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The Great Persecution and the Coming of Imperial Christianity

History

While the persecution of the early Church by Rome was cruel and threatening, it was also fairly sporadic. Emperors were generally inconsistent in their policies concerning the Christians and persecution often had more to do with the whims and moods of local leaders, making the severity of persecution vary regionally. But there was a steady increase from the late second to late third centuries and Christianity began to find itself in an increasingly difficult position.

First, there was the persecution under Septimius Severus (emperor, 193-211 C.E.). As with many Roman emperors, Severus was burdened with the need for imperial unity in order to avoid rebellion and civil war. And the best way to do this was religiously. Instead of imposing harsh strictures on religious practice, however, Severus opted for a generous religious tolerance… with a catch. All gods, decreed Severus, were to be accepted as legitimate objects of worship and devotion. The only caveat was that, within this pantheon of accepted and acceptable deities, the “Unconquered Sun” was to be universally acknowledged as ruling above all others. This was a fairly brilliant move when it came to the religiously eclectic Roman society. But it grossly misjudged both Jewish and Christian theology and practice. And so started another clash between the Church and the Empire.

In 249, Decius became emperor and began his own implementation of a plan to restore the Empire to its former glory. Interpreting the troubles of the Empire as a result of the peoples’ abandonment of the ancient gods, Decius began a campaign for the restoration of ancient Roman religion. Spreading his net much wider than simply over particular groups such as Christianity, Decius ordered that everyone in the Empire offer traditional sacrifice to the ancient gods (and, for good measure and the insurance of imperial unity, burn incense before a statue of himself). A certificate of completion of the sacrifices was acquired after obligations were fulfilled and all were required to carry this proof on them just in case they were asked to provide it. And, of course, being caught without the required proof of religious acceptability brought with it consequences. Execution, however, wasn’t Decius’ preferred mode of punishment. Rather, his strategy was generally to focus on the leaders of dissident groups, torturing them in order to extract a public retraction and denial of their religious faith and practice, and thus demoralizing the communities as a whole. In this way, Decius introduced in the mid-third century a new class of venerated personalities into the Church: the Confessors—those who withstood torture, holding firm to the faith.

And finally toward the end of the third century/beginning of the fourth, the emperor Diocletian began what would become known as the Great Persecution. It would also be the last. Although both his wife and daughter were apparently Christians, Diocletian allowed himself to be persuaded by his junior Emperor, Galerius, to lash out against the Christians specifically. Stoking fear that Christians in the military might abandon their duties, Galerius convinced Diocletian to have all Christians removed from military positions. Later, in 303, this expanded to the removal of Christians from all high positions in the Empire. Soon, the Christians’ holy books were to be handed over to be destroyed along with their places of worship. Any Christians in the imperial court were now required to sacrifice to the gods and this soon became a general mandate aimed at all Christians throughout the Empire. And so began the largest frontal assault on Christianity the Church had yet seen.

And so ended the persecution of the Church by Rome. In one of the great ironies of history, the next emperor after the Great Persecutor, Diocletian, would himself become a Christian (of some sort). Under Constantine, Christianity would move from persecuted to tolerated to governmentally favored. Later Christianity would become the official religion of the Roman Empire.

What an astonishing turnaround. I have to admit, though, it leaves me a bit puzzled pastorally. On the one hand, it is one of those dramatic stories that works hope in those who are willing to see it. Is there a more striking example of the strength and resilience of the Church? Further, it is such an effective testimony to the fruit born from patience—two and a half centuries of sporadic and unpredictable persecution traded in suddenly for favor.

But I don’t really know how to use it—pastorally, at least. Sure, I can (and have) take in and integrate that hope and long vision on a personal level. But I have always found it hard to prescribe it for those in the midst of real suffering. Maybe I’m wrong and just don’t present radical hope and patience well to those who need to hear it most. But for people experiencing deep loss or the terror of potential destructive loss in their lives it seems often to ring hollow to point to a story of past victory—even one so great, true, and legitimate as the strength and survival of the Church. Of course, when I come from the same place of suffering I find a completely different power to talk from hope into hope. But there are so many people I come across experiencing situations and sufferings that I simply cannot relate to. I sometimes wish the early martyrs could come back and pastor for me. Maybe only a martyr can really talk to a potential martyr. I don’t know…