ERA 1—Early Church (1): Persecutions
(AD 30–300)


Purpose of Church History


What is the purpose of church history? The focus of church history is the gradual execution of God’s plan of redemption. It shows the growth of the kingdom of God. It is about the triumph of the almighty God through the work of the Holy Spirit. It functions as the continuing story after the Acts of Apostles.


In studying church history, Christians will meet heroes of Christian faith—“a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrew 12:1)—and learn their thoughts and deeds, and be edified and encouraged to follow their holy example—to “run with endurance”.


First century Greek historian Diodorus said that history is “the handmaid of providence, the priestess of truth, and the mother of wisdom.” Church history certainly qualify for these descriptions.


By studying church history, one can strengthen one’s faith through the recognition of God’s pervasive guidance of the Church through the ages. Further, by holding the key to the present condition of Christianity, one gains the ability to avoid past errors and the knowledge to plan for future successes.


Beginning of the Christian Church


At the centre of human history is the coming of Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Son. He died on a cross, but rose triumphantly from the grave in victory over sin and death. Before ascending to heaven, He commanded His disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit.


At Pentecost (Acts 2:1-41), with the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the church was founded. This new group would eventually be called Christians (Acts 11:26). Believers were inspired to tell others of the good news of the forgiveness of sin.


In the early church, Christians met in homes. The leaders were called elders and deacons. The focal point of the worship services was the communion, celebrating the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Believers met to share a meal, to read Scripture, and to sing praises. Writings from the apostles were gradually circulated among the churches, providing much needed direction, counsel, and exhortation. These 1st-century Christians emphasized the teachings of the apostles, godly living, benevolence, and evangelism. By the end of the 1st-century, Christianity had spread to most of the Mediterranean region.


The spreading of Christianity was facilitated by the existence of the Roman Empire. The large extent of the empire allowed Christians to travel freely. The large network of straight, paved, and durable roads built for troop movement and trade provided efficient travel for gospel preachers. The universal Greek language used across the empire helped the preaching of the gospel by breaking down language barriers. The entire New Testament was written in Greek. (The Hebrew Old Testament had been translated into Greek in the 3rd-century BC and is called the Septuagint.)


Internal and External Struggles


With the passing of the apostles, the church continued to develop, adapting to the cultural and intellectual forces of the day. A church hierarchy emerged, with the bishop as the head of each local church. This church government appeared first in the eastern regions and spread gradually to all churches.


Worship continued to focus on the person and work of Christ, on the forgiveness of sin, and the hope of life through the final resurrection. Believers were encouraged to live lives that were distinct and different from those who embraced the surrounding pagan culture of self-gratification and materialism. The communion remained the central feature of worship because it portrayed the church’s message of forgiveness through Christ. Baptism, the only other sacrament, provided the identity as part of the assembly of the saints on earth. There were no saints’ days or holy convocations at this time.


The church was frequently attacked by the intellectuals of the day who ridiculed Christianity and questioned its teachings. The Gnostics were the most formidable early opponents, and some of the more scholarly bishops answered pagan charges in reasoned treatises. Among the most visible and eloquent were Justin Martyr (100–165), Irenaeus (130–200), Tertullian (160–215), Clement of Alexandria (155–220), and Origen (185–254). Many of these came from the churches in Alexandria (Egypt) and Carthage (north Africa). These apologists, those who defended the faith, fought against the intrusion of heresy. Sadly, heretics such as Marcionites emerged from within the church as well. The first ecumenical creeds—brief affirmations of the faith—emerged because leaders wanted to ensure that church members professed the essence of Christian faith. Further, the scattered writings of the apostles were gathered to be read in the churches. This helped to defend against heretical writings and lead to the emergence of a defined canon of the Bible.


Besides internal struggles, the early church also faced persecutions from the Roman government. Opposing Roman polytheism and unwilling to participate in the emerging emperor cult, Christians were brought under the wrath of the state as being treasonous and worthy of death. Persecutions occurred intermittently throughout this period but the worst were under Emperors Nero [54–68], when Peter and Paul were martyred, Domitian [81–96], when John was exiled, Septimus Severus [202–211], Decius [249–251], and Diocletian [292–305], who tried to destroy the church. Thousands of Christians were killed, including Ignatius [117], Polycarp [155], Justin Martyr [165], and a whole group mercilessly tortured at Lyons [177]. Yet, these deaths proved to be the wellspring of the church’s vitality and growth as persecutions purified the church by purging out the faithless.


Later, the authority of the church was gradually centralized in the hands of religious leaders. Because of the challenges from different heresies, bishops were appointed to decide on behalf of the whole church on matters of faith. A hierarchy of clergy formed, holding great power. In the first two centuries, the strongest churches were in Asia Minor and North Africa but gradually, the Western church, led by the bishop in Rome, gradually had dominance over the Eastern church. The debate over the date of Easter [190] symbolized the rise of the power in the West.