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New Threats to the Gospel After Suppression and Expansion

At some undisclosed time persecutions broke out against Christians in the Roman province of Egypt and around Alexandria. Mark’s death is believed to have taken place here. Persecutions also broke out in the Roman province of Cyrene (modern Libya) where Benghazi was later built during Moslem times.

We need to be less institutionally-minded and more community-minded as the Body of Christ.

The Christian faith spread rapidly across the Mediterranean both along the European shoreline and the North African shoreline. The rapidity of the Christian expansion is hard to ascertain. It is known that the faith also spread northwestward and into what is now central France, a spread spearheaded by Christians going westward out of what we now know as Turkey. Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, in what is now known as France, was from Smyrna. During his time, around A.D. 170-187, persecution broke out in that area of the Roman empire.

Tertullian, the Roman lawyer turn Christian, defended the Christians against the Roman officials who initiated campaigns against Christians. It was Tertullian, who wrote in a letter to the effect that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. It was not until the time of Diocletian toward the end of the 3rd century that persecutions were widespread from the Atlantic into the Middle East.

What is remarkable, the Christian faith not only survived but spread further afield from Roman Britain into what is now Azerbaijan. It is a good lesson for those who are concerned about the actions of ISIS today. The Christian faith survived, expanded, and outlived those who persecuted them. The fear mongers of the 21st century need to take a lesson from their second, third, and fourth century forbears of the faith. The Christian faith also eased south toward the African sahel from Libya and southeastward into the Sudan and the Ethiopian mountain. It was during the time of Irenaeus that Christianity encountered another foreboding threat from the spread of a Persian-bred spiritualism known as Mithraism. Gnosticism rode piggy-back upon the Mithras religion of Persia which Roman soldiers brought back into the Roman Empire after fighting the Sassanid Persians along the borderlands of what is now Syria, Iraq, and Persia.

When the gospel spread into those regions, some believers took Jesus’ words about Spirit and Truth and twisted them into their own understandings of spirit and truth in which spirit is that which is supernatural and truth as something intuitive. From this twist, Gnosticism emerged and it has plagued the church from the time of Irenaeus to the present.

Irenaeus of Lyons, about A.D. 187, wrote an apologetic against the inroads Gnosticism had made. His Contra Haeresies (“Against Heresies”) became an effective defense of the Christian Gospel. In the New Testament and in the Hebrew Scriptures, Spirit refers to the breath of God which gives life to body and personality.

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Category: Church History, Fall 2016

About the Author: Woodrow E. Walton, D.Min. (Oral Roberts University School of Theology and Missions), B.A. (Texas Christian University), B.D. [M.Div.] (Duke Divinity School), M.A. (University of Oklahoma), is a retired Seminary Dean and Professor of biblical, theological and historical studies. An ordained Assemblies of God minister, he and his wife live in Fort Worth, Texas. Walton retains membership with the Evangelical Theological Society, American Association of Christian Counselors, American Society of Church History, American Academy of Political Science, and The International Society of Frontier Missiology.

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