Pentecost had come, that great outpouring of the Holy Ghost, and those who had marveled had also converted (Acts 2:41). The Church grew, but at the same time it diminished. As each new Christian was baptized, another was martyred. As each solid teaching of truth was penned in the epistles, another heresy arose. In short, the Church suffered greatly.
The martyrdom of the apostles marked an unsettled time for the early Church. Their leaders were gone, and the time had come for the apostles’ successors to manage the heresies, persecution, and doubt which inescapably trapped the Church. This valiant line of Christians risked their lives, wealth, and reputation to serve the Church.
In these days the Church faced many forms of persecution; physical persecution was very common. In Rome, simply being a Christian merited the death penalty. Although it devastated many Christian communities, physical persecution was not the main problem. Spiritual persecutions, heresies, were rampant in the early Church. Gnosticism (a wide set of beliefs centering on the belief that one is saved by knowledge or ‘gnosis’) and Judaizers (Galatians 2:11) were the most prevalent of these. Heretics deluded many Christians into following their cults.
Due to the illegality of their very existence, the Christian community gathered in secret. These meetings centered on the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper) which they celebrated this with chanting of psalms, hymns, and praying in tongues. Bishops, priests, and deacons were responsible for baptizing and administering the Eucharist. They led the Church theologically and gave correction to those who erred. These hierarchs were ordained by the laying of hands and could be excommunicated by the decision of other Bishops.
Though Christianity remained illegal for nearly three centuries, great Saints of the Church preserved the theology and practice of the Apostles. Through their strenuous efforts, but only by the grace of God, these men and women rid the Church of false doctrines, false scriptures, and heretical teachers. As Jesus promised, the Church served Christ continually through the tyranny and hatred (Matthew 16:18). In the midst of this chaos, an anonymous letter was written which beautifully describes the ordinary Christian:
Christians are not distinguished from other men by country, language, nor by the customs which they observe. They do not inhabit cities of their own, use a particular way of speaking, nor lead a life marked out by any curiosity … Instead, they inhabit both Greek and barbarian cities, however things have fallen to each of them. And it is while following the customs of the natives in clothing, food, and the rest of ordinary life that they display to us their wonderful and admittedly striking way of life. … They exist in the flesh, but they do not live by the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, all the while surpassing the laws by their lives. …They are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor they are glorified; they are spoken ill of and yet are justified; they are reviled but bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers; when punished, they rejoice as if raised from the dead. They are assailed by the Jews as barbarians; they are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to give any reason for their hatred.
This fierce persecution was finally ended when Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan (A.D. 313), which officially announced the toleration of Christianity. Antioch, Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople, and every corner of the Church found new hope.
Bieler, Ludwig G.J. “Saint Ignatius of Antioch.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 20 July 1998, www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Ignatius-of-Antioch.
Ferguson, Everett. “Persecution in the Early Church: Did You Know?” Christian History | Learn the History of Christianity & the Church, www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-27/persecution-in-early-church-did-you-know.html.
Hart, David Bentley. Story of Christianity. Quercus, 2015.
Justin, Martyr . The first apology of Justin Martyr.
The Holy Bible, NKJV