The Persecution of the Early Church

In the fourth episode of Faith of our Fathers, Jonathan Brack and Charles Williams provide an overview of the shape, extent, and intensity of the Roman Empire’s persecution of the Church until 313 AD.

Faith of our Fathers is a program designed to furnish the layperson with a working knowledge of key events in church history, to explore issues in church history from a Reformed perspective, and to consider the practical relevance of studying themes in church history without being merely pragmatic. Browse more episodes from this program or subscribe to the podcast feed.

Steve in Toronto

7 years ago

Any thoughts on Candida Moss’s “The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom”?

Charles Williams

7 years ago

Hey Steve –

Sorry, I haven’t read Moss’s work yet. Sounds intriguing.



7 years ago

It is interesting that when Christianity was illegal – that is, when the State’s policy toward the Church was one of aggression – the Church’s attitude toward the State was glad submission to State agression. But after the State’s official policy toward the Church became at least less aggressive, the Church’s attitude toward the State was either to use it as a tool for enforcing Judeo-Christian ethics or to justify/rationalize situations in which the State ought to be resisted (even with violence). I wonder if, prior to that policy change, a Christian theology of the State might have been different than it has been since the middle ages.

Jonathan Brack

7 years ago


I am wrestling with that very question as we go through this series. It seems to be that since there is no eschatology in the state there is no definitive political theory tied to the new testament ethic other than to be good citizens in the most civil way, don’t steal, don’t murder, be generous. I am not trying to promote political pragmatism but a lack of eschatology for the city of Man can begin to look more pragmatic on politics than we might be comfortable with. Pure communism can be just as evil as pure capitalism.
I wonder what would it would have been like if Peter or Paul were suddenly placed into Power. I mean what if at Rome everyone was converted after Paul preached….
Nevertheless, I believe what isn’t hypothetical is that the Gospel is trans-national.


7 years ago

Thanks for your reply, Jonathan.

Amen to the trans-national nature of the Gospel and its mission!

I’m curious what you mean by “there is no eschatology in the state…” It terminates, rather than consummates, but do you mean something more than that? I agree, though, that there is no political theory tied to the NT ethic. As one of my friends puts it: The NT is profoundly indifferent to matters of state. I couldn’t agree more.

Why would political pragmatism necessarily be a bad thing? If the NT puts all of the weight on the eschatological kingdom (of which only believers and their children are members), then why ought there be a Christian political philosophy? I suppose another way of looking at what you’re saying is that surely there were brothers and sisters in Christ who lived in communist Russia – and probably even thought that communism was a good system (?), the best system (?) or maybe even God’s system (?). We don’t want to excommunicate them for their politico-economic views do we? Put differently, if at least part of the implication of Romans 13:4 is that the state is a violent institution, then how do we know how that violence ought to be exercised? Is defensive violence (using the sword against murder, assault, rape, theft, fraud, etc.) the only moral position, or is the initiation of violence ever justified – and how do we know that from the NT? Would advocating that the state use the sword against nonaggressive behavior be murder by proxy?

Getting back to your podcast, though, I’m wondering what the early Church’s theology of the state means for the various theologies of the state that have developed since the middle ages. Is it at least possible that “profound indifference” and glad submission to state agression against the Church in any way rebukes or corrects later theologies of the state?

Thanks for the discussion!

Neal Horsley

7 years ago

It’s obvious from your comments that you have never lived in a State where those you identify with suffer as murderers while doing nothing other than what God’s Word told them to do. Were you to have lived in those conditions, as I have, you would have become sensitive to the fact that the New Testament could not have said anything about resistence against the State without endangering anyone who possessed the Scriptures. But anyone who looks closely can see the messages in Scripture that reveal the real stirrings of resistance to murderous rulers that was beginning even during the lives of the Apostles. I Tim 1 and 2 is a perfect example among several: Paul obviously was talking about the law and the rulers who made the law; yet the most obvious way explain Paul’s statement about the “wrath and doubting” that he was speaking against was that it was a way of putting to silence those in the churches who were even then beginning to clamor for a way to resist the murderous laws rulers were creating for Christians. The fact that Paul silenced that wrath with his command to pray for those in authority did not mean that God’s Word was teaching that was the only way to overcome rulers who chose to make the persecution of Christians the goal of government on earth. Witness the Wars of the Reformation. Are you prepared to take the pacifist postition that all armed resistance is contrary to the Word and Will of God? Your analysis so far certainly seems to imply you think God is a pacifist in the face of this world’s governments.


7 years ago

Thank you for your reply, Neal [I wish the hosts would do the same 🙂 ].

I’m not sure I understand everything you’re saying. For example, what do you mean by, and to whom are you referring when you speak of “those you identify with suffer as murderers while doing nothing other than what God’s Word told them to do.”? Do you mean there are Christians who have fought back against people who meant them harm, and that now those Christians are in prison for murder? If not, please help me to understand.

The bottom line here is twofold: the weapons of Christian warfare are not σαρκικός – that is, they are not of this present, evil age which is passing away (2 Cor. 10:4); God’s strategy for victory in his Son was by means of submission to death, which looks to the world like losing/defeat, and that is foolishness to them (1 Cor. 1:18ff.). I’m not sure I would call God a pacifist, but I would say that his diagnosis is always correct, his cure is always perfect and his victory is always sure.

It seems to me that for the first three centuries, the State had an official policy of aggression against the Church – and yet the Church seemed to respond according to the bottom line above. That is what I heard the hosts saying in this podcast, as well.

I am simply observing – with some amazement – that as soon as the State’s official policy toward the Church became one of tolerance, the Church began to clamor to install its own people in positions of political power. The Church also responded to this relaxed policy by developing theologies of the State that confused or blurred cult and culture, and applied the Mosaic covenant (in whole or in part) to the State of their time and place.

Neal Horsley

7 years ago

There are several anecdotes told by the early Church Fathers of men who took up arms in their own defense and were killed while fighting. Add those anecdotes to your list of martyrs and I’ll think you’re getting the whole historical picture on the table. But aside from anecdotes, the point I’m trying to make is 1 Timothy 1:8-11 clearly states that lawbreakers are to be resisted by government. To abstract government and law enforcement from the individual means logically even self-defense is denied to the individual confronted by a murderer or other similar lawbreaker, and the individual must wait until somebody from government comes along to protect him. The USA came into being because some Christian men agreed to take up arms in defense of the self-evident truths defined in the Declaration of Independence. Even then there were Christians who said it was sin for Christians to kill in defense of God’s Law. Since the ancient Church there have been Christians who refused to believe that when Jesus said two swords are enough that He had in mind the sword of government on earth as one of those swords. When we as individual men decide that only some officials with titles are allowed to enforce the law, we backflip into some kind of medieval nobility scheme where the peasants only have a duty to fight to the death when their betters tell them to. I don’t think that’s the truth. I think that men like Cromwell and John Knox and George Washington and Phineus and Old John Brown the abolitionist should be honored even when their attempts to resist evil failed abysmally…or even Paul Hill, the excommunicated and executed Reformed Presbyterian Pastor. To fail to honor such men seems to create a default explanation where the god of this world is given carte blanc to create evil undettered by Christians who inherit governments that know nothing of the Law of God.


7 years ago

I’m just not sure that what you’ve said takes account of God’s sovereignty. What the devil and unbelievers intend for evil, God intends for good.

How does your paradigm fit with the pattern of Jesus’ life (and the Christian life) of suffering first, and then glory – or that the path to glory is through suffering? Why does God’s method of achieving victory look like willing submission to the cross, and not like the method of Peter, Cromwell, Knox, et al?


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