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 Chapter 12

The Theology of Persecution

 

THE persecution of Christians by Christians must have seemed beyond possibility to the members of the early Christian Church. It is probable that such a thought never entered their minds, let alone need be dismissed from their thoughts. They well understood the persecution of Christians by pagans. However, they would never have had cause to consider those conditions which would lead to dominant Christian groups persecuting minority Christian groups.

At that time, the early Christians themselves were a small minority in a dominantly pagan society ruled by pagan rulers. The concept of being a persecutor under those circumstances was nonexistent. The perpetration of punitive acts against others could only take place when Christianity attained to political dominance and adopted a pagan mind-set. Thus before the "conversion" of Constantine, the opportunity for developing persecution was not present.

But the "conversion" of Constantine changed all that. Once the emperor "converted" to Christianity, a tide of popular support developed for Christianity. The prestige of the emperor made it now fashionable for citizens of the empire to embrace Christianity. Obviously, a fashionable religion calls for much less commitment than an unpopular or little known religion. It must be remembered that no matter how lacking in true Christian conversion the new members were, they nevertheless had equal say in the affairs of the church. Thus the general piety and commitment of the members of the church was diluted. This ultimately had a significant impact upon the following generations, who in turn become nominal, rather than committed, Christians. The real voice of unity was broken. The unity for which Jesus prayed centered upon these words:

Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. John 17:17

That true unity, built upon truth and sanctification, was lost.

Inevitably, the consequence was a church desperately seeking to find ways to reestablish unity. Rarely, if ever, did the subsequent ecclesiastical leaders consider a return to the principles of Christ. A church dominated by the unconverted sought the ways of the world, and when the Church was linked with the power of the civil government there developed a high level of probability that civil government would be invoked to enforce "unity" at the point of the sword. History testifies that this course became ever more attractive to ecclesiastical leaders.

The rise of the power of Constantine and his embracing of Christianity provided a fertile field for the development of a persecution mentality. There is evidence that, over a century prior to Constantine’s "conversion," there were those who were beginning to venture the possibility of a state that would protect and enforce a brand of Christianity which was consistent with the dictates of ecclesiastical leaders. As early as a.d. 175, Meliton, Bishop of Sardis, declared in the hearing of the emperor that there would be wisdom in the emperor making an arrangement with the God of the Christians, because—

only when Christianity is protected . . . does the empire continue to preserve its size and splendor. Quoted from Leonard Verduin, Reformers and Their Stepchildren, the Christian Hymnary Publishers, p. 30

In the year a.d. 250, Origen developed this concept a little further. Origen was an adherent of the Alexandrian school of Christianity, which was later to profoundly affect the thinking of Rome. By the time of Origen, the Alexandrian school of theology had already incorporated large elements of Greek pagan philosophy, and established the allegorizing methods of Bible "understanding" into the training of its students. Thus the sacral concepts did not seem dangerous to Origen, for he stated,

If now the entire Roman empire should unite in the adoration of the true God, then the Lord would fight for her, she being still [the reference is to Exodus 14:14]: then she would slay more enemies [referring to the destruction of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea] than Moses did in his day. Ibid.

Not all the early church fathers, of course, thought in this direction. Around the end of the second century, Tertullian had asked a rhetorical question,

What does the emperor have to do with the church? Ibid.

Dramatically was the whole playing field of Christianity changed with the "conversion" of Constantine. Constantine was a shrewd politician. He chose to attempt to unite his empire by declaring, in a.d. 321, that the day of the sun was to be the weekly worship day for the citizens of the Roman Empire. This was indeed a very clever move. The Roman pagans already were Sunday worshipers, following the practice of many pagans from the Babylonians through to the Greeks. But he had also discerned that some Christians had begun to favor Sunday over the Sabbath as a popular day of worship. That concept had begun even before the end of the first century, after the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in a.d. 70. The Jews were despised and fearfully oppressed and persecuted after Jerusalem’s destruction. Christianity was seen as a sect of the Jews, and nothing made this fact more apparent than the evidence that in conformity to the fourth commandment, Christians kept the seventh day of the week as their day of sacred rest, just as the Jews did. This led some Christians to argue that wisdom would dictate that they choose another day to worship the Saviour.

