THIRD CENTURY TRIBULATIONS 

"In this life you will have trouble," Jesus said (John 16:33). So far the church survived external pressure and internal division with growth. Christianity became a force to be reckoned with by the end of the third century.

Satan doesn't give up easily. He uses every means at his disposal to smash the church. Rome's might and power remained his chief weapon, but the empire faced its own difficulties throughout the third century. Rome's fortunes continued to decline. When Rome faced difficult times, Christian knew it. The old axiom, "Mad at the dog, kick the cat," found expression in the way the Empire treated believers.

It is my purpose in this lecture to survey the Empire's situation, its actions towards the church and the church's internal problems resulting from persecution.

I. Strains pulling at the Empire.

Rome's slippage became increasingly noticeable after Marcus Aurelius's death (A.D. 180). More and more, Rome found itself led by weak rulers and confronted with external problems. Rome reached the pinnacle of its power in the second century. Rome's might and efficient rule maintained peace during the second century. Peace eroded away and tyrannical despots came to power during the third century.

Commodus illustrated incompetent leadership. He assumed power when Aurelius died. Preferring sensual pleasure to government responsibility, Commodus allowed favorites to run the government. After his murder, subsequent leaders fared no better and Emperor after Emperor died at others' hands. By 249 Rome still had no solution to the problem of a successful succession.

Rome also faced severe economic pressures. Large estates swallowed up small farms displacing many farmers, workers and slaves. These displaced persons went to the cities to find work or relief. Without a sufficient work force in the country, irrigation canals deteriorated cutting into productivity. Deforestation contributed to serious soil erosion and even large farmers faced difficulty. Urban mobs demanded food and circuses to relieve their hunger and boredom. Fearing revolt, the government offered the dole and the games in spite of depleted government treasuries.

Population decreased in Italy. Caracalla expanded Roman citizenship in 212 to increase the tax base. Citizenship provided tax monies, armed forces and aristocratic leadership in Rome. A desire for pleasure and wealth contributed to the population decline. Most Romans limited families through infanticide, emasculation, abortive herbs and birth control. Some historians also believe sexual excesses reduced the fertility rate. Disease, revolution and war also caused countless deaths. Will Durant wrote:

A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within. The essential causes of Rome's decline lay in her people, her morals, her class struggle, her failing trade, her bureaucratic despotism, her stifling taxes, her consuming wars.

External pressure also existed. Persia, Rome's ancient enemy, encroached into the Empire through Roman Syria. Barbarians along the Rhine-Danube frontier constantly threatened Rome's northern borders. Roman armies stood in constant readiness and fought occasional skirmishes.

II. Reactions pushing at Christians.

Roman people asked, "Why have all these woes afflicted us?" The unsettled conditions puzzled the Romans after so many peaceful years. Again, the Romans found the answer in the gods' displeasure of Christianity's growth. Roman historians argued that Christianity destroyed the old faith which gave the Roman character its "moral fiber." Furthermore, they said, Christianity brought Oriental mysticism into the realistic stoic Roman thought. Christianity also caused men to avoid life's realities and focus on a life to come--"pie in the sky by and by." One other accusation offers us some interesting insights. Apparently Christians could not hold public office, serve in the military or get married.

There's some truth in all this. The church pushed celibacy. Its creeds added to already substantial religious confusion contributing to religious division. Still, Christianity grew. Even today, Christianity expands when things are tense. Win Arn refers to such times as "Receptive Periods."

When weak Emperors sat on the Imperial chair, the church enjoyed relative peace. Septimius Severus's persecution ended with his death in 211 and the church enjoyed 50 years of peace. During that time Alexander Severus (A.D. 222-235) built a private chapel complete with busts of church figures, including Jesus. Some consider Philip the Arabian (A.D. 244-249) a Christian. Between Septimius Severus and Decius, persecution erupted only once. Maximus (A.D. 235-238) instigated a brief persecution in Rome and Palestine.

Decius became Emperor in 249. Convinced that Rome's problems stemmed from the gods' displeasure, he began a persecution geared to eliminate Christianity. The man held the Empire's best interests at heart. He wanted to unite the Empire in the worship of one religion. In A.D. 250 he issued an edict ordering all citizens to worship the old state gods on penalty of death. The government forced everyone, including pagans, to worship the gods. Those who did so received a certificate called a libellus indicating their obedience. Apparently Rome checked up on each citizen periodically stopping them to check papers.

