Beheadings in Church History

World leaders have rightly expressed outrage at the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians in Egypt by a group of Muslims connected to ISIS. But to be fair, rulers of the nominally Christian Roman empire also used beheading at one time.

The story is as follows. In 324 AD Constantine became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. At this point all persecution of Christians ceased. Yet not until the ascendance of emperor Theodosius in 363 did Christianity became the state religion. Now it was the pagans who were persecuted, though not violently. Successive emperors intensified punishment for religious dissent. In 438 the death penalty for Christian heretics was instituted by Theodosius II. Now any who denied the Trinity were to be killed. Finally, under Justinian in 534 beheading became the punishment for Christians who lapsed into paganism.

What on earth led “Christian” emperors to such violence? The answer is desire for unity in their empire. Religion is powerful; it can bring peace and deep unity to society. It can also lead to war and hatred, as we are seeing in the Muslim world today. Christians, always remember the teaching of Jesus: All who draw the sword will die by the sword (Matthew 26:52).


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