The gap could not have been wider. Some ancient Christians endured the sting of persecution and even saw other Christians persecuted unto death. Other ancient Christians dodged persecution, and briefly abandoned the faith in order to avoid the sting of religious-based punishment. How did ancient brethren close this gap?
The Earliest Mass Persecutions
Acts describes sporadic persecution against the earliest Christians fomented by Jewish resistance. These persecutions were localized (where Jews had political push) and limited (Christianity soon spread beyond areas of high Jewish influence). After that, the Romans took over.
Rome was at first puzzled by Christianity. Thinking that the sect of the Nazarene was another Jewish religious party, and trusting that the imperial habit of religious live and let live would be respected, the Romans were surprised as Christianity emerged as separate, and as militant. Instead of accepting the live and let live of (i) privately possessing their own unique faith, while also (ii) publicly paying homage to the Roman Imperial cult, Christians refused to remain quiet and refused to honor Roman gods or the Roman Emperor as a god.
Rome was doubly enraged. First, by breeching the peace of live and let live, Christians were viewed as unnecessarily confrontational. Second, by refusing to cooperate with Roman Imperial religion, Christians were viewed as unnecessarily odd, and even as irreligious. Some Romans thought of Christians as being atheists because they refused to play along with the silly game of honoring emperors as gods with silly little annual sacrifices - no one really believed that emperors were deities.
As outcasts and curiosities, Christians were a scapegoat and soft target for persecution. In A.D. 64, a massive fire destroyed much of the capitol city of Rome. Burning for six days (Mrs. O'Leary's great Chicago fire burned for only three days). "Of Rome's 14 districts, 3 were completely devastated and only 4 completely escaped damage." This was the great fire that was said to have burned while Roman Emperor Nero played his fiddle, and that gave rise to the saying, "fiddling around."
- Imagine a fire destroying well over half of Washington D.C.
- Imagine the demands for answers.
- Imagine the politicians looking for scapegoats.
With misunderstood, even hated Christian at hand, Nero had his soft target. "The fire was said to have been caused by the already unpopular Christians." Blamed for the conflagration, Christians became the targets of scorn.
Christianity was punishable by death during this era, yet pardon was available to those who renounced their Christian faith by offering sacrifice to the Roman emperor of Roman gods. The offering of sacrifice became...a religious litmus test. Honoring Rome's gods and goddesses was considered a civic obligation...But many Christians refused to break with their faith. They were often executed as a result, and then hailed by their brethren as persecuted martyrs.
A Litmus Test Among Brethren
Avoiding persecution was easy. Rome did not really care how its citizens worshipped - on their own time. The simple act of a one-time annual sacrifice in honor of the civic gods was all that was required. Christians could easily play along with the game and then go on with their lives.
This game stretched the brethren. While many refused and were killed, many others knuckled under. Within the Church, then, there were (i) some who had been themselves whipped or stoned, but who had survived, and others who had seen loved ones and friends martyred. Also within the Church, there were (ii) others who had performed the silly, meaningless sacrifice. Imagine the strain between the players and the persecuted.
The church recovered its adherents rapidly (some even say that persecutions strengthened the evangelistic resolve and ethical attractiveness of Christianity) but faced problems: what to do about the multitudes who had lapsed, and how to treat the Novatianist schism (division within the Church)...The Novatianists...called themselves “the pure.” They would not allow those who had given in during the persecution to return to the church.
Today's Litmus Test
Avoiding persecution is still easy. All we have to do is play games with the culture. But what is left of our faith after we play with the culture and are played by the culture? What is left of Church unity when some are cultural players and others endure the promise of II Timothy 3:12: "Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted."
(PS: for an easy and very interesting read, GOOGLE "Everett Ferguson" and "Persecution in the Early Church: Did You Know?").