The Decian persecution refers to the persecution of Christians carried out under the reign of the Roman Emperor Decius in the early 3rd century AD. Decius issued an edict in 250 AD requiring all inhabitants of the empire to perform a sacrifice to the Roman gods and obtain a certificate (libellus) to prove they had done so. The edict was intended to restore Rome’s traditional religious practices and values amidst a period of military and political crisis. Christians were specifically targeted because their refusal to worship the Roman gods was seen as endangering the empire.
The effects of the edict varied across the empire, but many Christians were imprisoned, tortured, or executed for refusing to comply. Prominent Christian leaders executed during the Decian persecution included Pope Fabian in Rome and Bishop Alexander of Jerusalem. Other Christians chose to perform the sacrifices and obtain libelli, resulting in division within the church over how to deal with these lapsed Christians after the persecution ended. 10 of the 30 provinces in the empire recorded cases of Christians being martyred during Decius’ reign.
The Decian persecution was a significant challenge to the early Christian church. It was the first official and systematic effort to suppress Christianity across the entire empire. While localized persecutions had occurred previously under certain emperors, the Decian edict made it empire-wide policy. As the first major episode of persecution it constituted a watershed moment in the church’s early development.
Several key factors help explain why Decius launched an empire-wide persecution of Christians in 250 AD.
1. Decius’ edict was partly a response to a period of military unrest and regional rebellions that threatened the stability of the empire. He believed the traditional Roman gods had to be appeased in order to restore peace and order.
2. There was also political and philosophical opposition to Christianity within the Roman elite. The Christian refusal to participate in the imperial cult and worship of the gods was seen as an act of disloyalty.
3. Decius also wanted to promote a revived sense of shared social values and Roman identity. He hoped a demonstration of pious loyalty to the traditional gods would unite the populace.
4. Precedents for requiring sacrifices to the emperor or gods had been established by earlier rulers like Trajan. Decius was essentially reviving and expanding these existing statutes against Christianity.
5. The Christian church had grown rapidly in the preceding decades, increasing in size and influence. Its growing visibility and success had likely drawn more anti-Christian attention from authorities.
The eruption of empire-wide persecution under Decius produced several significant impacts on the early Christian church.
1. Martyrdom emerged as an important theme. Many of those executed for refusing to worship the gods were honored as martyrs and saints, establishing a lasting legacy.
2. Cyprian the bishop of Carthage coined the term “lapsed” to describe those who had performed sacrifices and surrendered scriptures or renounced their faith. Debates arose over whether to re-admit lapsed Christians after the persecution ended.
3. The persecution reinforced the importance of bishops and clergy as leaders during crisis who helped steadfast Christians maintain their faith despite threats.
4. Some later Christians like Origen felt persecution and martyrdom strengthened and purified the church by winnowing out weak or unfaithful members.
5. The experience of persecution acted as a boundary marker, reinforcing the distinct identity of Christianity compared to surrounding culture. It sharpened the church’s countercultural stance.
6. Passio literature, writings glorifying the martyrs, became popular. These accounts of brave martyrdom in the face of persecution inspired later generations.
7. The need to avoid detection temporarily disrupted church activities like services and meetings in some locations during the most intense parts of the persecution.
The Decian persecution lasted a little over two years until the emperor’s death in 251 AD led to the restoration of tolerance for Christianity. It represented the first coordinated attempt to crush Christianity through force. The memory of faithful martyrs strengthened the church’s collective identity and theology for centuries. Although brief, the Decian persecution signaled that the faith now posed a serious threat in the eyes of Imperial authorities. Later persecutions in the 3rd and early 4th centuries stemmed from the precedents established under Decius as emperors tried to impose religious conformity. While failing to destroy the church, the intermittent persecution it endured for generations after Decius forged Christianity into a formidable opponent of pagan Rome.
In Acts 8:1-3 we read, “And Saul approved of his [Stephen’s] execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”
This passage describes the first major persecution that broke out against the early church following the stoning of Stephen. Led by Saul of Tarsus, later the apostle Paul, this outbreak of persecution scattered Christians from Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria. It also resulted in imprisonment and death for some believers. This initial wave of persecution was localized to the area around Jerusalem and done with the approval of the Jewish authorities who were alarmed by the growth of the Jesus movement within Judaism.
In contrast, the Decian persecution of 250 AD was the first persecution carried out through the authority of the Roman imperial government with the specific aim of exterminating the Christian church. While the motives were different, both persecutions stemmed from similar concerns about the growth and spread of Christianity and a desire to suppress the new faith. However, despite outbreaks of persecution the church continued to grow throughout the 1st century and beyond. The witness of martyrs like Stephen helped strengthen and even expand the church in the face of opposition and violence. Their faithful courage made a deep impression on subsequent generations of believers as persecution continued intermittently for several centuries after Stephen’s death.
In John 15:18-21 Jesus says, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.”
This passage provides insight into the inevitability of persecution for followers of Jesus. Since persecution arises from the fundamental contrast between the values of Christ and the values of the world, all Christians can expect persecution in varying degrees and forms as part of their commitment to Christ. Jesus Himself was hated and ultimately crucified, so His disciples should expect similar opposition.