Obviously the most convenient day of worship in order to deflect the accusation that Christians were a Jewish sect, was the first day of the week, for that was the day on which the pagan Romans worshiped their sun god in a special way. The argument developed that Christ had been resurrected on the first day of the week, and thus it would be altogether appropriate to take Sunday as the special day of worship commemorating the resurrection. That there was no Scriptural support for this alteration did not override, in the minds of some, the circumstantial "necessity" and advantage of such a doctrinal alteration. Virtually no consideration was given to the fact that if God had vested man with the right to alter His law, then Friday, the day of Christ’s death, would have possessed an even greater claim to be chosen for worship. Not only was Sunday observance considered by some to be appropriate, it was also considered to be more convenient, simply because it would place the Christian at no disadvantage in terms of commerce and general activities, since their day of worship would harmonize with that of the pagan Romans.

Yet at the time of Constantine’s Sunday law in a.d. 321, the vast majority of Christians were still Sabbath-keepers. The idea of Sunday-keeping by Christians had, however, gained a significant foothold in regions in the vicinity of Rome, since these areas were closest to the seat of the emperor and therefore obviously more likely to come under his attention.

The decree of Constantine, however, was foreign to most Christians in the empire. The Sabbath-keeping Christians were in a quandary. They were so grateful to Constantine for the cessation of the Diocletian persecution, and were so elated by his "conversion" to Christianity, that they were placed in a dreadful dilemma when he enacted his Sunday law. To defy it would have appeared ungrateful as well as insubordinate. Resisting Constantine’s pagan predecessors had been much easier. Thus many accomodated Constantine’s law by keeping two days, and in some parts of the Roman empire for a number of centuries, both Sabbath and Sunday were declared days of rest. This was the origin of the weekend rest adopted by many nations today. Generally speaking, those who favored Sunday-keeping chose Sabbath as a fast day and Sunday a feast day, and those who favored Sabbath-keeping adopted the opposite role for each day. But in either case there was a general compliance with the law.

Another issue arose once Constantine had "converted" to Christianity. Soon pockets of persecution arose against pagans who would not convert. The very Christians who themselves had so recently been the victims of vicious persecution by pagans, were now willing to allow pagans to come under persecution, should they refuse to convert to Christianity. Here began the failure of Christianity to continue to follow the model of Jesus, who had declared,

My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight. John 18:36.

Now developed a clear distinction between the Christianity of the fourth century and the Christianity of the New Testament. But once the majority of Christians had adopted a code of silence in respect of the persecution of pagans, it was a short and very rapid step to the persecution of fellow Christians who were dissenters from the majority faith. Indeed, it was this very issue of the use of the arm of the state to bring pagans to Christianity that was to be the basis for the first Christian-against-Christian persecution.

When the Donatists of North Africa arose, opposing the use of the force of the state to coerce pagans to accept Christianity, their stand led in turn to their own persecution. The issue was not of doctrine nor beliefs: the issue was the use of the force of the state to bring converts to the Christian church. The Donatists saw Christianity as a religion of those who freely chose to follow Christ. They clearly understood that it was impossible for people truly to embrace Christianity except from their own free choice. They still believed that because of this fact and the clear statements of the Bible, God’s true people would always be a minority in this world; that even though the emperor had embraced Christianity, it in nowise followed that everyone else should be required to follow his example.

But it would seem that the majority of the Christians of the fourth century embraced the idea that God had blessed them, that society had now changed, that the principles of the New Testament no longer pertained. They perceived that God had in a miraculous way, no less miraculous than the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, given Constantine his vision of the Cross. Thus the Christians were given the sword of steel to do battle against any who would resist the invitation of the gospel.

Now it becomes obvious that the majority who accepted and actively promoted this idea despised the Donatists, who fiercely opposed such a concept. Thus the Donatists themselves, faithful Christians though they mainly were, were fiercely suppressed by their fellow Christians. It was in this arena that the concept of the term "heresy" arose. It is ironic that the term had little to do with beliefs or doctrines, but rather of the right of the church to use the power of the state to enforce her edicts.

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, born seventeen years after the death of Constantine, embraced the Constantinian concepts of church and state and strongly opposed the Donatists. He correctly understood that the real issue was the nature of the church. The Donatists saw the church as the body of true believers who had consecrated their lives to Christ. But Augustine promoted the view that the church and the state were indivisible, and therefore it was appropriate to require all citizens of the state to embrace Christianity by whatever means were necessary. It might be questioned why Augustine would have embraced such a concept. But it must be remembered that like Constantine, Augustine had grown up in a religion (Manichaeism) which was largely built upon pagan concepts—beliefs that clearly held to a sacralist precept where the state and religion were seen to be one. Thus Augustine said,

The issue between us and the Donatist is about the question where this body is to be located, that is, what and where is the church. Verduin, p. 33

There is no question that Augustine, probably more than any other church father in the history of Roman Catholicism, influenced the church’s philosophy and thinking.

