Sign up ×
Christianity Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for committed Christians, experts in Christianity and those interested in learning more. It's 100% free, no registration required.

What's the first recorded case of the Church's persecuting heretics?

By persecution I mean not only the act of stopping fellowship with a heretic, but also something more than that - things like, for example, taking away all his books that he wrote or, perhaps, stripping him off of some social rights - that is when the Church already had such power.

share|improve this question
Not really an answer, but Donatism was suppressed with confiscation of all Donatist church properties some time around 320; Docetism was much earlier - but I'm not sure whether it was "persecuted", though - or just "warned against". However, I expect Gnosticism persecution was earlier that either. – Marc Gravell Feb 28 '12 at 8:37
Marc, this is a very valuable input. Thank you. – brilliant Feb 28 '12 at 11:15

1 Answer 1

up vote 5 down vote accepted

It's difficult to give a definitive answer because of the ambiguity of words like "heretic" and "persecute". I presume that if Mr X says to Mr Y, "No, I disagree with you", that's not persecution. If he has him tortured and killed over the disagreement, that pretty clearly is persecution. But there's a wide range in the middle. If X tells people that Y is a dangerous kook and they shouldn't associate with him, is that persecution? What if so many people follow X that Y is completely ostracized from society, can't get a job, etc?

All that said, I suspect the first case would be the repudiation of Arianism at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. The Arians were exiled and their books banned, which I think qualifies as persecution. This took place shortly after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and so suddenly Christians went from being outlawed and persecuted themselves to having political power and influence.

Constantine was an emperor, i.e. a dictator, so it's not surprising that when he learned that his new-found religion was facing division and disagreement, he decided to step in and "solve" the problem by declaring which side was right and ordering everyone to fall in line or else. AFter all, that's what he would do if his generals disagreed about how to wage a war, or if his bureaucrats disagreed about how to administer some law.

share|improve this answer
Jay, I agree I haven't been specific enough in my question.Now I am thinking about how to specify it properly. Nevertheless, I think you HAVE answered it. Thank you. – brilliant Feb 28 '12 at 8:36
It might be a good idea to note that Constantine actually favored the Arian teachings, so this was a case of the Church deciding against the ruler. – cwallenpoole Feb 28 '12 at 9:17
@cwallenpool - WOW!!! That's news to me. So the Church in fact acted against Constantine?! How did it happen that Constantine eventually took the Church's side? Where can I read more about it (preferably on the internet)? – brilliant Feb 28 '12 at 11:10
Yeah, I think you'd have to flip this answer around because effectively the Arians were in control and were the ones persecuting defenders of the faith like St. Athanasius who spent 40 years being deposed of his office. – Peter Turner Feb 28 '12 at 14:24
@cwallenpoole I don't claim to be an expert on the history of this. But every account I've read says that following the Council of Nicaea, Constantine ordered Arius and several other prominent Arians exiled. It's difficult to reconcile this with Constantine being "pro-Arian". A few years later he lifted the exile (and Arius died on his return trip or something like that.) As I say, I don't claim to be an expert, but I generally take it that Constantine was trying to resolve the dispute and restore unity, and didn't particularly care about the specific doctrinal point. (continued ...) – Jay Mar 2 '12 at 8:39

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.