Choosing Whom You Will Serve - The One Year Christian History

Choosing Whom You Will Serve

Some choices have high stakes.

DELIVER US, Lord Jupiter!” shouted Trajanus Decius, emperor of Rome, as stones and arrows showered around him. “Deliver us, Lord Jupiter, for I have delivered all of Rome into your hands and the hands of our ancient gods!” cried the beleaguered monarch, as his horse stumbled forward through the dark waters of the tangled marshes of Dobruja. His men followed grimly, fighting as they fled.

Pressed violently on their left, assaulted mercilessly on their right, and pursued from behind, Decius’s Roman troops bowed wearily and gradually succumbed to the fatal blows of the barbarian Goths of King Kniva. Decius fell at last, one dark form among so many, trampled underfoot by panic-stricken horses and pulled down by the sucking waters of the steaming swamp. His body was never found.

Decius had been emperor for fewer than three years. Coming to power in a time when political turmoil, military crisis, and economic instability threatened the Roman Empire, Decius sought to unite his subjects through forced submission to the ancient Roman gods. “Perhaps,” he reasoned, “the gods will favor us once more, give us final victory over the pestilent Goths, and restore the glory of the empire.”

On January 3, 250, he published an imperial edict commanding all citizens of the empire to sacrifice to the Roman gods. Those who did so were given certificates as evidence of their compliance while those who refused were imprisoned or executed.

Decius’s edict initiated the first universal Roman persecution of the Christian church. Untold numbers of believers suffered the loss of family, freedom, and life itself. Among those martyred over the next two years were the bishops of Rome, Antioch, and Jerusalem.

When Decius died in battle against the Goths in June of 251, the pogrom ended, but the lull revealed a spiritual war within the ranks of the Christian community itself.

Many believers had sacrificed to the gods to save their lives, and others had illegally obtained certificates without sacrificing. And now thousands of lapsed Christians begged to be received back into the fellowship of the church.

A great controversy ensued. Some of those who had been imprisoned for their faith wrote letters of pardon to large numbers of those who had denied Christ. Some dishonest individuals produced amnesty papers in the name of dead martyrs.

Bishops were divided over how to treat the lapsed Christians. Some called for rigid excommunication. Some demanded a general amnesty. Eventually, they agreed that those who actually sacrificed to the gods should be readmitted to communion only when dying. Those who obtained a false Roman certificate but had not actually sacrificed to the gods could be readmitted upon repentance and penance. Without sorrow for their unfaithfulness, they would receive no grace. However, bitter dissensions over the matter continued with resulting schisms.

When another great persecution arose under Emperor Valerian in 257, a wider amnesty was offered to those who had defected during the days of Decius. This was not the sign of a weakened standard but rather a gracious opportunity for the shunned to stand where once they had fallen. Many returned to the fold. Many, in turn, sacrificed their lives for Christ.


How do you feel the church should have dealt with Christians who sacrificed to the Roman gods or who obtained counterfeit certificates of compliance? How should churches today deal with members engaged in egregious sin?

Dear brothers and sisters, if another Christian is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself.

Galatians 6:1

From the Book:

The One Year Christian History cover image

The One Year Christian History
By E. Michael Rusten and Sharon O. Rusten

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