When one looks upon Church History, the fact that the early church was persecuted, misunderstood and reviled can be easily seen. From the very beginning, this movement was doomed to be despised, because it was so completely other, foreign and strange to all it surrounded. To the Jew it was an abhorrent religion that claimed the Old Testament justified worship of Jesus, who in there opinion was just a man and unworthy of worship. He as a person was so abhorrent to the Jews that they killed him, as they would continue to do to the followers of Jesus.
To the Romans, the Church was a weird sect of Judaism that crept in and did (unto their thinking) weird things. The Lord’s Supper was confused with cannibalism and the “Love feast” was confused with a massive orgy. So, whether Jew or Gentile, the Church was awkward, spacey and something feared by those not familiar with the Church, it’s practices or it’s beliefs. No wonder it was persecuted!
To fully understand the totality of what was going on, Shelley in his book Church History in Plain Languagediscusses in depth many of the issues that caused the depth of persecution the Church received.
“The Christian, therefore, is a person who is fundamentally different. Men always view with suspicion people who are different. Conformity, not distinctiveness, is the way to a trouble-free life. So the more early Christians took their faith seriously the more they were in danger of crowd reaction. Thus, simply by living according to the teachings of Jesus, the Christian was a constant unspoken condemnation of the pagan way of life. It was not that the Christian went about criticizing and condemning and disapproving, nor was he consciously self- righteous and superior. It was simply that the Christian ethic was a criticism of pagan life” (Shelley, 2008, pg. 39).
I know that is a lengthy quote, but I desire to utilize it for the rest of this paper to expound upon the persecution of the church in the early days and do a little bit of “social commentary” of today. The main thrust of this quote by Shelley is the complete “otherness” that the church declared through the way in which they lived their lives. They received the scorn, hatred and persecution they did because they were just different, alien, and foreign and this way of living confused, disrupted and angered many.
Conformity is the way many survive; thinking if they don’t stand out, if they don’t stick up higher than any others, they won’t get shot, they won’t get cut down. Culture drives many to conform where they could otherwise shine, or outshine all the others, yet fear of man keeps many in hiding. These Christians were so transformed by Jesus, so affected by His message that they couldn’t be the same as they were and they couldn’t conform to world around them.
One important distinction Shelley made was: “It was not that the Christian went about criticizing and condemning and disapproving, nor was he consciously self- righteous and superior” (Shelley, 2008, pg. 39). Too often I think we look at the lives of the early church and see that they were persecuted for their faith; we think they were loud, obnoxious and condemning of the world around them and as Shelley points out; this simply wasn’t true of the early church. They lived, loved, spoke, acted, reacted and walked differently but they didn’t walk around self-righteous pointing out the horrible sins of the world they were in.
This distinctive I think can give young believers like myself hope, because we’ve seen a lot of self-righteous Christians getting hammered by the culture and hear they (the self-righteous Christian) claiming this as “persecution for Jesus” while we (the young believer) look on not feeling like the persecution as “for Jesus” so much as “for being a jerk”. I think this living out the difference of Jesus had a large effect on not only the widespread persecution Christians received, but also the widespread embrace of the Gospel.
When talking about the spread of the Gospel and why it was so effective, Shelley says: “…The practical expression of Christian love was probably among the most powerful causes of Christian success. Tertullian tells us the pagans remarked: ‘See how these Christians love one another’” (Shelley, 2008, pg. 35). Which fits perfectly with what Jesus said about the spread of the Gospel: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35, ESV). This also correlates well with what Sittser said. He says about Christians loving one another: “…It [the Christian Movement] was providing a sense of belonging that was not readily available though traditional Roman institutions, thus earning a reputation that reflected what the New Testament teaches about true community” (Sittser, 2007, pg. 52). This idea of loving one another was the essence of Christian community, which is what real and true community should be like.
