Walking Through Church History 1: Underground Church

Around the year 112 CE, the Roman Governor Pliny of Bythynia in Asia Minor wrote a letter to Emperor Trajan asking for advice about a new sect. They were called Christians, and the Governor wanted the Emperor to review his treatment of them, since no precedent to dealing with them seemed to exist. Thus began the recorded history of Christianity from official accounts: a group to be dealt with as hostile to the pax Romana and corrosive to society.

Looking back over the history of Christianity, it’s easy to fall for many urban legends, both from within our tradition and from hostile sources. Hagiography, the histories of the Saints, is an important tool for understanding the Faith and how we came to be, but it’s unreliable as objective history. History that tries to write religion out of the story, or recasts it mostly in contemporary terms is suspect as well: projecting ourselves back over time is a dangerous business, for our ancestors didn’t have the exactly same mindset we do. The Truth almost always lies in the middle, unknowable in part, and yet comprehensible as we uncover more of it. We need to make the journey to better understand who we are and how we came to be. Occasionally, we have the grace to avoid a mistake someone else made.

It’s tempting to think the Church sprang fully formed from the end of Christ’s ministry, however the Church of this period didn’t look like today’s Churches any more than superficially. Christianity has always evolved and responded to the societies and cultures it found itself in. This has had both good and bad effects.

The first great controversy in the fledgling Church happened around the year 50, and is well documented in the book of Acts and Paul’s letters. It was a sharp division: did you have to be a fully practicing Jew, circumcised and kosher, in order to be baptised? We’ve lived with the answer for most of the Church’s history, but this difference of opinion lasted a significant time beyond the Council of Jerusalem in 50 CE, and the degree of interpretation of law is still an active area of dispute today. The separation of Christianity and Jewish practice became a weak spot in relations with the rest of the Empire through this period: outsiders couldn’t understand how Christians could claim continuity with Judaism without following Jewish practice.

Christianity officially separated from Judiasm around the year 85 CE, when the rabbis of Jamnia inserted a prayer into the synagogue services that would call a curse down upon a Christian that prayed it. Rabbinical Judaism was in the process of drawing the lines of their faith more tightly after the disastrous Great Rebellion of 66-70 CE, and Messianic threads were being eliminated or diminished. Early Jewish Christians refused to take part in the Great Rebellion, moving to Petra in modern day Jordan. The increasing numbers of Gentiles who converted directly to Christianity without becoming Jewish first pushed the movement out of the Jewish orbit, and away from the religious exemption Jews enjoyed from participating in Roman state cultic practices. Local relationships between Jews and Christians ranged from openly hostile to cordial, even past the elevation of Christianity to the official religion of the Empire. In some places, local Christians sought out the rabbi’s advice on questions about Hebrew Scripture, and in Antioch of the late 4th century, Christians were joining celebrations of the Jewish New Year, which inspired St. John Chrysostom to level his most virulent attacks against Judaism.

The organization of local churches was around patrons who opened their houses for gatherings. Leadership was chosen from among prominent men of the group, mirroring society’s structure, and ongoing education and renewal was conducted by wandering preachers, of which Paul and his contemporaries were the first. This is something they may have inherited from Judaism: there seems to be precedent from Jesus’ encounters in synagogues and Paul’s journeys that wandering teachers were regularly invited to speak to local communities, and there may have even been regular routes they took through the countryside. These wanderers also helped keep local Churches in contact with each other, and built the larger entity of the Church. The head of the local community was given the title of Overseer, or Bishop, and the elders of the community and those entrusted to particular roles acquired the titles of Priest and Deacon.

Doctrine evolved from continuous reflection on Scripture and daily life of Faith. Greek intellectuals dismissed Christian teaching at first, calling it uneducated babbling with any great virtues or lessons contained it in better expressed in Classic literature. As Christian intellectuals engaged their critics, their understanding and teaching of Faith deepened and Christianity found more common ground with the world around it. However, pagan thought at that time had a hierarchy of the Supreme God, lesser deities (such as Apollo and Artemis), daemons (like Puck, the Roman House Gods called lares, and local spirits of springs and woods, and heroic humans elevated to divine status (such as Hercules, and later the Roman Emperors). For them, calling Jesus the Son of God, equal to the Father, was incomprehensible, elevating a fourth class divine to the top, and caused many of them to call Christians atheists.

The range of Christian thought was extreme almost from the beginning. Views of Jesus ranged from a complete denial of Jesus’ divinity to seeing Jesus as a spirit masquerading in human form, with almost every place in between represented. Some saw the Old Testament God as the equivalent of the Devil, and Jesus the representative of a higher pantheon teaching a new universal order. What we know as Orthodox (mainstream) Christianity today is the consensus of centuries.

The Romans generally saw the early Christians as crazy and dangerous. For the most part, they came from the lower classes of society and most of them were uneducated. From the beginning, Roman Governors weren’t given a mandate to hunt them down and exterminate them or accept anonymous accusations against them. However, Rome was a police state, and violators of the law for all inhabitants to participate in government ritual were punished: this was never in doubt even though the degree of punishment wasn’t universal. To be convicted of being a Christian, there needed to be an accuser, a defendant, and a governor willing to enforce the law. Until around 250, persecutions of Christians were local and sporadic, at times a matter of a hostile crowd picking up stones and throwing them.

