Christians had been persecuted in the Roman Empire since the Apostles, but the persecution under Emperors Decius and Valerian was more widespread and severe than before. Simply for bearing the name of Jesus, Christians faced loss of position, confiscation of property, rejection by pagan family members, and even death. Many Christians stood strong in the faith, but many lost their courage under the pressure, denied Christ, and even sacrificed to idols. The Plague of Cyprian, most likely caused by smallpox, created further suffering and confusion. After the death of Decius in 251 the persecution slackened and people who denied Christ expected to be restored to fellowship.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is truly the Pearl of Great Price. Nothing in the universe is as valuable as what the Lord has given those who love Him. People who denied Christ under threat of persecution, and Cyprian suggested that many rushed to deny Him, even without being personally confronted, showed painful contempt for the treasure bought at the highest price, His blood. Their sin was great, and they should not have been easily restored to the church.
On the other hand, Jesus on the cross interceded for those who were crucifying Him, saying “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” Jesus asked forgiveness for the perpetrators of the greatest crime in human history. With such an example, how could His followers deny restoration to a truly repentant man, regardless of what they had done?
Unlike man, the Lord knows the heart. The challenge before us is to know the Lord so well that He reveals to us the heart of each man. Person by person, He will reveal, in accordance with His word, what His people should do.
The main question was whether apostates lost their salvation and when, if ever, they could be restored to communion at the church. Salvation was lost, because it was essentially impossible to be saved without being in communion with the church. As Cyprian said “A person cannot have God as his father who does not have the church as his mother.” There were three positions regarding this question
1. Laxism – apostate Christians could return to full communion in the church immediately.
2. Rigorism (Novatian) – apostate Christians could never be restored to full communion in the church.
3. Cyprian’s middle course
a. Apostate Christians who sacrificed to idols would not be reconciled to the church until the moment of death.
b. Apostate Christians who got a certificate of sacrifice but didn’t actually do it could be reconciled after a long time period.
c. Apostate Christians who thought of denying Christ but didn’t actually deny Him could confess to the bishop and then be reconciled.
Cyprian harshly condemned the apostates, writing “How can they follow Christ, who are held back by the chain of their wealth? They are bond slaves of their money.” (Treatise 3, On the Lapsed). Despite his contempt, he saw the need to devise a way to appropriately bring them back into fellowship while not minimizing the seriousness of their crime.
That this issue divided the church is obvious. Many of those in the congregation whose loved ones died for their faith probably detested even the sight of the smug apostates and could not bear to worship with them. Still, the unity of the church was vital, and Cyprian’s plan to reconcile the apostates would help preserve unity. He wrote “Christ gave us peace; He bade us be in agreement, and of one mind.” (Treatise 1, On the Unity of the Church). As Jesus prayed in John 17, Cyprian highly valued unity in His church.