The Early Church
Christian Persecution & The Real Power
What is the witness of the church in times of persecution? The historical record demonstrates that persecutions of Christians were regular and prolific in the first centuries of the church, especially in the second and third centuries as the church began to spread significantly.
In 215 AD, Scapula, the leader of the Roman province of Carthage (modern day North Africa), led a campaign to to stop the spread of the church. The historian Tertullian wrote a four-page letter to the Roman administration to stop the torture and execution of everyday church members. One of Tertullian’s points, was that there were thousands of Christians in that region of North Africa. Was Scapula going to kill all of them? Instead of fighting back with weapons, Tertuallian offers to lead a protest at the seat of justice in Carthage, the place of justice for the Roman Empire.
“What will you make of so many thousands, of such a multitude of men and women, persons of every sex and every age and every rank, when they present themselves before you?” he inquires.
Scholar John Dickson comments:
Tertullian’s boldness is striking. Ancient Christians were not timid. They did not adopt a posture of peaceful resistance through a kind of slave mentality of the bullied. Nor was their religion an opiate that dulled them to social realities here and now. In fact, reading the early sources, it is clear they actually felt like they were the victors!
They believed that true power to change the world lay not in politics, the judiciary, or the military but in the message of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Play the Man
Like a scene straight out of Gladiator, Polycarp was dragged into the Roman Colosseum. Discipled by the apostle John himself, the aged bishop faithfully and selflessly led the church at Smyrna through the persecution prophesied by his spiritual father. “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer,” writes John in Revelation 2:10. “Be faithful, even to the point of death.”
John had died a half century before, but his voice still echoed in Polycarp’s ears as the Colosseum crowd chanted, “Let loose the lion!” That’s when Polycarp heard a voice from heaven that was audible above the crowd: strong, Polycarp. Play the man”.
Days before, Roman bounty hunters had tracked him down. Instead of fleeing, Polycarp fed them a meal. Perhaps that’s why they granted his last request—an hour of prayer. Two hours later, many of those who heard the way Polycarp prayed actually repented of their sin on the spot. They did not, however, relent of their mission.
Like Jesus entering Jerusalem, Polycarp was led into the city of Smyrna on a donkey. The Roman proconsul implored Polycarp to recant. “Swear by the genius of Caesar!” Polycarp held his tongue, held his ground. The proconsul prodded. “Swear, and I will release thee; revile the Christ!”
“Eighty and six years have I served Him,” said Polycarp. “And He has done me no wrong! How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”
The die was cast.
Polycarp was led to the center of the Colosseum where three times the proconsul announced, “Polycarp has confessed himself to be a Christian.” The bloodthirsty crowd chanted for death by beast, but the proconsul opted for fire.
As his executioners seized his wrists to nail him to the stake, Polycarp stopped them. “He who gives me strength to endure the fire will enable me to do so without the help of your nails.”
As the pyre was lit on fire, Polycarp prayed one last prayer: “I bless you because you have thought me worthy of this day and this hour to be numbered among your martyrs in the cup of your Christ.”
Soon the flames engulfed him, but strangely they did not consume him. Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego before him. Polycarp was fireproof. Instead of the stench of burning flesh, the scent of frankincense wafted through the Colosseum.
Using a spear, the executioner stabbed Polycarp through the flames. Polycarp bled out, but not before the twelfth martyr of Smyrna had lived out John’s exhortation: be faithful even to the “point of death. Polycarp died fearlessly and faithfully. And the way he died forever changed the way those eyewitnesses lived. He did what the voice from heaven had commanded. Polycarp played the man.
The Power of Miracles in the Early Church
One key difference between much of the early church vs. the church of today (at least in the West) was the belief in, and regular experience of, miracles. As Joel Green, the noted professor and writer on evangelism once said,
It was the Spirit who gave his followers remarkable spiritual gifts. Prophecy, tongues (and interpretation), healing and exorcism were the most prominent in apostolic and sub-apostolic days alike. People did not merely hear the gospel; they saw it in action, and were moved to respond. The Western church has grown too dependent on words, and not nearly dependent enough on the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Enlightenment induced much embarrassment about divine activity in today’s world, and this tendency has outlived the demise of the Enlightenment. Instead of being a community demonstrating the Lord’s power, we have become one which talks incessantly. We need to remember that the “kingdom of God is not talk, but power.”
Pursuing the Common Good Throughout History
Pursuing the common good has been a strong marker of the Christian church from the very beginning. The early church had many habits that they became known for, of course—including meeting frequently, eating together, and memorizing texts. But they also became known for their relentless pursuit of the common good of their local communities: visiting the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned; receiving and feeding travelers; generously contributing to common funds that went toward caring for the poor, replenishing stocks of food and clothing, and feeding needy people.
Christians in the early church busied themselves pursuing the common good of their communities. Throughout the centuries the church kept talking about this core calling. In The Epistle of Barnabas, an early Christian writing from the end of the first century, we read these words: “Do not live entirely isolated, having retreated into yourselves, as if you were already [fully] justified, but gather instead to seek together the common good.”
John Chrysostom, the famed preacher in Constantinople, preached about the common good in the early 400s: “This is the rule of the most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good . . . for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors.”
From Augustine to Aquinas, from Catholics to Protestants, Christians across the ages and denominations have repeated this call to pursue the common good. As a result, Christians throughout the centuries have stood shoulder to shoulder with the rest of humanity, leaving an enduring positive mark on their world.
Any objective historian investigating the effects of Christians throughout history will be overwhelmed with this enduring legacy of shared work throughout society: in the arts, literacy, education, human rights, health care, literature, science, justice, rule of law, and more.
Taken from The Hopeful Neighborhood: What Happens When Christians Pursue the Common Good by Don Everts Copyright (c) 2020 by Don Everts. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
These Impious Galileans
A passage often referred to in order to describe the sacrificial, countercultural quality of the early church comes to us interestingly enough, from one of its strongest critics, known later to history as Julian the Apostate, the last non-Christian (or pagan) Roman emperor (serving from 361-363 AD).
Julian had begrudgingly acknowledged that the Christians, or the “Galileans” as he referred to them, took care of the needy far more so than its pagan counterparts, which led to many new converts. This concerned the emperor because it threatened Julian’s attempt to restore the supremacy of the Roman pantheon. Most importantly, the passage describes just how powerful the Church can be when it models the sacrificial love of Christ to its neighbors:
These impious Galileans (Christians) not only feed their own, but ours also; welcoming them with their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted with cakes….Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors.
Such practice is common among them, and causes contempt for our gods (Epistle to Pagan High Priests). Those in the early church lived in a conflicted but beloved covenant community in peaceful opposition to the militaristic, materialistic, racist, and sexualized culture of the Roman Empire. The church was distinct, noticeable, and uncompromising. This type of prayerful resistance and faithful witness is needed today.
Julian the Apostate, quoted in Michael Craven, “The Christian Conquest of Pagan Rome,” Crosswalk.com, November 8, 2010.