Once the pagan mind-set of sacralism was accepted by the Christian church, then followed a desperate effort to discover biblical injunctions in its support. Some went to the Old Testament and then, rehearsing the use of the sword by the Children of Israel, believed that they were given full license to so use the sword in the Christian era. They made no effort to distinguish the theocratic government of the Old Testament from the secular government of the New Testament. However, when this distinction became an issue, theologians turned to the New Testament in a desperate effort to uphold and support the persecution of fellow Christians. The words of the apostles recorded in Luke 22:38, "Lord, behold, here are two swords" were used in a remarkable case of isogesis (that is, misuse of Scripture) to claim that Christ had authorized two swords—the sword of the clergy, which is the sword of the Spirit, and the sword of the soldiers of the state, which is the sword of steel. (Ibid. p. 42)

This concept developed so powerfully that by the twelfth century the idea was unquestioned,

The two swords belong to Peter; one is in his hand, the other is at his command whenever it is needful to draw it. . . . Both the spiritual and the material sword belong to the church, the latter sword is drawn for the church, the former by the church. One belongs to the priest and the other to the soldiery; but this one is drawn at the orders of the priest. Quoted in Ibid. pp. 42, 43

Verduin comments,

By this colossal piece of sophistry the Church made herself believe that she could order the life-blood of men to be let, all the while getting none of it on her skirt! Ibid. p. 43

These concepts were reinforced in papal bulls and by the philosophers of the church. Thomas Aquinas said,

The state, through which earthly objectives are reached, must be subordinated to the church; church and state are two swords which God has given to Christendom for protection; both these swords however are by Him given to the pope and the temporal sword is then by the pope entrusted to the rulers of the state. Ibid.

In 1302 Pope Boniface set forth this doctrine in a papal Bull entitled Unam Sanctam (ibid.).

The use of the argument arising out of Luke 22:38 that the two swords represented the sword of the Spirit on the one hand and the sword of steel on the other, is surely dispelled by Jesus’ response when a little later Peter used the sword of steel to cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant.

And, behold, one of them [Peter, see John 18:10] which were with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and struck a servant of the high priest’s, and smote off his ear. Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Matthew 26:51, 52

Rather than Jesus condoning the use of the sword, he rebuked Peter, commanding him to put up his sword into its sheath and admonishing him that those who take the sword will perish with the sword. This clarification by Christ dispels any thought that Christ had entrusted Peter with the sword of steel to coerce Christian belief and practice.

Every civil power has the sword to enforce its laws. By denying to the Church the power of the sword, Jesus therefore forbade the Church to ask the State for laws enforcing religious beliefs and observances. Paul understood this clearly when he wrote,

For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds. 2 Corinthians 10:4

The early Christian Church derived strength alone from the power of God. It triumphed grandly over the opposing forces of pagan religions which were upheld by the State. Only when the Church allied herself with the State in seeking its aid, did the Church deny God, losing her true power, and leading the world into a millennium of great darkness.

Those who later supported the Donatist ideals did not embrace the Constantinian-Augustinian sacral concepts. The Waldensians stated,

The priests actuate the secular arm and then think to be free from murder and they wish to be known as benefactors. Yes just as did Annas and Caiaphas and the rest of the Pharisees in the time of Christ so does Innocent [the then pope] do in our time; they refrain from going into the house of Pilate lest they be defiled and in the meantime deliver Jesus up to the secular arm. Verduin, p. 44

In the early persecution, faithful Christians were not burned at the stake, but later this became an increasingly common practice. The custom of executing "heretics" by fire was derived from the words of Jesus:

If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. John 15:6.

