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 Chapter 11

The Development of Religious Persecution


IN his definitive work, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, Leonard Verduin carefully presents the basis of the development of a philosophy of religious persecution. He notes the concept of the separation of church and state authority as enshrined in the New Testament.

In the New Testament division, that which we today call the State and that which we now call the Church are agencies that cater to differentiable loyalties. The State demands a loyalty that all men can give, irrespective of their religious orientation; the Church demands a loyalty which only he can give who believes in the Christ. The State has a sword with which it constrains men, coerces them if need be; the Church has a sword also, but it is the sword of the Word of God, a sword that goes no farther than moral suasion. Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, the Christian Hymnary Publishers, p. 22

Verduin points out that this was a wholly new concept in civilization. Prior to the Christian era, all society was sacral. Verduin defines a sacral society:

By sacral society we mean a society held together by a religion to which all the members of that society are committed. Ibid., p. 23

Almost inevitably pagan religions expected, and naturally demanded, that all citizens follow the same religious persuasion as that ascribed by the national leadership, normally the king. Indeed, frequently, the king was presented as a human form of deity. The book of Daniel illustrates this fact. In Daniel chapter 3, we have the command of King Nebuchadnezzar to require all the leaders of Babylon to bow down and worship an image of gold built to represent himself as the one worthy of worship. The penalty for noncompliance was death. The king’s imposition of this sentence upon Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego was unsuccessful because of their unwavering loyalty to the God of heaven.

Another example of this sacral mentality is recorded in Daniel chapter 6, where an attempt was made to eliminate Daniel from the leadership of the province of Babylon. King Darius was persuaded to enact a law forcing all to acknowledge him alone as the object of worship for a space of thirty days. The penalty for non-compliance was death.

New Testament Christianity was of a different character from paganism. It provided for the rightful role of civil government, but excluded from that provision the right of the civil powers to trample the conscience of its citizens. In reality, Christianity laid the foundation for the privileges which we enjoy in free nations today. This was a national loyalty, not built upon unified religious practices, but rather, built upon the right of citizens to elect the leaders to whom they would be loyal, and who, it was expected, would establish just laws. The United States Constitution, which provided for religious liberty separate from loyalty to the civil government, has proven the effectiveness of a true republican form of government. Similar religious liberty resides in certain constitutional monarchies. The fact that citizens may worship differently from each other, and even strongly disagree, in nowise has been seen to affect the loyalty of the citizens to the nation. Thus Verduin states,

The New Testament’s idea of societal compositism is the only real alternative to the stultifying ideologies that have given rise to the modern optionless and option-forbidding totalitarian states. Ibid. p. 25

Verduin further points out that,

It was the outworking of the sacralist thought habits of Roman society that occasioned the persecutions to which the early Christians were exposed. The Roman State had its officially designated Object of worship and to it every Roman was expected to give homage. It is significant that the early Christians did not launch a crusade to have this Object ousted and a new and better Object, the God of the Scriptures, put in its place. The primitive Church did not propose to remove the Object that had hitherto stood in the square and put its own Object in its place. It was content to worship the Christian God in an off-the-street place and to ignore the Object that stood in a place where none belongs, being careful that no one would have reason to complain that by so worshiping at an esoteric shrine the Christians were drawing themselves away from the affairs of Roman life. Ibid

Christians of necessity had to develop a nonsacral mentality. For Jesus had commissioned them,

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Matthew 28:19, 20

It was this commission that was to bring them into direct conflict with the pagan nations around. As pagans accepted Christianity, this act broke the centuries-long stranglehold of the reliance of the state upon a single religion for its security and support. Christianity could not be confined to one nation which had a unified religion. It had to press its frontiers to every nook and cranny of the earth. Before the end of the apostolic period, Paul, writing about a.d. 64, could declare the dramatic success of Christianity under the power of the Holy Spirit.

If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister. Colossians 1:23, emphasis added

This certainly was confirmed in the second century.

