CHURCH AS A THREAT BECAUSE THEY WOULDN'T FALL IN LINE
The Church of Jesus Christ continued to spread. Its birth had taken place in the Roman Empire and soon this movement had spread throughout the entire empire. As Christianity expanded, it awoke enemies that viewed the Church as a threat. The original enemies were the Jews who tried to squash this "heretical, blasphemous" sect in its infant stages. They were unsuccessful as the movement spread from the Jewish realm to the Gentile world. After being cut off by their relatives, the Church began to attract attention from others in the Roman world. This peculiar group stood out from the rest of Roman society and everybody noticed it, especially the officials and ultimately the emperor. Because these Christians wouldn't fall in line, they were persecuted for their beliefs.
CHURCH SURVIVED THE EARLY PERSECUTION FROM THE OUTSIDE
The Church survived this persecution from the outside. In fact, like the Church even today, the persecution caused the Church to grow stronger not only in their resolution and conviction, but also in their doctrine and beliefs. The fires of persecution purify the Bride of Christ. These periods of persecution came in waves. Not all the emperors of Rome were so intolerant of this band of Believers.
STRUGGLES FROM WITHIN
Besides outside pressures, there were also struggles to be dealt with in the Church. They struggled with the difference between Jew and Greek, the influence of the Gnostics, the rising of "new (apostate) doctrines", and the Church's ability to forgive sin, among other things. All of these struggles caused the Church to strengthen their orthodoxy and make crucial decisions about the future of the Church. Through all this we can see the Church resisting its ultimate enemy, Satan, and "they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony;" (Rev. 12:11). The Church will be victorious in the name of Jesus and all the things that the enemy meant for evil will be used for good, ALL FOR THE GLORY OF GOD.
REASONS FOR THE SPREAD OF THE GOSPEL AND THE RESISTANCE TO IT
"By the end of the third century, no area of the empire was without some testimony of the gospel" (Shelley 32). The disciples of Jesus were doing what He had commanded them to do, to "GO" into all the world and preach the Gospel. Despite opposition, they persevered and "by the third century the Christian church was beginning to assume the proportions of an empire within the empire." Some of the reasons that the Gospel was spreading included the passion of the believers as they sought to tell others about what God had done to save humanity; the message of hope that drew people to the meet the need in their hearts; the Christian's practical expression of love and compassion to both their fellow Christians the pagans; and even the public displays of martyrdom of the Christians that inspired pagans to believe in Jesus. The expansion of Christianity met much opposition.
The opposition they faced came mainly because of their holy, set apart lifestyle. Jesus said in Luke 6:22, "Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man." Christians cannot just blend in because of their convictions. In Rome, one was allowed to follow his own religion as long as he gave his due to the Emperor. The Jews refused to do this because they were adamant about serving one God and one God only. They would not pay tribute to Caesar. The Empire permitted this because the Jews weren't going out and proselytizing!
When the Jews openly cut all ties with the Christians and the Romans saw that the Christians were actively going out to gain converts, the Empire started applying pressure. In Roman society the Christians stuck out like a sore thumb. They didn't do what the Romans did because much of the social engagements involved doing things that were against the Christian's convictions. "Christian ethic in itself was a criticism of pagan life" (Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, p. 39).
MISUNDERSTANDING OF CHRISTIAN COMMUNION AS CANNIBALISM
A combination of this and the fact that the Romans on the whole were suspicious of the Christians and what they did behind closed doors caused dislike and hatred against the Christians. Many rumors circulated about the disgusting and uncouth things the Christians took part in (e.g. ceremony of communion being misunderstood as cannibalism). Ultimately what drew the line was Caesar worship. This became a central part of the Roman Empire. The emperors embraced it because it unified the empire and boosted their ego. The Christians could not go along with this. They refused to worship Caesar. They would only worship Christ. This was the straw that broke the camel's back. The ultimatum was given, Choose Christ or Choose Caesar.
