3rd Century Persecution & Theology

How did the periods of persecution cause the church to think about the doctrines of salvation and the church?

Persecution during the third century only intensified, but as Everett Ferguson states, “The expectation of eternal reward sustained Christian endurance in the face of persecution and other hardships.” It was during the strong emperor rules of Marcus Aurelius and Septimius Severus that Christianity faced some of its hardest times. Part of this stemmed from Christianity being illegal and the other part came out of the Christians being blamed for everything from the fires under Nero to the plague under Marcus Aurelius. During the reign of Septimius Severus, he went as far as banning the conversion to Christianity and Judaism despite there being an established distinct difference between the two religions. The Romans believed these new religions had upset the balance in their polytheistic paganism and had angered their gods.

Despite the persecution and martyrdom, Christianity still grew extensively and although there were two significant periods of peace during the third century, Emperor Decius and Valerian as Ferguson puts it, “Declared war on the church with an effort at systematic oppression.” This oppression and persecution led to increasing apologetics and martyrdom as Christians were put to death for maintaining their faith. Out of this, Tertullian coined the saying; “The blood of the martyrs is the seed for the church.” This war on Christianity caught the church unprepared and much of the higher clergy were arrested and forced to sacrifice to the Roman gods. While many church members compromised their faith, some held fast and chose martyrdom instead. It was after martyrdom, the individuals new birthday became the day of their death as the anniversary of their immortality was now to be celebrated.

If a baptized believer succumbed to persecution and gave up his/her faith, did the church believe salvation was lost as a result? Also, could the church include Christians who denied their faith?

Under the persecution of Decian and Valerian, the unity of the church was in jeopardy which caused a schism to develop between Cyprian: the bishop of Carthage, Novation: a leading presbyter in the church at Rome and other church leaders. One of the major issues was what to do with those people who had fallen away from their faith during the persecution. Should the church and its members who did not compromise their faith immediately reconcile them? This was the consensus of church leaders; they believed those who did not fall away had been given an extra measure of the Holy Spirit and were entitled to forgive those who had strayed. Cyprian was against this and argued once the bishops were safe to return from hiding they should agree on a unified policy. As Ferguson states, “Cyprian confronted the extremes of both rigorism, which said apostates could not be restored to full fellowship, but must be kept in the condition of penitents for the rest of their lives, and laxism, which said that penitent apostates could be restored to full communion immediately.” Other issues such as rebaptism, backed by Stephen: bishop of Rome was also a major controversy with Cyprian as well as the validity of baptisms that were administrated by anyone outside the Catholic Church.

Novatian also faced a schism in the church at Rome opposing any reconciliation of apostates to full communion in the church. Whether or not the believer’s salvation was lost depended on which church leader you asked. This only showed how much disunity resulted from the persecution. Cyprian believed the validity of the baptism was relative to whom the baptizer was meaning there could always be an element of uncertainty in one’s salvation. Stephen viewed himself as the successor of Peter and believed strongly against rebaptism as passed down from the apostles. Out of this debate, we see Cyprian say, “Custom in the antiquity of error” meaning just because something is old does not make it right. Ultimately, Ferguson concludes, “The position of Stephen came to prevail, although Cyprian’s view lived on in North Africa, being powerfully revived by the Donatists in the next century.”


Ferguson, Everett. Church History: Volume One From Christ to the Pre-Reformation 2nd Edition, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013.