When I see the History of the Church both in historians books and the Scriptures and I come across a theme as deep as this: unity in the Body and love for one another; I always evaluate our current situation as a church. As I stated in one of my responses to a fellow classmate, I don’t think we are very loving towards one another, and surely not in the same way or depth that the early church. To see the depth of their love and unity is truly astounding and makes one admit it is only through the power of the Spirit that such love and unity could’ve existed. I fear we’ve lost the desire to be so unified and loving towards one another and in effect have inoculated the world to Jesus.
My social commentary on “now” may not be totally in-line with the statutes of this paper but I feel compelled to make sure I’m not only reading the material but attempting to apply it to my here and now. The persecution of the church should not be (in my mind) a simple exercise of memory of the “events that transpired” but should cause any Christian to look at it and ask: “what can I do to be more like the beginning” or “what can I learn from those who were so utterly close to my Savior?” My personal goal in reading and study is to always seek to apply what I read.
Also, Shelley gives great insight on the largest cause of Christian persecution (at the hands of the Romans), which was “the tradition of emperor worship” (Shelley, 2008, pg. 43). Christians simply refused to worship Caesar as a god, and because of this refusal, they received the wrath of Rome herself. The allegiance of the Christians was to Christ and Christ alone, they didn’t desire to give a foothold to anyone or anything else. So powerful this is, because when looking at the converts, many of them were former pagans and gentiles who were into all sorts of evil, now completely turned around into full allegiance to Christ! Sittser in his book points to the fact that “…all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12); and reminds his reader that the persecution of the church was due to their unfailing, unwavering allegiance to Christ.
I can imagine how this complete turn of strong dedication to a cause would make Rome fear this group, whom even death wasn’t strong enough to force them to recant or reject Jesus. How could a religion make former pagans so deeply ensconced with Jesus to the point of death? So out of fear Rome struck hard at the Christians and for centuries these believers suffered wrongful death after wrongful death.
One such story came from Sittser’s book; the story of Perpetua (Sittser, 2007, pgs. 37-40). Her story caused me to question my own faith and challenged me on if I would do the same as she did. She had recently given birth and had a family that was well off. All she had to do was renounce the Jesus she recently accepted and all would be well with her again in life. Her baby would survive, her parents would take care of any and all her financial needs; yet she refused to renounce the Jesus who saved her soul. She went into the arena where gladiators would charge her and animals could tear her apart, which would essentially sign the death sentence to herself and her newly born child. Sittser says of Perpetua:
“Yet Perpetua refused to yield, even to the pleas of her father, the cries of her baby ad the scorn of the crowds. Or the sake of Christ she happily submitted to death. She made a decision, not between life and death but between Christ and Rome” (Sittser, 2008, pg. 39)
Stories like this cause me to ponder the depth of my dedication to Christ and his cause. Thinking of allowing my child to die for a decision I was making is extremely hard to bear, thankfully in my life I may not need to make such a decision but many people in the history of the church did have to make it and they chose Jesus. How deep is the mainline Christians faith today? As I look out into Christendom, I think the place we are the weakest is America, where it is “easier” to be a Christian than most places and when it gets a bit “tougher” the collective moans and groans. I fear the churches ease and comfort has also been much of it’s downfall in the US and Europe.
The past is prologue when it comes to the decline of the church in the West. Europe embraced Christendom, as it’s main religion and in so doing many people were turned away from Christ because the Christ which was portrayed was skewed and in a lot of ways man-serving. I think we are seeing much of the same in America where many are disenchanted with the real Christ because there has been a fake Christ lurking about, one that can’t garner the support or passion the true Jesus commands.
My conclusion is that in some ways we need more persecution of our faith, because
“… we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5 ESV)
I think we lose track of our real hope when life is too easy. The early church clung to Christ, knowing he was everything. I fear we’ve lost that a bit.
Shelley, Bruce L. (2008). Church History in Plain Language, 3rd Edition. Thomas Nelson Publishing, Nashville, TN.
Sittser, Gerald L. (2007). Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries. InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.