us and makes us usable for His purposes (Rom 12:1-8).

6) Church history should play deep and meaningfully upon our experiences as His children. We need to learn from the mistakes and obedience of others to more fully "walk the talk" (Rom 15:4; 1Cor 10:1-11).

And finally, God's faithfulness should have the effect of drawing out of us the work He has created in us (Phil 2:13; Heb 13;20,21). With suffering being an expected part of the human adventure, we need to have a clear vision of how God uses it.

There is purpose and therefore hope in hard times. While we certainly cannot always see it (particularly while in the "fire") NOTHING goes to waste (Ps 138:7,8).

An excerpt from a commentary on the Book of Job will provide a fitting conclusion to this article:
Afflicted and tempted believers, be encouraged. Learn from this history with what meekness and submission you should bear your trials. Wait, trust, and rejoice, and you shall not be disappointed. In the mean time, let the prospect of the kingdom prepared for you enliven and animate your souls.

But also, careless sinners should be warned of approaching destruction. ... when your enjoyments are taken from you, have you any principles from which you can derive support and comfort? How terrible the case - to suffer both here and hereafter! Be alarmed for the danger. Repent and believe the Gospel (Robinson, in Henry, p.90; Mark 1:15; 1Cor 6:9-11; 15:1-4; Rev 21:1-8).

1. "Aberrant Christianity" - Those forms of Christianity which are off-centered, distorted, or misconstrued at the cost of biblical truth. Two types of aberrancies can be evidenced: Those groups/ churches that exhibit BEHAVIORAL aberrancy and/ or those that are DOCTRINAL in their dysfunction.

2. It seems noteworthy that during the past five to ten years we have seen a significant influx of thoughtful books on the sad current condition of Western Christianity. Of particular note is the forerunner, The Great Evangelical Disaster by Francis Schaeffer. More recent books are: Christianity in Crisis by Hank Hanegraff; No Place for Truth and God in the Wasteland by David Wells; Selling Jesus and A Passion for Christ by Douglas Webster; and No God but God edited by Os Guinness and John Seel.

3. While the Jews were tolerated by the Romans in areas of similarity with Christians, they were more a "closed community." They, unlike the Christians, were not passionately evangelistic. As such, they did not present the same threat to the Roman government.

4. Church historian Philip Schaff writes in this regard, "Their conscience required them to abstain scrupulously from all idolatrous usages, sacrifices, libations, and flatteries connected with public offices; and this requisition must have come into frequent collision with their duties to the state, so long as the state remained heathen" (p.345).

Author: Pat Knapp lives in Denver, CO with his wife and four children. He works full-time and attends Denver Seminary part-time. He is working towards a degree in counseling. This article was originally written for a class taught by Bruce Shelley on, "A Survey of Church History." Revised by Gary F. Zeolla.

Bibliography: All Scripture references from: The New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982, unless otherwise indicated.
Canfield, Leon. The Early Persecutions of the Christians. Columbia University, 1913.
Canons of the First Four Councils. Second Edition. Oxford and London: James Parker and Company, 1869.
Ferguson, Everett. "Did You Know?" Christian History. Issue 27 (Vol. IX, No. 3), 1990, inside front cover.
Henry, Matthew. Mathew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible. Vol.II. New York: Thomas Nelson, 1979.
Newport, John. Life's Ultimate Questions. Word Publishers, 1989.
Schaeffer, Francis. How Should We Then Live? Fleming H. Revell Company, 1976.
Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church. Vol.II. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, reprinted 1992.
Shelley, Bruce. Church History in Plain Language. Word Publishers, 1982.


The charge of cannibalism, incredibly, is still being levied at Christians. The following is copied from a post in the "talk.religion.newage" Newsgroup:

"christians do involve themselves in blood sacrifice. one can see plainly the ritualized cannibalism involved in all their rites" (4/7/1997).

Moreover, the persecution of Christians continues around the world today. In an item dated 3/31/1997, but no longer available, U.S. News states, "At the close of a century that witnessed particularly horrific examples of man's inhumanity to man, the ongoing repression of Christians worldwide receives scant notice."

And further, "Christians face oppression around the world." U.S. News then details some of these persecutions. 

Sources: Freedom House; Their Blood Cries Out, by Paul Marshall.
Copyright U.S. News & World Report, Inc. All rights reserved.

Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light

The above article originally appeared in Darkness to Light newsletter in 1995.
It was posted on this website in July1996. The postscript was added in April 1997.

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