Decian persecution lasted only two years. Gallus (A.D. 251-253) pressed a minor persecution. Valerian (A.D. 253-260) instituted another about 257. By then the Empire faced strong financial stress. Macrianus, the Roman treasurer, began the persecution to provide an excuse to appropriate church property. Rome used all the old methods and evidently the treasury profited substantially since the church owned property.

III. Responses of the Christians.

Many people became believers during the 50 peaceful years. These new Christians knew little of the commitment required. When persecution came, many took the easy way out. Christians obeyed state orders worshiping the state gods and securing their libellus. Even some clergy yielded, particularly in Spain and North Africa. Records reveal that two Spanish bishops led their entire congregations to offer incense. Other believers got their libellus on the "black market" from crooked administrators or from friends.

While some caved in to pressure, others stood firm. Still others went into hiding. The courageous faced persecution and died for their faith. Who were the true Christians? Those who gave in? Those who fled? Those who died for their faith were obviously true to the faith. Such people received much veneration. When the smoke cleared the church took two directions.

Those who survived persecution became known as "Confessors." Christians treated such believers with increasing reverence and respect. The concept of Penance was just beginning and the Confessors heard confessions because these great saints must have greater influence upon God.

What to do with holders of the libellus is another problem! When persecution dies down, many of the lapsi want to return. The church offered three suggestions: (1) Offer instruction and make it easy for them to return. (2) Deny these backsliders readmittance and let them know the only way they can be saved is through martyrdom. (3) Accept them back with the provision they do 2-3 years of Penance whereupon they can be readmitted as catecheumens.

Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage (A.D. 248 or 249), takes the moderate position. His controversy with Novatian demonstrates the seriousness of the problem of the lapsed.

Fabian, the Roman Bishop, died in 250. The church named two likely candidates to replace him: Cornelius and Novatian. Cornelius was a competent but ordinary man. Novation, a highly competent man, caught everyone's eye. Novation also took a hard line on the lapsed. Cornelius won the election but Novatian's friends took issue. They rejected the election's validity and put Novation in as Bishop sought Cyprian's approval.

Cyprian investigated Rome's situation carefully. After determining Cornelius was properly elected, he threw his support behind him. Novatian retaliated appointing a "true Bishop in Carthage." Once that occurs, Carthage's hard liners lined up with the Novatian Bishop.

The Novatianist schism died out after Novatian's death. Members of Novatianist churches returned to orthodox bodies. The church now faced another problem. What do you do with heretics seeking readmission? For the most part churches received these believers back into fellowship once the Bishop laid hands upon them. What about new Christians won by these heretical groups? Are their baptisms valid?

While Cyprian took a moderate line on the lapsed, he took a hard line on heresy. You can't help but wonder if his attitude doesn't come from the conflict with Novatian. Perhaps there were more heretics than lapsed in North Africa. Cyprian stated his position bluntly, "Heretics can not be part of the church." Since you enter the church at baptism was heretic baptism valid? Cyprian says, "No!" Anyone who denied essential doctrines, whether or not they were previously members of orthodox congregations, must be baptized or rebaptized.

Rome's new bishop, Stephen (A.D. 254-257), strongly disagreed with Cyprian's reimmersionist practices and ordered him to stop. Cyprian called a council of North African Bishops to discuss the issue. Differences between Stephen and Cyprian rested on different understandings of baptism. Stephen said that as long as an individual is immersed with the right motives and the right formula he's a Christian. Cyprian argued that outside the church the sacraments were invalid. Cyprian held that outside the church no one is saved. Jesus saves only those who obey the rightful orthodox Bishop. "No Bishop, no baptism. No baptism, no salvation." Cyprian stated the current Roman Catholic view. North Africa's Bishops agree and they tell Stephen to "butt out."

How broad is the church? Cyprian illustrated both answers to the question. Cyprian took an open position toward the lapsed. The church can accept those backsliders, but it cannot tolerate heretics. Heretics must become Christians all over again.

There's an interesting sidelight here. When Cyprian's controversy with Stephen arose, he felt free to disregard Rome's instructions! North African Bishops agreed with him. At the time of Cornelius's election, Cyprian stated that the church's unity depended on a Bishop being in communion with the proper Roman Bishop. Cornelius was the proper Roman Bishop, not Novatian. Anyone who recognized Novatian is a heretic. When the issue of rebaptism comes up, Cyprian disagreed with the Roman Bishop. He then maintained that each Bishop stood supreme in his diocese. After all, the Bishop of Carthage is bishop too. He held the same authority as Rome's Bishop. Strictly speaking, Cyprian says Rome's Bishop has no real authority in Carthage.

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