By the middle of the second century it was being said by Justinus in his running encounter with Tryphon Gudaeus, that "There is not a race of men on the earth among whom converts from the Christian faith cannot be found." By the end of the century Tertullian could say, without fear of contradiction, that "We came on the scene only yesterday and already we fill all your institutions, your towns, all cities, your fortresses . . . your senate and your forum." The New Testament vision was paying off richly. Quoted in Verduin, pp. 28, 29

So successful was Christianity that Emperor Decius enacted laws that required every one to show that he sacrificed to the pagan gods of Rome, on the punishment of death for nonconformity. Thus early Christianity was in stark contrast to the sacral mind-set of the pagans they wished to convert. Verduin describes the beginnings of the development of Christian sacralism. The author states that the term in itself is an anomaly, for Christianity, by its very fundamental principles, cannot be sacral.

As paganism declined and Christianity strengthened, there was always the possibility that the strengthening Christian religion would take the place of paganism in secular society and develop its own form of sacralism; and this is indeed what happened.

The change came suddenly and swiftly. The year 303 saw the beginning of a decade of fearful persecution against the Christians begun by the pagan emperor Diocletian. Though Diocletian abdicated several years later, his successors continued the persecution. Many Christians lost their lives and others were fearfully tortured—so much so, that well after the persecution had ceased, many of the Bishops attending the Council of Laodicea in 325 attended fearfully maimed. All this persecution was to change dramatically soon after Constantine seized the throne of the Roman Empire in 312. What at first appeared to be a remarkable deliverance by God of His faithful people, proved to be the beginning of a dark period of Christian history, characterized by rapid apostasy, pagan infiltration, and sickening persecution of those not conforming to the edicts of ecclesiastical leaders who now had the power of the imperial sword to coerce the dissenters, who then became the hapless victims of their ruthless tyranny.

Immediately the Roman Emperor Constantine became involved in legislating in the arena of religion, the door was opened to the persecution of those who, for conscience’ sake, refused to follow the Emperor’s edicts. Thus almost overnight the ground was laid for the development of sacralism within the context of Christianity. Verduin reported this development.

In the Constantinian change a tendency that had been developing for some time, was unleashed. A radical change of roles occurred. The Christian religion would now enjoy the benefits, if benefits they be, which the ethnic faith [paganism] had enjoyed hitherto. And the hardships which had in earlier times fallen upon the Christian would now become the lot of those who lingered at the ancient shrines; and for the same reason—that they pose a threat to the sacral order. By the end of the fourth century the simplest votive offering set before the erstwhile Object, even in household shrines, made the bringers thereof subject to grievous penalty. Gatherings in the signature of the now outlawed faith was strictly proscribed. Indoctrination in the tenets of the ancient faith was strictly forbidden. Not yet baptized persons were required to attend catechism classes in preparation for baptism; all who after attending such classes refused to present themselves for baptism, or having received it then relapsed into the old ways, were subject to the ultimate sentence. Ibid. p. 32

But there arose a group of Christians who refused to follow this sacral pattern. They became known as Donatists. They rebelled against the Constantinian enforcement of the Christian faith upon non-believers. The difference between the Donatists and the sacralists was not so much one of doctrine nor of theology. It was rather a distinction concerning the nature of the role of the church in society. Though opposed to the use of force, which they saw as the method of Satan rather than the method of Christ, the Donatists, largely concentrated in North Africa, opposed the persecution of the pagans by the "Christian" sacralists.

The Donatists saw the true Christians as a small minority of men and women distinct from the worldly majority. The "Christian" sacralists began to believe that all citizens must be Christians, irrespective of their dedication or their level of piety. Thus conformity became commonplace. The Donatists saw the Church as being filled with tares by the coercive methods of the sacralists. There were many instant "conversions" from paganism, not because of heart change, but because of the point of the sword. Such "converts" were willing to go through whatever motions were necessary to avoid danger to life and limb.

Faithful Christians took an entirely different perspective, and in turn they were soon to became the objects of fearful persecution by their erstwhile brethren. This persecution was not directed against their beliefs, nor against their practices, but rather against their opposition to the joining together of church and state, with the church usurping the prerogative to determine each individual’s spiritual status, and the state collaborating with the church as the executor of its edicts.