A good example of how local persecution might have happened is the account of Paul’s stoning in Acts 14. Some people agitated against Paul, convinced the crowd he deserved death, and started throwing rocks. Dragged from the city of Lystra, he was left for dead, as an untold number of early Christians may have been. As the story goes on, Paul revives in the midst of the Church, the people who stand around him, and goes on to continue his work as planned, even returning to the places that almost killed him.  This tale doubtlessly helped strengthen people who lived in fear of mob violence.

Given the hostility toward them, both official and unofficial, Christians were secretive about who they were and what they believed. Entry required a long preparation period and careful scrutiny, because the entire community was entrusting its existence to every new member. There was an extensive cult of secrecy, including the fish as a common recognition signal between Christians in public view. Those seeking baptism were recorded in a local Book of Life: if captured by a hostile party, it provided a hit list.

Responses to persecution ranged from a martyr’s resistance to denial of the faith. In general, Roman culture sought to assimilate and subjugate all local cultures, and I think the book of Revelation was written to encourage Christians to resist the pressure to comply. The stories of Martyrs were circulated to encourage resistance as well, probably because there were Christians who recanted and offered the sacrifices demanded of authorities. Martyrdom was seen as so heroic that some Christians presented themselves to local governors demanding to be executed: one governor complied partly and told the other to seek out the precipices themselves if they wanted to die. A council in Spain denied martyr status to those who died attacking pagan temples, so the Church doesn’t seem to have endorsed any kind of suicide attack as witness to the falsity of other faiths.

However, Christians who didn’t seek death that were brought before authorities or exposed by their neighbors stood up and refused to comply, choosing Faith before life itself. The Romans didn’t understand this, either. Over time, it changed the minds and hearts of non-Christians, and drew them toward this mysterious belief people were willing to die for.

In the century before Constantine, Emperors became more and more interested in hunting down Christians, at least attempting to decapitate the Church at times. The Great Persecution of 303-311 was specifically pointed at Christians, trying to cleanse the Empire of their influence. By then, Christianity was too large and too many people in the Empire saw it as benign, at least. The government’s attempt to stamp Christianity was too late.

Some folks believe that the Roman Empire officially became Christian in the year 313 CE, with the Edict of Milan. Even though Constantine favored Christians and even resorted to robbing pagan temples to pay for his generosity toward the end of his life, Christianity didn’t become the official religion of the Empire until 380 CE by decree of Theodosius I, and it was by the time of his death in 395 that it was practically and comprehensively illegal to be a practicing Pagan. Pagans called for tolerance in the decade of the 380s, and Pagan Senators wanted the Altar of Victory, a sign of Roman power, restored. Criticism of the Empire’s embrace of Christianity continued into the next century; Augustine wrote the City of God in response to Pagans attributed the sack of Rome in 410 to the abandonment of the old pantheon.

Official persecutions of dissident Christians began gradually after 380, with Priscillian and his companions being the first executed for the new crime of heresy. As the State took up enforcement of Christian belief, its application tended to mirror the attitudes Pliny had to persecuting Christians, and it was done primarily for keeping the peace and protecting the State, not altruistically serving the Church. Private belief and practice varied, and distance from power afforded more freedom. Christianity was mostly an urban religion in Imperial times, and its spread through the countryside was very slow. St. Bernard destroyed a pagan temple at Monte Cassino to build his monastery in 553, St. Gregory the Great complained in 600 CE about Pagans in the hinterlands, and even in 16th Century Saxony, after the Protestant Reformation, rural folk were thought to be Christian in name only, the core of their everyday belief focused around Pagan symbols and practices. Crusades to convert the heathen by the sword began in earnest in the time of Charlemange, which will come in the next installment of this series.

The Underground Church grew, however we look at history, because everyday Christians lived as people of sincere charity. They were famous for taking care of the needy, tending the sick, making homes for widows and orphans, and they would welcome anyone into their midst no matter what their class or origin, even though the initiation was long and arduous. Their charity was so well known and widespread that Julian the Apostate (360-2), the last Pagan Roman Emperor, tried to remake paganism to emulate Christian charity. Their Faith was more important to most of them than life itself, and it was a life giving Faith. Christianity didn’t conquer an Empire by military means: Christian dominance wasn’t inevitable after the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. If Emperor Julian lived longer, institutional Christianity as we know it may never have come about. The fall of the Roman Imperium in the West could have taken institutional Christianity with it, at least in the Western Mediterranean.

It survived this period through unwavering Faith, inconsistent persecution, and good fortune. It lived the Gospel: it took care of the Poor and genuinely prayed for those who persecuted them. Once it emerged from the shadows, it grew rapidly, and not only because it was the official religion; its lasting bond remained after the collapse of society. Christianity didn’t conquer an Empire; it converted it.


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