This explains in part the motive behind the Decian persecution in ancient Rome and periods of state-sanctioned persecution throughout history up to the present day. The Christian refusal to adhere to prevailing cultural values and worship society’s gods often provokes hostility from governmental powers. Yet Jesus promises that those who endure persecution for His name’s sake are truly blessed because the “Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:14). The hope of eternal life empowers Christians to remain faithful through all forms of opposition.
The book of Revelation provides symbolic depictions of persecution faced by early Christians under various Roman emperors. In Revelation 2:8-11 Jesus speaks to the church in Smyrna saying, “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.”
Jesus commends the Christians in Smyrna for remaining faithful in the face of “tribulation”, a reference to the persecution and trials they have endured. Christ encourages them to persevere even if it means imprisonment or martyrdom. They will thus receive the “crown of life”, symbolic of eternal life for those who are faithful unto death. This passage depicts persecution as integral to the struggle between God’s kingdom and the forces of Satan. Overcoming persecution through steadfast faith demonstrates true allegiance to Christ.
While the Decian persecution targeted Christians across the Roman empire for their refusal to worship the gods, the book of Revelation depicts persecution arising from within the Jewish community in some cities like Smyrna. Since Christianity originated from within Judaism, Jewish Christians faced opposition from Jewish authorities for their claims about Jesus. Yet Jesus warns against those who persecute believers while hypocritically claiming to be God’s people. This reminds believers in all generations that persecution can arise both from outside and inside the church. But standing firm as God’s elect in the face of persecution results in eternal blessings.
In Revelation 6:9-11 John writes, “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’ Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.”
The visions in this passage offer a glimpse of martyred believers in heaven petitioning God to bring justice and judgment upon those who persecuted them. It demonstrates that persecution and martyrdom of Christians will continue until God’s purposes are complete and Christ returns. However, these martyrs are honored for their faithfulness with white robes symbolic of resurrection and victory. Their faithful witness and shed blood will be ultimately vindicated despite the ongoing affliction of God’s people by the wicked. This passage would have encouraged suffering Christians in John’s time to persevere in the hope of eternal rest and glory for those who are killed for their testimony to Christ.
First Peter 4:12-19 provides this exhortation: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you…Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And ‘If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’ Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.”
Peter soberly warns believers that they should expect persecution to test and refine their faith. However, they are blessed when they suffer for Christ’s name and should rejoice that they share in Christ’s sufferings. This does not mean seeking out persecution deliberately. But when it occurs, Christians are called to endure persecution courageously without shame and glorify God in the midst of their trials. Persecution reminds believers to remain holy and entrust themselves to God’s care while doing good. Suffering cleanses the church and reveals those with genuine faith. So Decian persecution tested believers but strengthened the resolve of those who endured it faithfully. They rejoiced in following Christ’s example and trusted God’s promise of eternal life.
The apostle Paul frequently encountered persecution in his missionary travels throughout the Roman empire. In 2 Corinthians 11:23b-27 he provides this summary of his sufferings for the gospel: “…imprisoned more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.”
Paul’s extensive list of hardships demonstrates his commitment to continue ministering despite fierce opposition and persecution. His perseverance through immense suffering provides a model for Christians facing persecution not to abandon their ministry but boldly proclaim the gospel in the midst of trial. Paul embraced this lifestyle of suffering because he had personally encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). This transformed his life and compelled him to serve Christ faithfully through persecution, disgrace, hardship and poverty as he spread the good news of salvation across the Roman world.
In Romans 8:35-39 Paul asks rhetorically:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Here Paul emphatically declares the unshakeable bond between Christ and believers which no amount of persecution or danger can destroy. On the contrary, persevering through suffering only makes Christians more than conquerors. This passage provides great encouragement for believers facing persecution that they are eternally secure in God’s love. No persecution, no matter how severe, can separate Christians from their Savior. His love strengthens believers to endure and thereby witness more powerfully to God’s redemptive purposes at work even in the midst of suffering.
In 2 Timothy 3:10-13 Paul gives final instructions to his protégé Timothy saying: “You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.”
Here Paul stresses that persecution is inevitable for all who seek to live godly lives in Christ Jesus. By citing his own sufferings and deliverance, Paul exhorts Timothy to expect and endure persecution just as his mentor did. Living a truly godly life that upholds biblical virtues will provoke hostility from the ungodly. This reality caused many lapsed Christians to abandon their faith during intense times of state-sanctioned persecution like under Decius. Yet Paul reassures believers that despite ongoing persecution the Lord will guard the faithful.
In summary, the theme of persecution runs consistently throughout the New Testament as believers are warned to expect opposition and prepared to endure it courageously through God’s grace. The testimony of faithful endurance in the early church provided encouragement in later centuries when intense persecution erupted sporadically under certain emperors like Decius. Remembering the words of Jesus and the apostles helped Christians face persecution without fear, with bold witness to their Savior. The Decian persecution and other such eruptions of violence served as instruments to purify and strengthen the church. The blood of the martyrs became the seed of Christian growth across the Roman world and beyond.