To the persecutors, this text gave them the right to burn "heretics," for they interpreted the concept "if a man abide not in me" to mean "if a man reject the Roman Catholic Church." It was Augustine who attempted more than any other to buttress the concepts of the persecution of dissenters with the Word of God. Because of his great prestige as a theologian, his faulted biblical arguments were readily accepted, thus permitting coercion to be not only theologically respectable, but a responsibility of the Church. Unbelievably, Augustine used the words of Jesus:

And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. Luke 14:23, emphasis added

The Donatists threatened to secede from the main body of the church and go their own way, but the developing concepts of the "Christian sacralists" would not permit this freedom, and made it plain that they would not allow such a split to take place. The Sacralists believed that such freedom would thwart their plans for a faith that was common throughout the entire Roman Empire. The Donatists responded by pointing out that Christ would not raise so much as a finger, let alone a sword, to restrain people from making their own individual choices. They pointed out that when the multitudes deserted Jesus, He had given the disciples the option to leave.

From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? John 6:66, 67

Augustine rebutted this argument of the Donatists.

I hear that you are quoting that which is recorded in the Gospel, that when the seventy followers went back from the Lord they were left to their own choice in this wicked and impious desertion and that he said to the twelve remaining, "Do you not also want to go?" But what you fail to say is that at that time the church was only just beginning to burst forth from the newly planted seed and that the saying had not as yet been fulfilled in her "all kings shall fall down before him, and all nations shall serve him" [Psalm 72:11]. It is in proportion to the more enlarged fulfillment of this prophecy that the Church now wields greater power—so that she may now not only invite but also compel men to embrace that which is good. Quoted in Verduin, p. 65, 66

From this statement of Augustine it can be seen that he was not prepared to accept the New Testament model as applying to the Christian church throughout all ages. Now that the "kings" had come to the acceptance of Christianity, it was thought altogether appropriate that the power of the king should be used to not only invite, but to compel men and women to become Christians. The logical consequence of this line of argument was the increasing number of unconverted people who, rather than face death, imprisonment or torture, made the pretense of Christianity while indeed having no relationship with the Christ of Christianity. The only possible result was a church warped by worldliness, members whose hearts were carnal and whose interests were far removed from the spread of the gospel.

Thus the Constantinian sacralism that enveloped the Roman Catholic Church was a formula for a totally impotent witness to the power of Christ and a lack of interest in upholding the perfect principles of authentic unity. Augustine’s persecutive principles can readily be seen to have arisen from his unwavering belief in predestination—a concept which robs human beings of their God-given right to decide and choose. However, Augustine did not see any inconsistency in ecclesiastical leaders having the right to force the conscience of other fellow humans unable to protect themselves.

Thus the commission of Jesus—

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

was extended not only to teaching and preaching, but to compelling. Note how Augustine supported the concept of the difference between his age and the age of the apostolic church. In referring to the parable of the wedding feast, Augustine pointed out that at first the servants were sent out to summon the invitees to the feast, but when they refused to come, then the master said, "Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in that my house may be filled."

Now observe how that with reference to those who came in during the former period it was "bring them in" and not "compel them," by which the incipient condition of the church is signified, during which she was but growing toward the position of being able to compel. Since it was right by reason of greater strength and power to coerce men to the feast of eternal salvation therefore it was said later . . . "Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in." Quoted in Verduin, p. 67

Augustine warned the Donatists,

And so if you were strolling quietly outside the feast of eternal salvation and the unity of the holy Church then we would overtake you on your "highways"; but now that you verily by many injuries and cruelties which you perpetrate upon our people, are full of thorns and spines, now we come upon you in your "hedges" to compel you. The sheep which is compelled is coerced while it is unwilling, but after it has been brought in it may graze as its own volition wills. Quoted in ibid. p. 67, 68

Augustine also found "support" for his doctrine of coercion in the story of the family of Abraham, who had two wives, one a free woman and the other a bond servant. The one was allowed to live in freedom and the other one in servitude.

Christians today will no doubt recognize that the call for a one-world government is put forth with a demand for a universal religion. Such is always the call of sacralists. In this aim the importance of doctrine will be diminished. Indeed, it is expected that those areas of understanding which have divided the various church communities are to be put aside and a new inclusive religion is to be established. Such is the certain precursor of persecution that will be built upon the same sacral mentality that developed in the early Christian church and dominated the persecution of the Middle Ages.

This is a sober warning to every faithful Christian today. The cry that the New World Order will bring in peace, harmony, and unity is as empty as was the cry of the revolutionaries of France, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity." Intelligent, perceptive, dedicated Christians will learn the lessons of history and will oppose the false hopes fabricated by the advocates of the ecumenical movement. That movement is certain to result in fearful persecution of dissenters, for its foundational premise envisages the whole world as Christian, as did the early sacralists, rather than the Church consisting of only the converted ones.

 


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