For the first 300 years of the church’s history, believers faced many local and empire-wide persecutions of varying intensity. One of the most terrifying struck in A.D. 250. This was the “Decian Persecution,” named after the Roman Emperor Decius Trajan (249-251), who started it.
Decius, a pagan, believed that the gods were unfavorable to Rome because the empire’s citizens were not suitably worshipping them. The survival of the empire was in the balance, in his way of thinking. He considered Christians — and anyone else — who didn’t worship the gods to be atheists and guilty of high treason. Decius issued a decree commanding all people throughout the empire to sacrifice to the gods and to the emperor. Those complying would receive a libelli, a certificate attesting to this fact.
Decius didn’t want to turn Christians into martyrs, so comparatively few were actually killed. The goal was to force them to recant their faith and return them to the pagan fold. Arrest, exile, confiscation of property, threats and even torture were employed to force Christians to abandon their faith. The bishops and officers of the church were hit especially hard, with a number of martyrdoms in their ranks.
Many Christians steadfastly refused to go along with Decius’ demands and confessed Christ even under brutal torture. They were given the honorary title “Confessor” by the church. However, many Christians did sacrifice to the gods and the emperor. Some bribed authorities to obtain fraudulent certificates stating they had sacrificed, even though they had not. The Christians who complied with Decius’ order were excommunicated from the church as apostates and called the lapsi, those who had lapsed from the faith.
The persecution under Decius was severe, but it did not last long. He died in battle just two years after attaining office.1 A decade later, Gallienus (260-268) was on the emperor’s throne. Under his reign the church began to enjoy about 40 years of freedom from persecution.2 Many of the lapsed Christians then wanted to return to the church.
This situation created a great controversy. Should the lapsed be readmitted? Should they be required to do penance and “prove” their loyalty to Christ and the church? Should the lapsed be rebaptized before being readmitted? What about those who had renounced their faith, but then reaffirmed it even while the Decian persecution was in progress?
Enter Novatian (c. 200-258), a prominent Roman presbyter and theologian. He insisted that no lapsed person should be readmitted to the church. Novatian contended that the lapsed had forfeited grace through a denial of Christ. The group he formed posed another problem when certain of its members later wanted to be readmitted to the church.
Enter Cyprian (248-258), the respected bishop of Carthage. Cyprian and his supporters held that the lapsed should be received back into full fellowship and communion, but only after an interval of probation and penance. Cyprian also insisted that those individuals who had been baptized by priests of schismatic groups, like Novatian’s, would have to be rebaptized by priests of the church.
Cyprian convened several North African church councils between the years 251 and 256 to decide the issues. In 256, the North African synod voted unanimously that any individuals baptized by heretical or schismatic groups would have to be rebaptized before being granted full fellowship with the church.
Enter the bishop of Rome, Stephen (254-257). He ordered that the lapsed or heretics should be accepted into the church without a second baptism. Cyprian resisted this order for some time, but finally yielded.
Such thorny and divisive questions of how to deal with the lapsed led to the establishment of “a rigorous and fixed system of penitential discipline,” wrote Philip Schaff in his monumental History of the Christian Church, page 189. Persons who had been excommunicated because they had lapsed, and were now seeking re-entry, became “penitents.” They had to undertake a series of acts of penance before being readmitted.
The controversy over how to handle the lapsed had long-lasting repercussions for the church. As church historian Justo González points out in The Story of Christianity, page 90, “It was out of that concern that the entire penitential system developed. Much later, the Protestant Reformation was in large measure a protest against that system.”
1. Decius was succeeded as emperor by Gallus (251-253) and then Valerian (253-260). While there were changes in the level of persecution, and temporary easing at times, those were still years when it was not safe to be a Christian.
2. The 40 years of rest was followed by the last and most violent persecution, under Emperor Diocletian (284-305).