Early Christian Church (1)
2. The Era of Conflict
Rev D J MacDonald
As we have noted, the early Christian Church encountered considerable opposition,
and the increasing bitterness culminated in the martyrdom of Stephen. In general
terms, Christians were bitterly opposed by the Sadducees from the beginning.
The Pharisees, pleased with the Christian advocacy of the resurrection, were
undecided at first. In the early days, Christians could hardly be said to form
a separate religious community at all. They still attended the temple service
at the accustomed hours. They still mingled freely in the synagogue meetings. "They
were pious observant Jews, honouring the Law to the best of their ability." (2) Gradually,
however, their emphasis on the Messiah, as one who had already come, isolated
them from all Jewish sects. This separation was further emphasised by the fact
that Paul did not insist on his Gentile converts being bound by the ceremonial
law. This aroused the anger of the Judaisers, those who wanted Gentiles to be
circumcised, making it a condition of salvation. Paul firmly opposed the Judaisers,
and the problem was discussed at the Council of Jerusalem in 49 AD. There Paul
gained the victory but it remained a vexed question for many years, and the Judaziers
continued to dog Paul's steps to the very end of his life.
At first the attitude of the Roman authorities to the Christians was ambivalent.
The Romans regarded Christianity as just another Jewish sect. What did the
Roman Emperor care for Christianity more than any other party name, such as
Pharisee, Sadducee or Libertine? The controversy between the Jews and the followers
of the Saviour was to them "but one of those paltry squabbles to which the
restless Jewish people were chronically subject". (3) The
spirit of the Roman rulers was clearly displayed by Gallio at Corinth, when
he refused to listen to the charges brought against Paul by the Jews because
he regarded the whole dispute as an internal Jewish concern. It is not difficult,
however, to see how it was impossible for Christianity to co-exist with the
Roman gods. Caesar was regarded as the embodiment of Roman gods and was worshipped
with incense and sacrifice, and conflict was inevitable. The Roman power could
strike at any time, as Christianity, unlike Judaism, was not the religion of
a nation and so was not recognised by the law.
The first major persecution of Christians in Rome began in 64 AD. It was instigated
by the emperor Nero, following a great fire in the city. F F Bruce says, "We
need not inquire into the causes of the fire; most probably it arose by accident
like the Great Fire in London in 1666". (4) Once
the fire started, it spread quickly through the crowded buildings of the city.
Among the citizens of Rome, the Emperor himself was the chief suspect. When
he found that the finger of rumour was pointing to himself, Nero had to look
around for a scapegoat and had no difficulty in blaming the fire on the Christians.
Public feeling against them was such that they were universally reviled. Even
a writer of the eminence of Tacitus, who disliked Nero intensely ,wrote of
Christianity as a "pernicious superstition" and states that the Christians
were not put to death so much for arson as for hatred of the human race. He
goes on to say, "Their death was made a matter of sport. Some were wrapped
in the skins of wild beasts and torn to pieces by dogs. Some were fastened
to crosses and set on fire in order to serve as torches when daylight failed." (5)
Much of this was done in Nero's gardens as he mingled with the crowd, riding
in his chariot and enjoying the dreadful spectacle. We must remember that every
strata of society was riddled with practices which to the Christians were idolatrous
and therefore forbidden. F F Bruce comments: "The Jews also regarded these
practices in the same light and abstained from social intercourse with the
Gentiles on that account, but it was taken for granted that the Jews were like
that and, after all, they were legalized. But the Christians had no racial
or legally-recognised reason for being anti-social. Their attitude was put
down to sheer hatred of humanity, and humanity considered itself justified
in retaliating." (6) Yet Christianity was not
suppressed by this or by any of the subsequent attempts to root it out, and
the Church in Rome continued to flourish with increasing vigour and to enjoy
the respect of Christians throughout the world
At about this time, around 68 or 69 AD, both Peter and Paul were martyred
in Rome. The distinction that tradition makes between the two apostles in the
manner of their death, that Peter was crucified while Paul was beheaded, is
very likely to be true. Paul, unlike Peter, was a Roman citizen and would therefore
be executed in a less ignominious manner. The persecution, begun in Rome by
Nero in 64 AD, continued more or less continuously till his death four years
later. These persecutions were not confined to Rome itself but spread throughout
the Empire. J G Davis puts the matter into context when he states: "That Nero
was able to pick on the Christians was in part due to prevalent attitudes in
Rome; the educated classes were suspicious of this new religion, whose doctrine
had but recently come to light, and they looked askance at conversion as an
unreasonable enthusiasm characteristic of the lower orders. The initial success
of Christianity was principally among the poor, and it seemed to many to be
essentially a revolutionary and working class movement." (7)
Before Nero's persecution of Christians had died down, events in Palestine
attracted the attention of the Romans. The Christians bore no responsibility
for these events, but their outcome was to have a marked effect on the development
of Christianity. The Zealots, a Jewish nationalist party, resolved to free
the land from Roman rule by violence. In May, 66 AD, the Zealots massacred
the Roman garrison in Jerusalem. In spite of some early Jewish victories, Titus,
leader of the Roman armies, surrounded Jerusalem in 70 AD and the siege began.
