Decius became emperor in 249, at a time of crisis. Externally, the Empire was threatened by invasions on the northern frontiers. Internally, the citizens lacked cohesion and moral fiber.

Decius decided to strengthen and unite the Empire on the basis of religion. He ordered that all citizens take part in a general sacrifice, pouring out a libation to the Roman gods and eating part of the sacrificial meat. This order was aimed particularly at prominent Christian leaders. Decius operated on the theory that if you cut off the head, the body will die of itself.

Citizens who refused to sacrifice were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. Great bishops such as Fabian of Rome, Babylas of Antioch, and Alexander of Jerusalem were killed or died in prison. Others, like Cyprian of Carthage, Dionysius of Alexandria, and Gregory the Wonderworker, were banished or went into hiding.

Eusebius describes the torture of Origen, the great theologian, in his Ecclesiastical History: “The dreadful cruelties he endured for the word of Christ, chains and bodily torments, agony in iron and the darkness of his cell; how for days on end his legs were pulled four paces apart in the torturer’s stocks—the courage with which he bore the threats of fire and every torture devised by his enemies.… ” Origen survived and was freed but died as a result of his torture.

Fallout for the Faithful

While the government targeted Christian leaders, mobs in Alexandria and other cities attacked the rank and file. Eusebius preserves a letter from Dionysius of Alexandria describing the attacks of a mob: “Next they took a female convert named Quinta to the idol’s temple and tried to make her worship. When she turned her back in disgust, they tied her feet and dragged her right through the city over the rough paved road, bumping her on the great stones and beating her as they went, till they arrived at the same place, where they stoned her to death. Then they ran in a body to the houses of the Christians, charged in by groups on those they knew as neighbors, raided, plundered, and looted.”

The church practically collapsed. Thousands of Christians either offered sacrifices or obtained a certificate (libellus) saying that they had sacrificed.

In 251 Decius died in battle, ending the persecution (which still ranks as one of the bloodiest in the history of the church). But then the church found itself facing a tempestuous internal struggle. What was the church to do with all these apostates who, when the crisis was over, wanted to rejoin the church? On what basis could they be readmitted? The struggle for an answer reflects a deeper tension about the nature of the church.

Is the Church a Pure Bride?

Behind the struggle lies the question of post-baptismal sin. In Against Marcion, Tertullian listed what seems to have been a common understanding of the benefits of baptism: remission of sins, deliverance from death, rebirth to new life, and endowment with the Holy Spirit. In his work On Pennance, Tertullian said that because baptism is so important, there can be no second repentance after baptism. Particularly could there be no forgiveness of what would later be called mortal sins—adultery, murder, apostasy. Since the lapsed had apostatized, the answer was clear: they could not be received back.

Tertullian’s strict position was based on an understanding of the church as the pure body and bride of Christ. The church stood separate, against the Empire.

Is the Church a Field with Tares?

Another view of the church led to a different understanding of penance and of how to treat the lapsed. Hermas, in The Shepherd (c. 150), had said there could be one repentance after baptism. Hermas even suggested that apostasy might be forgiven once. Callistus, the bishop of Rome from 217 to 222, apparently was willing to offer penance and forgiveness for adultery and murder (at least Hippolytus and Tertullian accused him of that).

But forgiveness was not easy. Penance was public and lasted a long time. No clergy who sinned were admitted again to their office. Origen, writing Against Celsus, describes the penitential system: “They admit [those who have sinned] some time later as though they had risen from the dead, provided that they show a real conversion, though their period of probation is longer than that required of those who are joining the community for the first time. But they do not select those who have fallen after their conversion to Christianity for any office or administration in the church of God.”

This more open approach to penitence saw the church as a body of sinners; tares grow along with the wheat.

A Bitter Focus

Yet these questions of purity and penance remained moot; for over 200 years, very few Christians committed adultery or murder, and only a few more apostatized.

But with the great persecutions under Decius (and 50 years later under the Tetrarchy), one could no longer talk about exceptions. The majority of Christians sacrificed (sacrificati) or obtained certificates to that effect (libellatici). The questions of penance and the nature of the church now became a bitter focus of the church’s life.

