Can a specific event or circumstance for setting off the Great Persecution under Emperor Diocletian (303-313AD) be determined? I believe it can. And it boils down to Christians embracing a solid biblical world view in spite of offending family and friends for doing so.
In the late third century, before the persecution began, there was a woman of great importance to the pagans in her region. The woman was a priestess who worked daily in the pagan temple of the Roman gods of the mountains. She was well known, highly respected, and incredibly superstitious. She had trained her children to fear the Roman gods and to observe the pagan rituals meticulously. She regularly supplied meat from the sacrifices offered in the temple to her family and servants.
At the same time, the Christian church was growing rapidly as it had been enjoying a decades-long period of relative peace. Pagans were converting to Christianity all over the Roman Empire. Christians held high offices in the Roman government from military leaders to government advisors; some were even governors of provinces. However, despite its rapid growth, Christianity remained a small minority compared to the pagan world around them. Nevertheless, the faith made inroads in just about every area of the empire. Before long, a pagan would be hard pressed not to have a Christian family member, or know of a friend or acquaintance that had joined the faith.
The encroachment of Christianity landed firmly in the family of the priestess. As she served the sacrificial meat, the Christians in her family abstained and committed themselves to fasting and prayer. This infuriated the woman who then complained to her grown son, who was equally superstitious, how the Christians anger the gods. Her son was a man of no meager importance. His name was Galerius and he was Diocletian’s Caesar in the eastern empire. Like his mother, Galerius was equally enraged with the Christians. His desire was to achieve nothing less than complete destruction of the Christian faith. However, not possessing the power to achieve his goal on his own, Galerius became, as it were, the devil on Diocletian’s shoulder.
Galerius managed to stage a couple of precarious events where Christians could be blamed. Though these events prompted Diocletian to punish Christians, the ramifications were no where near what Galerius anticipated. But eventually Galerius wore down his senior ruler and Diocletian officially declared Christianity illegal. Consequently countless Christians were killed or imprisoned during the decade long persecution.
All this began because Christians possessed a greater love for God than they did for their own families. They took seriously the council of the Apostle Paul who warned that one cannot partake of the Lord’s Table and also of the devil’s table. They did no more than abstain from the family feast on the principle of what they had been taught from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. And in the face of determined opposition, they stood their ground peacefully, respectfully and prayerfully.
Christians were severely persecuted for their faith because they firmly believed in a biblical world view. Imagine if you will a general acceptance of pagan beliefs by Christians in the third century. Let’s say those family members who abstained from eating the sacrificial meat decided, “What the heck, what’s it going to hurt? Why upset the family over a simple meal?” Sounds like something they could have let slide for the sake of peace and unity. One could argue that such a sentiment could have staved off the persecution all together. But what they decided instead was that God their Creator and Savior was more important than peace and unity – even unto death.
So as the world’s progressive agenda finds its way into our families, friendships, and workplace, we must, if we truly love our Lord and Savior, peacefully, respectfully and prayerfully stand firmly opposed to the incursion of its ideals.