The last few decades have seen a dramatic shift in the way in which Christianity is perceived in the United Kingdom. Despite David Cameron’s repeated claims that the UK remains a Christian country, the legislation that has been passed in Parliament, together with the less than flattering picture that is painted of the Church in the national media, tell a very different story.
It is clear that the Christian faith no longer enjoys the privileged and protected status it once did in public life. What’s more, there is a discernible note of hostility in the air towards the gospel message, and increased persecution of Christians seems inevitable.
It is important, therefore, that we address the issue of how the Church is to interpret these developments and appropriately respond to the impending situation. Many Christians are alarmed at what they see and fear that the loss of her protected status and the growing threat of persecution spell disaster for the future of the Church in the UK. However, the experience of the early Christians challenges this assumption and gives us much to ponder.
For the first three centuries the Church faced considerable opposition, firstly from the Jews and then, famously, from the Roman Empire. She suffered periods of intense persecution, during which countless numbers of Christians, young and old, male and female, were martyred, a large proportion of them in the most brutal and barbaric circumstances imaginable.
Perhaps the best-known of the early martyrs is Polycarp, the aged pastor of the church at Smyrna, who was burnt at the stake in the middle of the second century because of his refusal to blaspheme the name of Christ and declare, ‘Caesar is Lord’. When pressed to do so in order to save his life, he uttered the unforgettable words, ‘Eighty and six years have I served Christ and He has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?’[i]
It might be expected that the murder of so many believers dealt a massive blow to the early Church, but nothing could be further from the truth. These cruel and systematic attempts to blot out the Church only served to bolster it.
The willingness these martyrs displayed to die for their Lord made a great impression upon those who witnessed their deaths, including their enemies, and stirred in many of them a desire to find out more about Jesus Christ. It was not unheard of for them later to profess faith in Christ themselves and join the noble band of martyrs. In addition, those who were already members of the Church were galvanised by the remarkable strength God gave to their brothers and sisters in the moments of their death and were emboldened in their own witness.
In the midst of all that their enemies unleashed upon them, God’s people were enabled by him to stand firm and far from becoming extinct the Church grew and the gospel spread to every corner of the Roman Empire. As Tertullian said, ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.’[ii]
Peace at last!
But the situation was turned on its head in 313 thanks mainly to the influence of one man, Constantine. He had succeeded his father as ruler of Spain, France and Britain in 306, but, six years later, after defeating his rival Maxentius against all the odds in a seminal battle at Milvian Bridge, just outside Rome, Constantine gained control of the whole of the Western half of the Roman Empire.
He made it very clear from the outset that he was going to use his power as Emperor not to persecute the Christian faith as most of his predecessors had done, but to protect, promote and patronise it. Why? Because he believed that it was the God of the Christians who had given him victory at Milvian Bridge.
In the lead-up to the battle he claimed to have seen a flaming cross in the sky with the command in Greek, ‘By this sign conquer’, and had been told in a dream to paint the sign of the cross on his soldiers’ shields. When he unexpectedly emerged victorious in the battle with Maxentius, he attributed his success to the fact that he had fought under the banner of the cross and sought to do what he could to secure the continued favour of the Christians’ God.
In 313, in the groundbreaking Edict of Milan, he granted Christians legal freedom to worship. Just ten years earlier the Emperor Diocletian had instructed his officials to burn every Bible and demolish every church building in the Empire, but Constantine now earmarked funding for the production of new copies of the Bible and the construction of new church buildings. Sunday was declared a public holiday so that God’s people could spend the Lord’s Day with one another. Christianity was not yet the official religion of the Roman Empire but it certainly occupied a favoured position.
The price of freedom
Constantine’s actions seemed to represent a major step forward for the Church, but hindsight proved it was anything but. Two problems quickly emerged. Firstly, unbelievers, who had no interest whatsoever in following the Lord Jesus Christ, suddenly wanted to attach themselves to the Church because they saw it as a way to curry favour with the Emperor and acquire key positions in society. Some of them ended up as bishops in the Church. Secondly, the Church became noticeably wealthy as Constantine gave her gifts of money and land to show his support and, before long, many within the Church were being tempted to seek treasure on earth rather than treasure in heaven.
Both these factors helped breed a spirit of worldliness in the Church and although Constantine’s religious policy had made life considerably easier for Christians in the Empire, it had also had a detrimental effect upon the spiritual health of the Church and led to a definite compromising of her witness. The Church had been far stronger and far more effective when the persecution was at its most fierce. The removal of the persecution under Constantine’s rule was a backward, not a forward, step and it significantly weakened the Church’s spiritual impact upon a godless society.
Learning from the past
The lessons for our day are clear. Persecution doesn’t destroy the Church. It purifies it and purges it of those who are not truly disciples of Christ. It also provides a platform for true disciples to show the power of God to keep his people in the most adverse circumstances and the reality of the truths they profess. All this was lost in the fourth century when persecution was lifted.
History shows us that persecution is not to be feared but embraced, as it paves the way for gospel advance. ‘God’s way of blessing is often the way of suffering … Are we ready to suffer … for the sake of our Saviour? If not, we need not expect God to use us as He did those early Christians.’[iii] It may well be that recent developments in our land are divinely ordained with the goal of producing a Church which will once again shine as a light in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.
If Christians do become, as appears ever more likely, a persecuted minority in the UK, our response should surely be that of the Christians spoken of in Acts 4, who, when threatened not to speak any more in the name of Jesus, did not ask God to remove the persecution but prayed, ‘Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word’ (Acts 4:29).
[i] S.M. Houghton, Sketches From Church History, Edinburgh, Banner of Truth, 2011, p.18.
[ii] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1984, p.29.
[iii] John D. Legg, The Church That Christ Built, Darlington, Evangelical Press, 2006, p.23.