Church History Tuesday: How the Church Dealt with the Lapsed

St CyprianLast week you will remember I discussed the persecution of the 3rd century (if you don’t remember or didn’t read that post you can find it here).  At the end of the persecution there were several people who had denied Christ and offered sacrifice to the gods and emperor; these people were called the lapsed.  As stated last week, the persecution was not about getting a large body count, but more about control, so many of the Christians taken prisoner were not killed but tortured.  When the edicts were reversed or the jailers got tired of torturing the Christians they were released; these Christians were called confessors, since they continued to confess Christ.

The problem of the lapsed started when the edicts were reversed or forgotten about, many people who had denied Christ or had burned incense to the idols, wanted to come back to the Christian Church.  There was a question of what to do with these people, who had once confessed Christ but then denied him and who now wanted to confess him again when there was no threat of persecution.  The two major sides of the debate revolved around two men: St. Cyprian, bishop of Carthage and Novatian, of Rome.

The problem of the lapsed went a little further than just wither or not the lapsed should be allowed back into the Church.  There was a controversy about who should be allowed to bring them back into the Church and under what circumstances they should be allowed back into the Church.  Some believed only the confessors should be able to bring the lapsed back into the Church, because they had stayed strong unlike the lapsed and did not flee like some Church leaders (this was the stance Novatian took).  Others believed that only the bishops should be allowed to bring the lapsed back to the Church, because they were responsible for the Church and were the ones who could forgive sin (this was the stance Cyprian took).  Novatian and those like him felt only the confessors had more authority than the bishops, because they had actually undergone the persecution and could tell the lapsed what must be done to rejoin the Church (possible examples might be to perform some sort of penance, like making a journey from their city to a holy place, something like 25, 50 or 100 miles away, while on their knees).  While the bishops like Cyprian and some confessors believed, the some lapsed should be allowed back into the Church if they confessed their sin.  Cyprian called a synod in Carthage to settle the matter in his area; it was declared that those who had purchased or otherwise obtained certificates without sacrificing should be immediately remitted to the Church.  Those who had sacrificed would be remitted only on their deathbeds or when a new persecution gave them the chance to prove the sincerity of their repentance.  Those who had sacrificed and did not show any sign of repentance would never be remitted.  These actions should only be taken by the bishops and not the confessors.  This synod ended the controversy but the schism caused by the controversy lasted for several generations.  Novatian was later excommunicated from the Church because of his disagreements with the bishop of Rome and his stance on the lapsed.  These events showed what would continue to be a problem throughout the Church, the divide between the hierarchy of the Church and those within the Church, also what to do with those who wanted to be reunited with the Church.

Question: Who do you think was right in the debate about the lapsed?  Do you agree with Cyprian’s Synod’s decision about the requirement of admitting the lapsed, should it be more relaxed or stricter?  Let me know in comments.

About Jesse

I am a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary with a Masters of Arts in Theology focusing on Church History. I am a Third Order Benedictine monk, in the Company of Jesus. I am married to a wonderful woman, we just had a baby Michaela Rose. You can follow me and be alerted of new blog post by following me on Twitter @jtalexanderiv. Or following this blog.
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2 Responses to Church History Tuesday: How the Church Dealt with the Lapsed

  1. Sarah says:

    I personally believe that too many Christian traditions are too lax. I’ve seen people come and go from the church. I don’t know if they “lapsed,” but it seems like they could never make up their minds. Maybe churches should invest more in Christian education and accountability.

    • Jesse says:

      I agree with you to some extent there Sarah, many churches have neglected their duty to educate their attendees. However, I would want to always err on the side of grace, to forgive all who seek it and even those who do not seek it. The Church cannot be like the world, if we are wronged we cannot hold a grudge or abandon those who wrong us. We may and should seek reconciliation with those who wronged us and we should confront them on the wrong they have done the Church. But once they have repented, we must welcome them back with open arms. All that to say if someone continues to fall away from the Church and then comes back and falls away, we should embrace them every time they come back and seek after them when they fall away. Maybe by these signs of love they will be won over to commit to the Christian life and the Church.

      I would remind you of the story of the monk going to the well and is confronted by a villager. The villager asks “What do you do in that monastery up there?” The monk answers, “We fall…and then we get back up. And then we fall…and we get back up. And we fall…and get back up.” We all fall, but we have the solid foundation of the Church and our brothers and sisters in Christ to help us up when we fall.

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