Apparently heeding the Saviour's warning, the Christians fled beyond Jordan
to Pella and avoided the fate of the city. "Never had men fought with more
desperate heroism than the Jews did", (8) but
at length the Romans triumphed and took possession of the temple, so that even
the holy of holies was set on fire and Jerusalem completely devastated, so
that the words of Jesus, "There shall not be left one stone upon another that
shall not be thrown down" (Matt 24:2), were fulfilled to the letter.
In lands outside Palestine, the year 70 AD marked the close of the period
when Christianity could be regarded as simply a variety of Judaism. From then
onwards the divergence of the paths of Jewish Christianity and orthodox Judaism
was decisive. "From that day Christianity stands forth clearly and unmistakably
as the religion, not of one land or people, but of the world. The fires of
persecution were rekindled on the accession of Domitian in AD 81 and martyrdom
was commonplace. A mere profession of Christianity was a crime against the
state, and Christians had no defence. Persecution went on at the whim of the
emperor or his provincial governors for about a hundred years, and large numbers
were martyred throughout the empire from Gaul to North Africa to Rome to Asia
Minor. There are many narratives of personal bravery which time will not permit
us to deal with, but it shows the stamp of the early Christians that they would
not cast a handful of dust on the sacrifices given to the emperor and passed
by his altars to their death in the arena or in the fire. There are profound
lessons for us in their example.
At some time during the third century, the persecutors of the Christians concluded
that it was not enough to burn them or to pull down their buildings; their
writings also must be burnt. Burns remarks: "Congregations had before been
broken up, scattered, decimated, but new members rose up in the room of their
martyred brethren and the flocks rallied again, stronger than ever. Pastors
were cut off by fire and sword but other pastors as brave and faithful were
ready to take their places; that plan then had failed. But now let that seed
itself be destroyed. Let the Bible from which the Church sprang be itself annihilated
and the Church will speedily die out and perish from the earth." (9) As
at many other times in the history of the Church of God, its enemies perceived
the importance of the Word, and the lesson learned from the Roman Empire was
not lost on the Roman Catholic Church; to this day it is the bitter enemy of
the truths of the Word of God. Christians, as before, resisted bravely, but
the persecution was severe. "The details of blood and horror are so dreadful
that they would scarcely admit of belief did they not rest upon the unimpeachable
authority of a contemporary." (10) However,
the accession of the emperor Constantine in 312 AD brought a welcome relief
While the Church was having to withstand the imperial persecutions, it also
had to confront enemies from within who were in a sense more dangerous. We
have already referred to the Judaizers, who had troubled the Apostle Paul.
Their natural successors were the Ebionites, who, while they accepted the Old
Testament and the Gospel of Matthew, denied the divinity of the Saviour and
sought to impose the ceremonial law on every Christian.
More troublesome, and even more erroneous, were the Gnostics. A A Hodge summarises
their theology: "The Gnostics held that the supreme God is one in essence and
in Person, and that from Him emanated different orders of spiritual beings,
none of them in any proper sense God, yet all divine, since they all proceeded
by way of emanation from Him. These are called Aeons. The Old Testament Jehovah,
or Creator, was one of these Aeons, of which class Christ was one of the greatest." (11) It
may seem strange to us that such erroneous beliefs could trouble the Christian
Church, but we must understand that Gnosticism was shot through with Syncretism, "an
attempt to accommodate religious beliefs of every kind", so it found many supporters.
We will leave the Gnostics with a further quotation: "All the Gnostic systems
were wildly imaginative and speculative, and exceedingly complex, and do not
lend themselves to treatment in such a short work as this". (12) According
to F F Bruce, Gnosticism led to "the excessive intellectualising of Christian
faith. Faith henceforth comes to denote intellectual orthodoxy rather than
personal commitment to Christ." So this heresy had an obvious effect on the
Church although it was rejected.
Montanism arose as an apparent reaction to the Gnostics. Montanus, from whom
the sect derives its name, claimed to have had a special revelation from the
Holy Spirit and started a wild and frenzied revival campaign. He was joined
by two women, Prisca and Maxmilla, who announced themselves as prophets. According
to Montanus, the last period of revelation opened with the giving of the Holy
Spirit; hence the present age is one of spiritual gifts and especially prophecy.
Montanus and his followers regarded themselves as the last of the prophets,
bringing new revelations. The Church, however, rejected Montanism because of
its fanaticism and its claim to a higher revelation than the New Testament.
It has been said of Montanism: "Some aspects of their teaching remind us of
the followers of Edward Irving in Britain last century, and of the Nazarenes
and Pentecostals in America in our own day". (13) Many
other heresies, too numerous to deal with here, had their own impact, but enough
has been said to show that, outwardly and inwardly, this was an era of conflict
in the early Christian Church.
1. The first part of this paper, given at last year's
Theological Conference, appeared last month. It dealt with The Era of Conquest,
the period of the Acts of the Apostles and immediately afterwards.
2. F F Bruce, The Dawn of Christianity, p 79.
3. Islay Burns, The First Three Christian Centuries,
4. P 162.
5. Annals xv, quoted by Bruce, p 163.
6. P 164.
7. The Early Christian Church, p 36.
8. A M Renwick and A M Harman, The Story of the Church,
9. P 117.
10. Burns, p 118. The authority referred to is Eusebius.
11. Outlines of Theology, p 196.
12. Renwick and Harman, p 34.
13. Renwick and Harman, p 35. The reference is to the