This rapid turn of events increasingly led faithful members of the church to flee into "the wilderness." Always the faithful followed the pathway of the Donatists in opposing the union of church and state. Thus in the fourth century began the development of the Waldensians. The Celtic church, quite powerful from the sixth through the ninth centuries, was almost snuffed out of existence by the Roman sacral mentality.

Other groups, such as the Albigenses and the Huguenots, arose in later years. As the Middle Ages dragged on, we witness the rise of the thirteenth century inquisitors. The Inquisition intensified even more fiercely the persecution which the sacralists levied against those who, like the Donatists of the fourth and fifth centuries, fervently upheld the separate roles for church and state (the Neo-Donatists). Not unexpectedly, the sacralists won out over the neo-Donatists, for the sacralists believed whole-heartedly in using the sword of the state to enforce their ecclesiastical authority. The neo-Donatists, including the Celtics, the Waldensians, the Albigenses, and the Huguenots, opposed the union of church and state, and therefore had no military arm to defend themselves against the ruthless assaults by the army of the state.

The issue of sacral versus Donatist thinking was fiercely debated by the sixteenth century Reformers. In the early days of the Reformation, the Reformers stood steadfastly on the side of the neo-Donatists. This was especially true of Zwingli and Luther. In 1519, Martin Luther wrote against the "Babylonian harlot" and took strong neo-Donatist positions, but this was to change. Both Zwingli and Luther sought protection from secular leaders and obtained that protection. This seeking of the state’s protection, which in itself was proper, nevertheless led to tragic consequences. Both Zwingli and Luther eventually followed the pathway of the papist in invoking the sword of the princes to enforce their religious beliefs. Thus rose a dedicated group of men and women who felt betrayed by Zwingli and Luther, and later Calvin. These were the Anabaptists.

The Anabaptists would have nothing to do with a state church, and this was the main point in their separation from the Lutherans, Zwinglians, and Calvinists; this was the one concept upon which all parties of Anabaptists were in absolute accord.

In contrast, the Reformers themselves developed a sacralism no different from that of the Roman Catholics. That is why Zwingli had many Anabaptists drowned in the river in front of his church when they refused to accept infant baptism. These Anabaptists were so named because they believed in rebaptism, or a second baptism. Though most had been sprinkled soon after birth, they denied this as true baptism; accepting rather the biblical principle of believers’ baptism preceded by acceptance of Christ, which was publicly affirmed by immersion. Soon the Anabaptists were seen as the enemy of the state and as a serious threat to the unity of social order.

Thus none of the best known sixteenth century Reformers captured the true essence of Christianity, in which the principles of Christ are predicated upon freedom to choose and to decide. The fact that they were unable to shake off the Augustinian concept of predestination partially contributed to their ultimate readiness to accept sacralism. The Anabaptists believed it necessary to re-establish the church of the New Testament, a church built upon God-given freedom, a church established to oppose everything that challenged the religious freedom of the citizens of the nations. The Anabaptists wrote much about this tenet of faith. But like all the Donatist groups from the time of Constantine, they were unable to make a dominant impact because the sacralists were able to use the force of the state against them. It was Luther’s capitulation to sacralism that permitted Emperor Charles V to make a decree that led to the martyrdom of many Anabaptists for refusing to have their own children "baptized" soon after birth, or to refrain from "rebaptizing" those who had been sprinkled in infancy.

It was this mentality that led the states of Germany to be divided. If the ruler was a Roman Catholic, the state became a Roman Catholic state; and if the ruler was a Protestant, the state became a Protestant (Lutheran) state. This forced myriads of German people to leave their ancestral homes to move to another state in order to avoid persecution. Protestants dwelling within a Roman Catholic state were forced to relocate to a Protestant state; a Roman Catholic in a Protestant state needed to relocate in a Roman Catholic state. Tragic though this was, it pales into insignificance when we consider that the nonconformists who were neither Roman Catholics nor mainstream Protestants (Lutheran, Calvinists, etc.) had nowhere to find protection. Thus both the Protestant states and the Roman Catholic states were instrumental in the martyrdom of many dedicated Anabaptists. This persecution led many of the Anabaptists to flee to the North American continent seeking protection from the fiery trials that they had endured in central Europe.