In Carthage, for example, there were at least 18 martyrs and 17 confessors. Bishop Cyprian had gone into hiding at the beginning of the persecution. From his exile he had tried to hold the church together. At the same time, the confessors were exerting what they considered to be their ancient right to forgive sins and were readmitting the lapsed without penitence.

Cyprian returned to Carthage in 251 to handle the crisis. A council at Carthage in June of that year decided that all should be admitted to penance, though not to the church. Those who had obtained a certificate (without having actually sacrificed) were to be readmitted after a penance varying in length in proportion to the amount of pressure they had endured. Those who had performed sacrifice were to be readmitted only at the point of death. Lapsed clergy could be readmitted to the church in the face of death, but they were removed permanently from office. The confessors had no power to readmit persons to the church; that power lay only with the bishop. The decision of the council was a great victory for Cyprian and for the long-standing tradition of penance and forgiveness for even post-baptismal sin. The view of the church as a mixed body had prevailed.

But such a stance did not win without conflict. With the martyrdom of Fabian (Fabianus), Rome had been left without a bishop. In 251 Cornelius was elected bishop of Rome and immediately offered penance to the lapsed. Novatian, one of the leading clergy in Rome, set himself up as head of a rival church and ordered that no forgiveness for the lapsed was possible. The conflict between Novatian and Cornelius was again a conflict between two views of the church. Novatian saw the church as a small group of the spiritually elite, in conflict with the world. Cornelius saw the church as a mixed people, one that had room for the elite but also for ordinary Christians. Ultimately, the traditional view prevailed, although the followers of Novatian remained a powerful force in the Roman church for years.

Responses in Five Regions

A similar crisis came later in the great persecution under the Tetrarchy (the reign of four rulers initiated by emperor Diocletian in 293). The church’s response varied widely, according to evidence from five regions of the Roman world.

Asia Minor: Here the church was more tolerant. The Synod of Ancyra (modern day Ankara, Turkey) said that lapsed clergy who came back to the church and suffered for the faith were allowed to keep their office but not to celebrate the sacrament. The laity could be readmitted after a period of three to five years of penance. Wounds in Asia Minor healed fairly quickly.

Rome: Struggle continued between the followers of Novatian and the followers of the bishops. Bishop Miltiades won, but the Novatianists elected Victor as a rival pope, and tension remained for another hundred years.

Egypt: Epiphanius’s Heresies tells the story of the struggle in an Egyptian prison between Bishop Peter of Alexandria and Meletius. Peter wanted a policy of leniency, for fear that the church might lose the lapsed completely. Meletius wanted severe punishment for any who lapsed, for fear that the church might lose its integrity.

Peter sent a letter to the churches saying that those who lapsed under severe pressure could be restored after forty days of fasting and penance. All who confessed were to be restored to fellowship within three years.

Yet Meletius and his followers argued that none could be restored until after the end of the persecution, and in no case could lapsed clergy resume their of rice. By the time of Peter’s martyrdom in 311, the Egyptian church had split.

North Africa: The most serious split over the status of the lapsed clergy came in Africa. There, the real issue was not so much the securing of certificates but the surrender of Scriptures. Donatist, for whom the Donahst opposition was named, took the crime of handing over the Scriptures (traditio) so seriously, he said that simply being in communion with one of the guilty was enough to make one equally guilty of traditio and thus an apostate. Donatus said that all sacraments given or received by a traditor were invalid. On this basis, the Donatists argued that the consecration of Bishop Caecilian of Carthage was invalid, because one of the consecrating bishops allegedly had been a traditor. The Donatists considered themselves the true church of the saints, making no compromise. This time there was no Cyprian at the head of the church, and the religious question, combined with political and economic ones, split the church.

The Donatist struggle forced the Latin church to more fully develop its theology of the unity of the church and to hold the sacraments as valid ex opere operato, that is, regardless of the moral character of the person administering them.

Two Visions of the Church

The struggle over whether to allow penance for apostates during the persecutions was, at the same fume, a struggle over two visions of the nature of the church. One saw the church as an elite body of the sanctified; the other saw the church as a mixed body of both the sanctified and those on the way.

The view of the church as a mixed body had the weight of pastoral care and forgiving love on its side, and it prevailed. But the call for sanctification continues to raise many of the same issues for the church in our day.

Dr. John 0. Gooch is editor of youth/adult curriculum for The United Methodist Publishing House in Nashville, Tennessee.