When we moved from the First Century to the Second Century in the study of the Christian church, we found that the church was strong both physically and morally.
We find the church entering the Third Century still strong physically, having grown still larger in numbers, but perhaps not so strong, at least not so pure, spiritually. There had been a number of philosophies which had entered into the thinking of the church leaders, so that there were a number of separate sects formed to follow these philosophies. Perhaps the greatest difference in the church at the end of the First Century and at the end of the Second Century was in the form of church government. At the end of the First Century, the church was almost without organization, while at the end of the Second Century, it had already taken on the form of government, which was to control it until the reformation. This form of government was that of the Bishops, with the head bishop at Rome in the west and in Alexandria in the East.
A great influence in this form of government was the Bishop of Carthage, Cyprian by name, who was born in 195 and was martyred in 258 AD. Cyprian carried on the idea of the hierarchy to an extreme. It is said that he did more for the development of the system of government by bishops than any other man. Among his writings were such statements as these: “Whoever he is, and whatsoever his character, he is not a Christian who is not in the Church of Christ.” “There is no salvation outside the Church.” “The church is constituted of bishops, and every act of the Church is controlled by these leaders.” “Whence thou shouldest know that the bishop is in the Church, and the Church in the bishop, and he who is not with the bishop is not in the Church.” It is not hard to see that the development of the Roman Catholic government upon this kind of teaching. However, it is interesting to note that Cyprian himself refused to acknowledge the superiority of the Bishop in Rome.
When we left the church at the end of the Second Century, the church was free of any persecution under the reign of the Emperor Severus. However, Severus continued to reign into the Third Century, and in the year 203 passed a law which forbade anyone changing his religion to either Jewish or Christian. This law seemed designed to stop the growth of Christianity, but in effect it allowed many of the judges to blackmail many of the Christians of wealth, and many were put to death on account of it. Severus was succeeded by his son, and the Christians enjoyed a really benevolent reign, but the Emperor Maximin succeeded Severus and was afraid of the Christians that Severus had befriended. He ordered that all Bishops be seized and put to death, and all Christians suffered much under this reign, for few stopped at arresting only the Bishops.