Second Century: Persecution and Faith
By Father Thomas Hopko
Orthodox Church in America-OCA -
The Apostle Peter writes:
“In this you greatly rejoice, though now
for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various
trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more
precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire,
may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of
The second century Christian Community was severely attacked
and persecuted. This proved to strengthen faith as well as require
the church to defend the truth that was handed down to them
by Christ and the Apostles.
The second century saw the further development of the Christian
faith and the greater persecution of the Church by the Roman
imperial authorities, for whom Christianity was an “illegal
The Christians were criminals in the eyes of the Romans, not
only religiously, but also politically. They transgressed the
laws of the state because they refused to honor the earthly
emperor as king, lord, and god, which was required of them as
members of imperial society. They prayed for the civil authorities
and gave “honor to whom honor is due” (Romans 13:1-7),
but they refused to give the earthly king the glory and worship
which was due to God, and to His Christ, alone. Thus the Roman
law declared: It is not lawful to be a Christian.
One of the first witnesses to the Christians which we have
in secular writing, is found in the second century correspondence
between Pliny the Younger and the Emperor Trajan, who ruled
from 98-117. This correspondence reveals that Christianity was
indeed proscribed, and that though Christians should not be
sought out and were innocent of the gross charges against them,
such as the sacrifice of children and the eating of human flesh
(a misunderstanding of the Eucharist which was conducted in
“secret meetings”), the Christians nevertheless
were to be executed if, when seized, they refused to give up
The persecution of the Christians in the second
century was largely local, conducted according to the zeal of
the local imperial authorities. Nevertheless, the persecutions
were widespread and the Christians were generally hated even
by the most tolerant and openminded of the Roman rulers. They
were hated mostly for what was considered their stubbornness
and intolerance due to their exclusive devotion to Christ as
Lord. They were persecuted also for what was considered to be
the political danger which they brought to the unity of law
and order in the imperial reign, particularly because of the
increasing number of persons who were joining the Church.
Among the most famous of the Christian leaders and martyrs
of the second century were the bishops Ignatius of Antioch (d.c.
110) and Polycarp of Smyrna (d. 156), and the philosopher Justin
(d.c. 165). Each of these men who were killed for the faith
left writings which, together with the Didache, the Letter to
Diognetus, the letters of Clement of Rome, the Letter of Barnabas,
the Shepherd of Hermas and the apologetic writings of such men
as Athenagoras of Athens, Melito of Sardis, Theophilus of Antioch
and the greatest of the second century theologians, Irenaeus
of Lyons, all give a very vivid picture of the faith and life
of the second century of the Church.
Defense of the Faith: Apologists
The most important developments in the second century, in addition
to the persecutions and the growth of Church membership, were
the defenses of the Christian faith against the false teachings,
the so called apologies against the Christian heresies as well
as against Judaism and paganism. There was also the development
of Church doctrine and the beginnings of post apostolic theology;
the establishment of the same basic church order in each local
community led by its bishop, presbyters and deacons; the first
foundations of the Christian liturgy and sacramental life completely
separated from the Jewish synagogue; and the beginnings of the
establishment of the canon of the holy scriptures of the New
At the end of the first century and at the beginning of the
second century, many false writings about Christ were produced.
These were the so called apocryphal writings (not to be confused
with the Old Testament apocrypha), the so called pseudoepigrapha.
These false writings carried the names of the apostles and introduced
into Christian circles many fanciful and legendary stories about
the childhood of Christ, the life of the Virgin Mary and the
activities of the apostles.
Together with the pseudoepigrapha, there also appeared the
false teachings of gnosticism, the Christian heresy which transformed
Christianity into a kind of spiritualistic, dualistic, intellectualistic
philosophy. The genuine Christians of the Orthodox faith had
to contend with these false teachings. The result of their struggle
was the production of the theology of the apologists, that is,
those who defended the true faith and the original gospel of
Christ. The result also was the teaching of apostolic succession
in the Church, the doctrine that the genuine faith and life
of Christianity is passed over from church to church, from generation
to generation and from place to place, through the succession
of the Holy Tradition of the Church in the consecration of bishops,
whose teachings and practice is identical to each other and
to that of the apostles of Jesus.
Another result was that the Church began firmly to establish
exactly which writings belong to the holy scripture of the Church
and which do not, their decision being based on the genuine
apostolic testimony contained in the writings, and their use
in the Church at the liturgical gatherings.
Church Order and Liturgy
In the writings of the second century apologists, martyrs,
and saints, it is seen that each local Christian Church was
headed by one bishop who presided over the Church, which was
administered by the presbyters or elders, and served by the
deacons. Thus Saint Ignatius of Antioch writes in his letters:
I exhort you to strive to do all things in
harmony with God: the bishop is to preside in the place of God,
while the presbyters are to function as the council of the apostles,
and the deacons, who are most dear to me, are entrusted with
the ministry (i.e., good works) of Jesus Christ (Letter to Magnesians
Take care, then, to partake of one Eucharist;
for one is the Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one the cup
to unite us with His Blood, and one altar, just as there is
one bishop assisted by the presbytery and the deacons, my fellow
servants (Letter to Philadelphians 4).
Where the bishop appears, there let the people
be, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic Church
(Letter to Smyrneans 8, 2).
Saint Ignatius was the first to use the term catholic to describe
the Church. It is an adjective of quality that tells how the
Church is, namely, full, perfect, complete, whole, with nothing
lacking in it of the fullness of the grace, truth and holiness
In the Didache and the Apologies of Saint Justin and Saint
Irenaeus, there are also descriptions of the Christian sacraments.
Baptize as follows: after explaining all
of these points, baptize in the name of the Father and of the
Son and of the Holy Spirit, in running water ... (Didache 7,
Let no one eat and drink of your Eucharist
but those who are baptized in the name of the Lord . . . (Didache
On the Lord’s own Day, assemble in
common to break bread and give thanks (i.e., the eucharist,
which means thanksgiving); but first confess your sins so that
your sacrifice may be pure.
However, no one quarelling with his brother
may join your assembly until they are reconciled; your sacrifice
must not be defiled (Didache 14).
Father Thomas Hopko, internationally
recognized Orthodox theologian and scholar is Dean of St. Vladimir’s
Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York. His published
works include The Orthodox Faith: An Elementary Handbook on
the Orthodox Church. The Handbook has been translated into several
foreign languages including Russian, French, Arabic, Serbian,
Spanish, Finnish, Swedish, Dutch and Japanese, and is used as
a major resource on the foundations of the Orthodox faith. Other
works include Christian Spirituality: East and West,
The Spirit of God, All the Fulness of God,
The Lenten Spring, Women and the Priesthood,
The Winter Pascha, and Speaking of Silence: Christian
and Buddhists on the Contemplative Way (St. Vladimir’s
CBN IS HERE FOR YOU!
Are you seeking answers in life? Are you hurting?
Are you facing a difficult situation?
A caring friend will be there to pray with you in your time of need.