Volume III - Church History

Second Century

The Persecutions

The second century saw the further development and expansion of the Christian Faith, and more widespread persecution of the Church by the Roman imperial authorities, for whom Christianity was an “illegal religion.” The Christians were criminals in the eyes of the Romans, not only religiously, but also politically. They transgressed the laws of the state in that they refused to honor the earthly emperor as lord and god, which was required of them as inhabitants of the Empire. The Christians prayed for the civil authorities and gave “honor to whom honor is due” (Rom 13.1–7; 1 Tim 2.1–3; Mk 12.13–17), but they refused to give the earthly king the glory and worship which was due to God, and to his Christ, alone. Thus Roman law declared: It is not lawful to be a Christian.

One of the earliest reports about Christianity to appear in non-Christian writings is found in the correspondence between Pliny the Younger, the Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor, and Emperor Trajan (r. 98–117). This correspondence reveals that Christianity was indeed proscribed, and though Christians should not be sought out and were innocent of the gross charges against them—such as the sacrifice of children and the eating of human flesh (a misunderstanding of the Eucharist, which was conducted in “secret meetings”)—the Christians nevertheless were to be executed when seized, if they refused to renounce their Faith.

The persecution of Christians in the second century was largely localized, occurring sporadically and at varying locations according to what was allowed or authorized by the local imperial authorities. The account of The Martyrs of Vienne and Lyons in Gaul gives a vivid description of one such outbreak of persecution, in about the year 177.

Nevertheless, the persecutions were widespread, and the Christians were generally hated even by the most tolerant and open-minded of the Roman rulers. They were despised mostly, it seems, for what was considered their stubbornness and intolerance due to their exclusive devotion to Jesus Christ as Lord. They were persecuted also for what was considered to be the political danger they posed to the unity of the imperial society, especially as their numbers steadily grew.