On Church Assemblies Not Meeting

Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, more affectionally known as Pliny the Younger, lived from AD 61 to around 113. In his letter (10.96) to Emperor Trajan, Pliny sought guidance in handling the Christians to which Trajan offered his counsel (10.97).

When Pliny first encountered Christians in his role as proconsul (legatus Augusti) of the province of Bithynia, he was uncertain about how to deal with them. He asked the Emperor a variety of questions. Should Christians be punished just because they are Christians? Should they be punished if the recanted of being a Christian? Should Christians be punished only because they have been caught doing something illegal?

Pliny stated

… this is the course that I have adopted in the case of those brought before me as Christians. I ask them if they are Christians. If they admit it I repeat the question a second and third time, threatening capital punishment; if they persist I sentence them to death. For I do not doubt that, whatever kind of crime it may be to which they have con­fessed, their pertinacity and inflexible obstinacy should certainly be punished. There were others who displayed a like madness and whom I reserve to be sent to Rome, since they were Romans citizens.

From those who renounced their allegiance to Jesus, Pliny learned their guilt or error was basically this

that on an appointed day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn antiphonally (Lat. carmen … dicere secum invicem) to Christ, as to a god, and to bind themselves by an oath (Lat. sacramentum), not for the commission of any crime but to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery and breach of faith, and not to deny a deposit when it was claimed. After the con­clusion of this ceremony it was their custom to depart and meet again to take food; but it was ordinary and harmless food

But, Pliny continued, they had ceased the practice of meeting after he had issued an edict forbidding the meeting of “secret societies.” Wanting to know more, Pliny tortured two female ministers (Lat. ministrae) but found only a “depraved and extravagant superstition.”

Noting the impact that Christianity had had on the culture, Pliny closes his letter with this last paragraph:

The matter seemed to me to justify my consulting you, especially on account of the number of those imperiled; for many persons of all ages and classes and of both sexes are being put in peril by accusation, and this will go on. The contagion of this superstition has spread not only in the cities, but in the villages and rural districts as well; yet it seems ca­pable of being checked and set right. There is no shadow of doubt that the temples, which have been almost deserted are beginning to be frequented once more, that the sacred rites which have been long neglected are being renewed, and that sacrificial victims are for sale everywhere, whereas, till recently, a buyer was rarely to be found. From this it is easy to imagine what a host of men could be set right, were they given a chance of recantation.

Pliny’s letter to Trajan is a fascinating window into the world of the earliest Christians. I encourage you to the read the letter in full for yourself. Also, because we have Trajan’s letter reply to Pliny, we get to see how the Romans viewed Christians before AD 117:

You have taken the right line, my dear Pliny, in examining the cases of those de­nounced to you as Christians, for no hard and fast rule can be laid down, of universal ap­plication. They are not to be sought out; if they are informed against, and the charge is proved, they are to be punished, with this reservation—that if any one denies that he is a Christian, and actually proves it, that is by worshipping our gods, he shall be pardoned as a result of his recantation, however, suspect he may have been with respect to the past. Pamphlets published anonymously should carry no weight in any charge whatsoever. They constitute a very bad precedent, and are also out of keeping with this age.

Here we see that the earliest Christians were willing to give up public gatherings to play their role as exemplary citizens. What the faithful would not do is denounce their allegiance to Jesus or bow their allegiance to Caesar.

Oh, and for the record, these Christians were really being persecuted by the government.

 

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The excerpts above are from Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1963).