A Predicament of Persecution

The early church during the second and third centuries faced an increasing amount of persecution from the Roman government.  What began as sporadic attacks and punishments eventually became government-sponsored attacks on Christianity.  One of the by-products of these attacks was the esteem given to martyrs, and the cult that developed around them.  Another by-product was the challenge these attacks presented concerning key doctrines of both salvation and the church.

During the periods of rampant persecution by the Roman government, some Christians stood firm in their faith and became martyrs.  However, many other Christians, referred to as lapsi, succumbed to persecution and conceded their faith.  The salvation of the lapsi presented a direct challenge to key doctrines of the church, resulting in two different viewpoints—rigorism and laxism.[1]

Supporters of rigorism believed that the lapsi’s good standing in the church could never be restored, and were forced to live in penance for the remainder of their lives.  This would demonstrate the grievousness of their sin and strengthen the faith of other Christians when faced with future persecutions.  On the other hand, supporters of laxism believed that repentant lapsi could restore their good standing immediately, which would benefit the church by strengthening numbers and provide a sense of security for their fellow Christians.[2]  This schism threatened the integrity of the church, and needed a respected leader to lead the way in repairing it.

Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, presented a solution that included aspects of both viewpoints.  This solution focused on the weight of the sin committed at the time of persecution, and whether or not sacrifices were made.  If, in fact, a sacrifice was made, that person could once again achieve good standing in the church after undergoing church discipline.  This would both address the weight of the sin, but would also assure the person of their salvation.

In addition, Cyprian faced other schisms within the church, such as the issue of re-baptizing people in schismatic or heretical groups that sought reconciliation with the church.  Cyprian addressed this matter quite succinctly, asserting that the absence of the Holy Spirit in these groups negated any baptism that occurred at their hand.

By confronting these schisms, Cyprian became a staunch advocator of church unity in both his actions and writings.  Like all true leaders, he knew that the future of the church relied on its unity of effort, especially concerning doctrine.  In a sense, this unity is one of the characteristics that set Christianity apart from pagan religions of that era.  When applied to modern Christianity, with its seemingly endless denominations, Cyprians cry for church unity is still applicable.

It is amazing to think of what today’s church could accomplish for the sake of Christ with unity of effort across all spectrums of Christianity.  In a similar manner as that of Soldiers in a joint coalition, despite having different flags, uniforms, tactics, etc., they are united in one effort to defeat a mutual enemy.  Although they may fight individual battles differently, they fight the same war against the same enemy.  The spiritual war that the church fights every day is no different and requires the same unity of effort.


[1] Everett Ferguson, Church History, Volume 1: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 165.

[2] Ibid.

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