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Turning Points in the Early Church

How did Christianity Spread so Rapidly

 [Excerpt from The Bible - Some Assembly Required


The early Christian church was no stranger to oppression and persecution. Jesus had been beaten and crucified, which the religious leaders of the time hoped would put a stop to this new cult. When Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning, He destroyed those hopes and plans. Unfortunately, the opponents of Jesus were not so easily silenced. Their violence continued as is evident by the deaths' of Stephen, James and also with the persecution of Christians by such people as Saul, who in a short time would become one of the new church's greatest leaders.

Throughout the early years and even centuries of the Christian church there were many who opposed it. Not only were they opposed it. Not only were they opposed and persecuted by the Jewish religious leaders, but also by the Roman government. Under rulers such as Nero and Diocletian, Christians were stripped of their property and legal rights. They were often imprisoned and many put to death. Because of this oppression the church operated mostly in secret, holding services in private homes, in the catacombs, and wherever the devoted followers could come together. While this made things difficult, as well as dangerous, the church continued to grow at an astonishing rate.

In these first centuries three key events took place which would change and shape the early church. The fist of these events took place approximately fifteen years after the Resurrection of Jesus. In 48 A.D. The Council of Jerusalem took place. This is also sometimes called The Apostolic Council. It was the first such meeting of the church we know of and it would decide church policy and doctrine. It is also the only council recorded in the Bible. The concerns addressed by the council and their decisions can be found in Chapter 15 of the Book of Acts.

The primary area of concern was the act of circumcision. This was a stumbling block for many new believers. The concerns went further however, into dietary restrictions, fasting and other elements of the Law as given by Moses. The council, which was held in Jerusalem, included all of the early church leaders, including both Paul and Barnabus. Peter addressed the council stating he did not feel these burdens should be placed on the new converts. James, who it would seem led the council, then spoke to the group. He quoted the Book of Amos and then agreed with Peter and Paul that the new converts would not be required to follow the strict law of Moses. They, like other believers, had been saved through their faith in Jesus, not by abiding to the Law. The church leaders then prepared a letter which they sent to the church in Antioch to confirm their decision and to welcome them into the community of believers.

The Apostles and elders, your brothers,

To the Gentile Believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia;

Greeting.

We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul - men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.

Farewell

This council confirmed that new believers were not bound by Jewish laws and traditions. This removed a major stumbling block for many and opened the new church to many new believers. Because of a vision by the Apostle Peter, many of the dietary rules concerning clean and unclean foods had already been done away with. While the decisions reached at this first council opened up the church to many new members, the persecution was just beginning.

The persecutions and executions continued for another 250+ years. Despite these hardships the church continued to grow. While there were many events during these centuries that were crucial to church development, the next event for our purposes took place in the year 311 A.D.

In the year 303 A.D. Roman Emperor Diocletian issued an edict to persecute the Christians. This edict authorized;

  • Destroying Churches
  • Burning Holy Scriptures
  • Confiscation of church property
  • Banning Christians from collective legal action
  • Loss of privileges of high ranking Christians who would not recant their faith.
  • Arresting some officials.
In 305 A.D. Diocletian abdicated and Galerius took his place. The persecution continued under Galerius until 311 A.D. when The Edict of Serdica was issued. This new edict, sometimes known as The Edict of Toleration by Galerius, was the first to legalize Christianity. In the Edict Galerius confirms the persecution of the Christians with the statement...

"Finally when our law had been promulgated to the effect that they should conform to the institutes of antiquity, many were subdued by the fear of danger, many even suffered death."

It goes on to instruct that Christians would be allowed to conduct their service without opposition.

"...grant our most prompt indulgence also to these, so that they may again be Christians and may hold their conventicles, provided they do nothing contrary to good order."

It is important to note this proclamation was only in effect in the Eastern Roman Empire. The Western Roman Empire was also in a state of change during this time. This change began when Constantine I came to power in 306 A.D. Constantine I instituted reform in finance, social areas, government and the military. He began to favor Christianity in 312 A.D. and was eventually converted, although how devoted he was to his faith is a subject of some debate.

Constantine I

Regardless of his devotion, Constantine I played a major role in church history beginning in 313 A.D. Constantine I from the Western Empire met with Licinius from the Eastern Empire. The tow leaders met in Milan and come to an agreement which would become The Edict of Milan. This edict permanently established religious tolerance for Christianity. While The Edict of Serdica had legalized Christianity in the East, the new Edict legalized and recognized Christianity throughout the Entire Roman Empire. The era of persecution and fear had come to an end. 

Another important fact was that while The Edict of Serdica had legalized Christianity and made it illegal to take property or interfere with services, it did not return the possessions and properties which had been previously confiscated. in 313 A.D. the properties were ordered returned to their original owners.

"...the same shall be restored to the Christians without payment or any claim of recompense and without any kind of fraud or deception."

This was seen as an end to what was called the 'age of the martyrs' and ushered in a new era for the church. Rather than being second class citizens, subject to persecution and imprisonment, Christians were now a part of an officially recognized religion which was given the same recognition as other religions of the empire. As an official religion the church was now free to grow without restraints and the a vast number of people converted to Christianity not only in the Roman Empire, but the entire known world.

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