DEALING WITH INTERNAL CONFLICT -
AGAINST PERVERSION OF CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY
Now besides persecution on the outside, the Church had to deal with internal conflict. One of the big differences was the difference between Jewish and Greek thought. Jesus came to save both the Jew and the Greek, but culturally they were very different. The Jews knew all about the Old Testament prophecies and Jesus' fulfillment of them. They had been waiting for the Messiah. However, to the Greek the Gospel took on a philosophical, rational interpretation. The difference was not wrong, but it caused division because of the two different approaches to the Gospel message. The problem came when Greek thought gave birth to Gnosticism.
This school of thought accepted some of the same ideas as Christianity except they believed in dualism. Dualism is the belief that what is material or physical is evil and what is immaterial and spiritual is good. They believe that the Creator God was evil. The biggest difference and most crucial is that they deny that Christ was fully human because it would be impossible for something that is material to be good and holy. This is fundamentally different from Christianity.
WHOLLY GOD, WHOLLY MAN
The whole basis of our orthodoxy is the God became a man in Jesus. Jesus was fully man and fully God. Deny either one of these truths and the Gospel is meaningless. One effect of Gnosticism in the church was the doctrine of a man named Marcion. He believed that the God of the Old Testament was full of wrath and vengeance for all other people except for the Jews. So he discarded the Old Testament and focused on the loving, compassionate God of the New Testament revealed through Jesus. Marcion also rejected many books of the New Testament that were Jewish. He favored heavily the epistles of Paul because he went to the Gentiles. This exemplifies the differences between Jews and Greeks and the influence of Gnosticism.
CAN THE CHURCH FORGIVE SINS/
Besides all these, the leaders of the Church disagreed about whether the Church could forgive sins. At baptism all the sins of the person committed beforehand were taken care of. However after that point if a person committed one of the three unforgivable sins, sexual immorality, murder, or denial of Christ, then they would be ex-communicated from the Church. The Church believed that God would forgive them, but they could never be allowed back into the Church.
A problem arose when the Empire started persecuting Christians and torturing them to get them to deny Christ. Because of the extent and cruelty of the persecution and torture, many Christians did deny Christ. Since they committed one of the sins they were ex-communicated. What was the Church to do when a majority of a congregation had under torture denied Christ and is no longer part of the Church? So those in power slowly backed down and allowed penitent sinners back into the Church. This gave way to a system of penance, indulgences and the Church being able to forgive every sin. So the Church at that time was divided as to whether it was a "society for saints" or a "school for sinners" (Shelley 76).
SIMILARITIES BETWEEN EARLY CHURCH AND CHURCH TODAY - ANY DIFFERENCE?
As we look back at the early Church we see many similarities to today. We can learn a lot from the history of the Church. We cannot despise our heritage. We realize that what we have today is a result of the decisions of the Church Fathers. Certainly they were not perfect and made mistakes and bad judgments, but ultimately our foundation is Christ and the message of the Gospel. We must be willing to stand apart from society to stand up for what we believe in even if it means persecution.
The Church in other countries endures persecution everyday. They are growing in number and are being purified. Here in the west we don't know what persecution is. Our brothers and sisters in other countries are willing to die for the Faith, but here we are hardly willing to live. We need to stop fighting and putting up walls in the body. Christ is not divided. We are one body. It may be difficult for all of us to agree on every point of doctrine, but we must come together. We must in unity go and preach the Gospel of Truth and see the Kingdom of God further established.
We must be purified by the fire of His presence and be made ready for the Second Coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ. We must wake up and actively resist the enemy of our souls who wants to divide and destroy us. We will overcome him by the Blood of the Lamb and the word of our Testimony. He is the enemy, not our brother or sister in Christ. So much of what goes wrong in the Church in history and present-day is a result of us loosing our focus. Jesus needs to be the center. He needs to be the foundation. He is the prize.
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb. 12:2)