Although persecution certainly existed during the Apostles time in sporadic bursts, it increased dramatically during the first and second centuries — hence this period is generally known as the age of the Persecuted Church.
There’s something strange about persecution; it either makes you want to hide in a closet or get caught up in a cause! As persecution increased, the church actually grew. Sometimes it’s easy to get swept away by a movement (belonging to a group with a “just cause”) and forget that Christianity is still about a person — and a relationship with that person.
Why Were Christians Persecuted?
It is a startling fact that some of the wisest and best emperors opposed Christians, while some of the most worthless and evil emperors ignored Christians. What made Christians stand out that warranted their persecution? It’s always interesting to examine the threads that formed the basis for past persecutions — because our generation is not exempt from a repeat of history.
Christians were Exclusive
In an pagan age, filled with hundreds (even thousands) of so-called deities, the addition of the Christian’s god made little difference to the average pagan. It was the Christians’ exclusive claim that their god was the one true God, which put a bad flavor in everyone’s mouth.
Christians Were Considered ‘Against Government’
Ironically, it was Christianity’s break with Judaism that bred patriotic distrust.
“In the first generation of the Christians, they were regarded as somehow connected with the Jews, and Judaism was recognized by the government as a permitted religion, although the Jews lived apart from the idolatrous customs, and would not even eat food from the idol-feasts. This supposed relationship for a time preserved the Christians from persecution. But after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., Christianity stood alone with no laws to protect it’s followers.” (1)
The worship of the Emperor (just another of the many accepted “deities”), was also viewed as a test of loyalty — a form of Patriotism. The pagans didn’t have a problem with Christians forcing “their god” into the mix; but turn around was fair play. It’s a small thing to express loyalty to one’s own Emperor, by simply dropping a handful of incense on an altar once a year. But when Christians refused to participate in this annual event (and were reputed for giving worship to “another King” — King Jesus), well it had all the smells of a revolt in the making. Perhaps Christians were really disloyal citizens plotting revolution? And so the rumors spread. Their “secret meetings” before sunrise and late at night (in caves or underground catacombs) only gave credence to revolutionary suspicions.
“The church endured little persecution as long as it was looked upon by the authorities as part of Judaism, which was a religio licita, or legal sect. But as soon as Christianity was distinguished from Judaism as a separate sect and might be classed as a secret society, it came under the ban of the Roman state, which would brook no rival for the allegiance of its subjects. It then became an illegal religion and as such was considered a threat to the safety of the Roman state.” (2)
Christians Were Suspected of Cannibalism!
Misunderstandings about the Lord’s Supper (excluded from non-believers), lead to charges that Christians were cannibals. Of course, Jesus’ symbolic words, “eat my flesh and drink my blood” didn’t help matters.
Christians Negatively Impacted (certain) Business and Trades
Obviously the Christians anti-pagan ideals affected idol sales among the converted.
Christians Were Regarded as Anarchists
Because Christians believed in treating all men equal — slave, nobility, male and female — it was assumed that they were subverters of the social order of their day. By today’s standards, we might have accused them of propagating socialistic agenda.
But being “equal under God” is not necessarily the same as having a political agenda to overthrow the government, to level the classes, and redistribute the wealth.
Ironically, scriptures that would have spoken to the times as “authoritative proof” of church held beliefs (specifically regarding slaves and masters), would not be available to the church in an official “canon” until after this wave of persecution had passed. It would however, be available to “the Church” once the New World was discovered and with it an opportunity to establish a new way of doing government. Here Christians would fight on both sides of the argument — whether or not to end slavery once and for all.
Christianity Doesn’t Blend Well
I give the above commentary not to state that if Christians had been smarter or more willing to blend with society, they might have avoided persecution altogether. Rather, I am merely pointing out that from a non-Christian perspective, persecution seemed at least a little justified. After all, Christians have always been a peculiar bunch.
By and large, it was because pagans misunderstood the Christian faith — not withstanding an occasional stubbornness in doctrinal ideals on behalf of extreme believers — that prompted persecutions. There’s not a lot you can do about misunderstandings. You can try and explain, but being “misunderstood” is a highly effective plan of the enemy to initiate persecution — both within and without the walls of Christianity.
The admonition of scripture comes to mind, “If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18 – KJV). Sometimes it isn’t possible. And sometimes, it really doesn’t depend on you. Such became the case toward the end of the period known as the Persecuted Church.
“The persecutions in the first century by Nero (66-68) and Domitian (90-95) … were simply outbreaks of frenzy and hate, with no reason except the rage of a tyrant, spasmodic, occasional and not long continued. But from 250- to 313 A.D. the church was subjected to a systematic, relentless, empire-wide series of attempts by the government to crush the ever-growing faith.” (3)
(1) Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, The Story of the Christian Church, page 41-42
(2) Earle E. Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries – A History of the Christian Church, Third Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), page 8
(3) Jesse Lyman Hurlbut, The Story of the Christian Church, page 43)