Episode 46: Exploring Church History (2) Persecution
Laurence and Stephen continue this mini-series on themes from early church history. This time they look at Jesus’ prediction that Christians might be persecuted for believing in him and how that unfolded over the first few centuries of the church. Stephen explains what led to two periods of persecution – under Emperor Nero and the Great Persecution of Diocletian – and how the church emerged from them as a changed institution. Was that a good thing? Listen in to find out!
Stephen and Laurence start by giving a brief overview of how they intend to deal with this topic and then look at some words of Jesus in Luke 21:9-19. Jesus claimed that many people would “persecute” his followers when they preach about him. Some would be betrayed by family members and some would be put to death. After considering an example from the first century account of Acts 7, where a man called Stephen was stoned to death, they consider why it was that Christians were persecuted in the first place.
Persecution at the hands of Jewish and Roman rulers
Some of the persecution that the early Christians experienced was at the hands of Jewish authorities. This is exactly what happened to Stephen in Acts 7. But this wasn’t the only source of their troubles. In AD 64, the Roman Emperor Nero began a campaign of persecution against Christians. As Roger Collins writes:
In AD 64, during the reign of the emperor Nero, a great fire destroyed much of the centre of Rome. According to the historian Cornelius Tacitus, writing a generation later, the populace believed the emperor had started the fire, and so, to divert attention from himself, Nero initiated a persecution of Christians – not, however, apparently for arson. First, Nero had self-acknowledged Christians arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers of others were condemned – not so much for incendiarism as for their anti-social tendencies. Their deaths were made farcical. Dressed in wild animals’ skins, they were torn to pieces by dogs or crucified, or made into torches to be ignited after dark as substitutions for daylight. Nero provided his Gardens for the spectacle, and exhibited displays in the Circus, at which he mingled with the crowd – or stood in a chariot, dressed as a charioteer.R. Collins, Keepers of the Keys of Heaven: A History of the Papacy
Drawing positives from terrible persecution
Stephen outlines some of the positive things we should be able to take from this dark period of history. They include the inspiration that we can gain from Christians with courage to remain devoted to Christ. This should invoke a tremendous amount of humility within us.
The early and violent persecution that Christians endured is also evidence for the veracity of the Christian claims about Jesus and particularly about his resurrection. Stephen and Laurence discuss the fact that these believers were genuine, as evidenced by the persecution.
Further Christian persecution
Laurence and Stephen continue to discuss a further period of persecution in the history of the early church. In AD 303, the Roman Emperor Diocletian initiated a terrible period of persecution against Christians which became known as the Great Persecution. It lasted about about nine to ten years, yet came to an end in the most unlikely of circumstances – the conversion of a subsequent Roman Emperor to Christianity itself!
A changed Christian church
Laurence and Stephen discuss what happened to Constantine who became the sole Roman Emperor after winning a battle against his brother-in-law Maxentius. Sources and accounts differ, but they all track the fact that Constantine believed he had had an experience that caused him to eventually convert to Christianity. Remarkably, it was only in AD 380, just a few decades after the Great Persecution, that Christianity became the only legitimate religion in the empire!
However, the church had become something radically different. Stephen explains how the church became an organisation that wielded power and ultimately became an entity that persecuted those who disagreed with it. This is a far cry from how Jesus envisaged the disciple’s life, and far removed from his teaching. Stephen and Laurence conclude by considering how important it is to maintain belief and practice based on the words of Jesus, to safeguard against the radical changes that the once oppressed church went through to become the oppressor itself.
Life in a first century church