THE PERSECUTED CHURCH
Side by side with the development of theological doctrine was the rise of the sects, or as they were called, the heresies in the Christian Church. As long as the church was Jewish in its membership, and even afterward while it was controlled by practical men of the Jewish type, such men as St. Peter and St. Paul, there was only a slight tendency toward abstract and speculative thinking. But when the church found its largest constituency among the Greeks of Asia Minor, all sorts of strange opinions and theories arose, and grew to power in the church. The Christians of the second and third centuries battled not only against a persecuting heathen world, but also against heresies and corrupt doctrines within their own fold. We can notice only a few of the most important among the sects of that period.
The Gnostics Greek gnosis, “knowledge” are not easy to define, because they are so varied in their doctrines in different localities and at different periods. They arose in Asia Minor that hot-bed of wild imaginations – and were a grafting of Christianity upon paganism. They believed that out of the supreme God emanated a large number of inferior deities, some beneficent, others malignant; and through these the world with its mingled good and evil, was created; that in Christ as one of these “emanations,” the divine nature was for a time indwelling; and they interpreted the Scriptures in an allegorical manner, making every statement mean whatever the interpreter saw fit. They flourished throughout the second century, and disappeared with it.
The Ebionites(from a Hebrew word meaning “poor”) were Jewish Christians who insisted that the Jewish laws and customs should be observed. They rejected the writings of St. Paul, because these recognized Gentiles as Christians. They were despised by the Jews as apostates, and found little sympathy from the Gentile Christians, who, after 70 A.D., were dominant in the church. The Ebionites gradually dwindled away in the second century.
The Manichees or Manicheans, of Persian origin, were named from their founder Mani, who was put to death 276 A.D., by the Persian government. His teachings were that the universe is two kingdoms, one of light and one of darkness, each striving for mastery in nature and in man. They rejected Jesus, but believed in a “celestial Christ.” They were severe in asceticism, and abjured marriages; were persecuted by both the heathen and the Christian emperors. Augustine, the greatest theologian of the church, was a Manichean before his conversion.
The Montanists, named from their founder Montanus, should scarcely be classed among the heretical sects, though their teachings were condemned by the church. They were Puritans, claiming to return to the simplicity of the primitive Christians. They believed in the priesthood of all true believers, and not in orders of the ministry; sought for a strict discipline in the church; held to prophetic gifts as the privilege of disciples, and had many prophets and prophetesses in their membership. Tertullian, one of the greatest among the early fathers, embraced their views, and wrote in their defense.
With regard to these sects and so-called heresies, one difficulty in understanding them arises from the fact that (except with the Montanists, and even there in large measure), their own writings have perished; and we are dependent for our views upon those who wrote against them, and were undoubtedly prejudiced. Supposed for example, that the Methodists as a denomination had passed out of existence with all their literature; and a thousand years afterward, scholars should attempt to ascertain their teachings out of the books and pamphlets written against John Wesley in the eighteenth century. What wrong conclusions would be reached,and what a distorted portrait of Methodism would be presented!
Let us now endeavor to ascertain the condition of the church during the ages of persecution, and especially at its close, about 313 A.D.
One effect of the trials through which the Christians of that period passed was a purified church. The persecutions kept away all who were not sincere in their profession; none joined the church for worldly again or popularity. The half hearted and the weak left it; only those became the open followers of Christ who were willing to be faithful unto death. Persecution sifted the Church, drove away the chaff and left the wheat in its membership.
It was on the whole a church of unified teaching. Here was a body of many millions of people, extended over many lands, embracing many races, speaking many languages, yet holding to one faith. The various sects arose, flourished, and by degree perished; the controversies brought out the truth, and many of the heresies left behind them some truths which enriched the churche’s deposit. Despite sects and schisms, the Christianity of the empire and of the lands around it was one in its doctrine, its system and its spirit.
It was a thoroughly organized church. We have seen how the system of organization grew up from the loosely co-ordinated elements in the apostolic age. By the third century the church was everywhere divided into dioceses, with bishop holding the reins of government in firm hands. The church was an army, disciplined, united, under able leadership. In the empire of Rome, outwardly well-organized, but inwardly decaying, was another empire of abounding life and advancing power, the Christian church.
It was a growing church. In spite of the persecutions, perhaps to some extent on account of them, the church was growing with marvelous rapidity. At the close of the persecuting period the church was numerous enough to constitute the most powerful institute in the empire. Gibbon, the historian of this period, estimated the Christians at the end of the persecutions at less than one-tenth of the population, and many writers since have accepted his statements. But recently the whole subject has been carefully investigated, and the conclusion of the present-day scholarship is that the members of the church, and its adherents, numbered several millions under the dominion of Rome. One remarkable line of evidence has been found in the catacombs of Rome, underground quarries of vast extent, which for two centuries became the hiding-places, meeting-places, and the burial-places of the believers, wherein the graves of Christians, as shown by the inscriptions and symbols upon them, are estimated by some to number in the millions. Add to these millions many not buried in the catacombs; and then consider how vast have been the aggregate in the Roman empire.