Perhaps no act of the Reformation brought more horror to the hearts of freedom-loving people than the cruel act of Calvin in ordering the death of Servetus. Servetus was a renowned Spanish scientist who was among the first to understand the blood circulatory system. He had come to visit Calvin to discuss his somewhat unusual theological understandings. But did his unusual theology justify the ruthless decision of Calvin and others to "burn the heretic"? Hardly! Not only was Servetus burned at the stake, he was cruelly condemned to be burnt by slow fire; by the use of green wood that would and did prolong the agony of his slow death, which was said to have taken about three hours from the moment of igniting the wood.

This pitiless act of Calvin, he fiercely defended when outrage swept across Europe. It is almost certain that the outrage was so intense that it prevented Calvin from continuing in this most un-Christ-like practice. The prevailing thinking of the time can hardly be used as justification for his act. Yet the generally gentle Melanchthon, Luther’s faithful associate, vigorously supported Calvin’s cruel act in a letter in which he stated that, "the Church owes and always will owe a debt of gratitude to you for having put the heretic to death." (Quoted in ibid., p. 52)

The preeminent role played by Augustine (354–430), Bishop of Hippo, in the systemization of Roman Catholic dogma, can be seen from the following praise given to him by Roman Catholic and Protestant authorities alike. Many authors have linked Calvin’s theology and work with that of Augustine, regarded by Roman Catholics as the greatest theologian in the first millennium of the Christian era, the Apostle Paul excluded.

Augustine . . . was one of the greatest men of the Christian Church of all time. W. J. Grier, The Momentous Events, p. 27, Banner of Truth Trust, 1986

[Augustine was] one of the greatest theologians and philosophical minds that God has ever seen fit to give to His church. Talbert & Crampton, Calvinism, Hyper-Calvinism, & Arminianism, p. 79, Still Waters Revival Books, 1990

Augustine stands as a major link between Paul and Calvin. Arthur C. Custance, The Sovereignty of Grace, p. 20, Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company, 1979

These two extraordinarily gifted men [Augustine and Calvin] tower like pyramids over the scene of history. Benjamin Warfield, Calvin & Augustine, p. v, Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company, 1956

He [Calvin] and Augustine easily rank as the two outstanding systematic expounders of the Christian system since St. Paul. Lorraine Boettner, The Reform Doctrine of Predestination, p. 405, Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Company, 1932

In the light of historical evidence, we cannot heap such praise upon either Augustine or Calvin. Augustine, unable to free himself from many of the vaunted concepts of paganism, which he had imbibed in his upbringing and early education, deviated widely from New Testament teachings. Calvin followed suit. Augustine, with his admonition to treat the first nine chapters of Genesis as allegorical, firmly opened the door to evolutionary theorizing among Christian believers. In two quite different generations, Augustine and Calvin provided a basis for the "justification" of the persecution of religious minorities. That modern theologians heap such praise upon these men, does not engender confidence that when the religious and political climate accommodates it, there will not be a renewed church-state persecution which will lead to fearful repression of minority religious groups.

It is not surprising then that many Christians today, forgetting the tragic lessons of the past, are anxious to devalue the concept of the separation of church and state, and look for the state to enforce the edicts of the majority in matters of faith and religion. We can predict that the dire prophecies of the words of Scripture will be fulfilled again in the United States and other nations. This prediction is clearly set forth in Holy Writ.

And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb, and he spake as a dragon. And he exerciseth all the power of the first beast before him, and causeth the earth and them which dwell therein to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed. And he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men, and deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by the means of those miracles which he had power to do in the sight of the beast; saying to them that dwell on the earth, that they should make an image to the beast, which had the wound by a sword, and did live. And he had power to give life unto the image of the beast, that the image of the beast should both speak, and cause that as many as would not worship the image of the beast should be killed. And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: and that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name. Revelation 13:11–17 1


1It is not within the scope of this book to set forth the meaning of the symbols of the beast with the lamb-like horns, the first beast set forth in Revelation 13:1–10, the deadly wound, the image to the beast, the mark in the right hand and forehead, and the number of his name. These matters are taken up in the authors’ book, Antichrist Is Here, Hartland Publications, P.O.Box 1, Rapidan, Virginia 22733, U.S.A.

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