The exact time is not clear, but within a couple of hundred years after the death of Jesus, prior to the ascendancy of Saint Constantine (c. 300 CE), the Emperor who de-criminalized Christianity, endorsed it, and made it the official religion of the state, as Christianity was becoming a dominant force in the Major urban centers of the Empire, Christian mission began to spread via the political machinations of civil government, and through the use of violent coercion.
Coercion and violence became the modus operandi of Christian mission almost immediately upon the transformation of the Church into an arm of the Roman Empire.
There is some evidence for inter-Christian violence before the Constantinian era, especially during the persecution of the so-called “Gnostic” groups, which orthodox (right thinking) Christians viewed as heretical, heterodox (wrong thinking) Christianity. In the second and third centuries of the church, many so-called heterodox Christians were forcibly converted to orthodox norms, they were killed, murdered, exiled.
In the era before Constantine, Christians experienced regular persecution from the civil authorities that governed them.
The periods of persecution that the early Church endured gave Christians a consciousness of how political power and violence can be used to injure one’s opponents.
St. Augustine of Hippo (4th and 5th Century CE) wrote extensively on the use of political power and violence in defense of the faith. In his dealings with the Donatists he called upon the army to suppress dissent,[i] and he praised the passage of laws that allowed bishops to crucify those that refused to submit to the authority of the Church.[ii]
The persecution of the Gnostics by Christians and the later persecution of Christian heretics in the imperial Church were analogous, and even identical to the types of persecutions that orthodox Christians endured at the hands of the Roman government in the pre-imperial Church and the types of persecutions that the Roman government regularly engaged in, in relation to other secret societies, burial-groups and guilds etc….[iii]
Persecution and Christian mission are not inherently related activities, but they share a common, and a bleak history.
The use of violence in defense of Christianity may seem absurd to some, as it does to me, bu violence in the defense of “right beliefs” is subtly different from violence used to spread Christianity in the mission field.
The persecutory activities that the early Christians engaged in, were the active proponents of, had primarily to do with a felt need to defend orthodoxy.
Violence perpetrated against non-Christians, in order to force them to become Christians, is something else.
Violence, coercion, and the tactics of persecution represent an intrinsic betrayal of The Way, that Jesus taught, lived and died for.
Violence in defense of one’s beliefs and traditions is one kind of betrayal.
The justification of the use of violence to make converts out of non-Christians is a different kind of betrayal.
[i] St. Augustine, Treatise on the Correction of the Donatists, The Political Writings, edited with an introduction by Henry Paolucci, including an interpretive analysis by Dino Bigongiari (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing Inc., 1962), 223.
[ii] Ibid, Power to Crucify and Power to Release, 340 – 342.
[iii] Robert Wilkin, The Christians as the Romans saw Them (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984), 16 – 17.