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.”

Bibliography

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

Step of Faith

Let me start this by saying, “Praise God our trials are only temporary!”  In the scope of eternity, whatever we are currently dealing with is only a small blip on the radar of eternity.  That being said, in the now, we still have to deal with our issues and one of the most important things we can do while we are walking them out it is to maintain an attitude of faith.  I have found out a couple of things during my walk with Christ: one, I can’t do it alone, and two, while I am praying for my circumstances to change, God is often waiting to change me through my circumstances.

In Hebrews 11:1, we read, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” and the best time we have to exhibit our faith is when we are in the most difficult situations.  When times are tough and we realize we can’t make it on our own, that is when an attitude of faith decides our outcome.  With faith, we will be on the other side, looking back rejoicing how God took us through hell on earth.  Without faith, we will still be in hell wishing or hoping that someone, anyone would help us.  Not only is faith vital to knowing our God, it is essential to help us in trying to understand how and why God does what He does.  We will never fully understand His ways because they are so much higher than our own, but when we are confident in God and His word, despite our circumstances, there is such a peace that goes along with living.  The amazing thing is that God will always do what is right and best and that confidence comes with faith.

Faith must be our foundation if we are going to stand firm against anything the world throws at us; without it, we will be lucky to just stand at all.  Throughout scripture, faith has played a central role; it has saved nations, it has healed the sick and most importantly, it has provided salvation and forgiveness for our sins.  Faith as tiny as a mustard seed can move mountains, so imagine what unwavering faith could accomplish in your own life and in the lives around you.  God is waiting to take us to the next level and the first step to getting there begins with a step of faith.  With this first step of faith, we can rewrite Hebrews 11:1 to read: “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see!”

Praise in Action

While I was getting ready this morning, a disturbing thought ran through my mind: Would I still serve and praise the Lord if He decided to take my little girl home.  Tears rolled down my face as I even pondered this reality, but the question was still valid.  Unconditional and unwavering faith means in all things, I will trust God completely and praise Him no matter what happens.  While I don’t believe this is His plan during this trial, I really had to answer this question in my mind.  In all things, we are to praise the Lord, but the very thought of losing my little princess breaks my heart.

Sydney is almost 2 weeks old and while these have been some of the happiest days of our life, they have also been some of the saddest.  The waves of emotions have taken us to the highest mountain tops and to some of the lowest valleys.  I can only imagine the pain God felt as He watched His Son be sacrificed for our sins.  When I think of sacrificial praise, I believe it means that it must cost us something.  It means even when we are hurting and in despair, we must praise the Lord.  As our praise is lifted up despite our hurt feelings and pain, it becomes faith in action.  When we praise God, even in our times of despair, we release His omnipotent power.  When we can praise Him regardless of what we are walking through, we will see His goodness and know that His love endures forever.  Our praise is a weapon and when we can praise God, even in our trials, we will begin to understand what sacrificial praise is.  It’s easy to praise God when everything is going great, but the true test of faith comes when we can praise Him regardless of our circumstances.  II Corinthians 1:3 says, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”  I know that is what God is up to and I know that as I praise Him, He will come alongside me to comfort me, so that I can in turn comfort others.