The worst persecution up to this point took place under Decius. Decius began his reign in 249 A.D., and his great desire was to restore the glory of Rome, which found itself in a precarious situation. The Barbarian threat was growing and the economic situation was quite stressed. There was also great concern that the classical age under which Roman civilization rose to great glory had been largely forgotten.
Decius considered the current situation and concluded that if the people worshiped the Roman gods once again, the glory of Rome might be reestablished. Perhaps the gods would smile on Rome once again. Decius understood that the Christians stood in the way of a pagan religious revival.
Gonzalez highlights a significant contrast between the persecution under Decius and earlier persecutions. The early persecutions were based upon rumors of immorality by the Christians and their refusal to worship the emperor. Now, under the reign of Decius the concern was the very survival of Rome. Decius and others were convinced that the very key to that survival was the worship of the gods. Those who refused to worship were guilty of treason (Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, I, 86).
Given this, the persecution under Decius was different in its agenda from previous persecutions. As Gonzalez notes, "The emperor's purpose was not to create martyrs, but apostates" (The Story of Christianity, I, 86). The Roman authorities had learned that killing Christians had only served to solidify the faith of the followers of Jesus. Martyrs always serve as inspiration. Thus Decius' plan was not to kill the Christians, but to persuasively coerce them to turn away from their faith. Decius did not outlaw Christianity, as Septimus Severus had done; instead he made it illegal not to worship the gods of Rome. Christians were not arrested for martyrdom, as in earlier persecutions; they were arrested and tortured until they recanted. Origen was imprisoned and tortured under the reign of Decius.
Very few Christians were martyred. Those who were tortured, but did not renounce their faith were now called "confessors." Here we see not only a shift in the purpose of Roman persecution, but a shift in the objects of the church's inspiration. Previously, the martyrs, who were obviously dead, were the inspirational examples. Now, the confessors take on that role while they are alive.
While many Christians refused to renounce their faith, many others did. They were not prepared for persecution because the current generation had not experienced it. After the Decian persecution, which ended in 251 A.D., the question of what to do with the lapsed was before the church.
The Apologists #1: Introduction
The Apologists #2: Pagan Culture and Judaism
The Apologists #3: Justin Martyr, c. 100-165, part 1
The Apologists #4: Justin Martyr, c. 100-165, part 2
The Apologists #5: The Search for Orthodoxy
The Apologists #6: Heresy, Part 1
The Apologists #7: Heresy, Part 2
The Apologists #8: Heresy, Part 3
The Apologists #9: Heresy, Part 4
The Apologists #10: The Church's Response to Heresy, Part 1
The Apologists #11: The Church's Response to Heresy, Part 2
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