The Conviction of the Early Church
Keith Bintley, Bishops Stortford, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
Why bother with church history?
‘History is bunk’, Henry Ford famously declared. In a society focused upon the here and now, that philosophy abounds. ‘The beliefs and practices of yesteryear have little relevance in an age of progress’. ‘As Christians, we have an inspired and infallible guide in the Bible, in contrast to an uninspired and fallible church’. ‘Besides what some might claim, it was not until the nineteenth century that any thing of value was rediscovered!’, etc., etc. For a moment then, let us pause and reflect upon the value of history:
- History is His story. Rather a cliché but nonetheless Christ promised to be with His people to the end of the age, Matt. 28. 20. Can we fail to look for evidence of this promise throughout the ages, or fail to believe He can achieve the same again?
- Israelite fathers were expected to explain to their sons the history of their nation, Deut. 6. 20-25, a recurring theme, Ps. 44; Acts 7. Could we explain to our children, or unbelievers, how we received the Bible? Or who decided which books were inspired?
- The writer of Hebrews in chapter 11 inspires his readers with a quick survey of the faithful, which appears to draw from non-biblical history.
- History repeats itself. Many of the heresies and problems encountered by the early church abound today.
I do not ask you to endorse all that the early church practised or became, but the desire in these papers is to demonstrate that a knowledge of church history, and in particular the first centuries after the apostles, will be a help and an inspiration to understand a biblical Christian faith for today.
It is sobering to recognise that today’s Western society probably has more in common with the paganism of the first century, than either that of the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries.
The persecution of the early church
Stephen was the first Christian to die for his conviction that Jesus was the Messiah and Lord. The Acts of the Apostles records the continuing persecution of the church at the hands of the Jews. Persecution rapidly passed into the hands of Imperial Rome. For the first three centuries after Christ, believers were consistently opposed and persecuted by the state until this persecution reached its dramatic crescendo early in the fourth century.
Early Christians were marginalized, and detailed accounts of the sufferings are rare. What is clear is that martyrdom came to all and sundry. Accounts remain of children and grandparents who were put to death for Christ. Polycarp was sent to the lions in his eighty-sixth year, and one mother had her five sons put to death before her eyes. One of the few eyewitness accounts which remain recalls the persecution under Emperor Marcus Aurelius, (AD 161-180), in Lyon, France. Blandina was a Christian slave who confessed Christ and refused to swear by pagan idols. Extracts from the eyewitness account follow:
‘We were all afraid and Blandina’s earthly mistress was in agony in case she [Blandina] should be unable to make a bold confession of Christ due to her bodily weakness; but Blandina was filled with such power, that those who took it in turns to subject her to every kind of torture from morning to night were exhausted by their efforts, and confessed themselves beaten – they could think of nothing else to do. They were amazed that she was still breathing for her whole body was mangled, and her wounds gaped’.
Having failed to force her to renounce Christ, she was then ‘hung on a post and exposed as food for the wild beasts which had been let loose in the arena’. The beasts however failed to touch her and every day during the ‘games’ Blandina and another young Christian, Ponticus (15), had to watch other Christians being tortured. Forty-four other Christians died at these games. Their bodies were burned to ashes which were thrown into the Rhone in an attempt to deny the resurrection.
Persecution later arose during the terrible reign of Maximinus, who as a rival to Constantine, the first professing Christian emperor, in the early fourth century, saw Christians as traitors. The early church historian Eusebius writes:
’Everyone submitted to all his wishes, except Christians, who laughed at death and snapped their fingers at his vile tyranny. The Christian men endured fire, sword, crucifixion, wild beasts, drowning, hacking off of limbs, branding, stabbing and gouging out of eyes, mutilation of their whole bodies, and also starvation, chains, and being forced to work down in the mines’.
And in relation to the further trials of women:
'Others when dragged away to be sexually abused, gave their souls up to death rather than submit their bodies to that dishonour’.
Why were the Christians persecuted?
Although Christians were non-violent and apolitical, both the authorities and the common people were repulsed by:
- The exclusive claims of the gospel. Christians insisted that Jesus Christ alone was the way of salvation and this ran contrary to the predominant pluralistic paganism.
- The passionate zeal to win pagans. This ‘anti-social’ behaviour meant that this new religion could not be ignored.
- A refusal to worship the emperor. Caesar was afforded godlike status, and, it was claimed, a refusal to worship a statue of him was disloyalty to him and the empire.
- The suspicion and misunderstanding Christianity aroused. Christians were variously accused of atheism (they had no visible God or temple); cannibalism (eating a body and drinking blood); and incest (calling others brother and sister). Understandably, but unfortunately, the more the church was persecuted, the more secretive it became, and the more the pagan world’s suspicions were aroused.
Some abiding lessons
There are many soft voices today that would seduce us from an uncompromisingly, ‘politically incorrect’, but biblical faith that confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and the only means of salvation. Both Scripture and history encourage us to believe that truth must ‘be bought and not sold’, Pr. 23. 23, even when the price is supreme. It is a reminder too that others, mainly outside the western world, today know the heat of open persecution and rejection by fellow countrymen. Harrowing accounts exist of persecution in China, Indonesia, Southern Sudan and many Islamic countries. We likewise need to unashamedly and openly declare that same truth, and live that same self-sacrificial life in our post-Christian society.
Broadbent, E. H., The Pilgrim Church, Gospel Folio Press, 1999.
Hanks, G., 70 Great Christians Changing the World, Christian Focus Publications, 1992.
Latourette, K. S., A History of Christianity, Vol. 1, Beginnings to 1500, Prince Press, 1999.
Needham, N. R., 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Grace Publications, 1997.