Yesterday I read an article on CNN about how some Christians now are afraid to speak about their beliefs — afraid of being branded bigots or hate-mongers for their views on things like homosexuality or same-sex marriage. They still hold these beliefs, they are just reluctant to state them out loud in public. You can read the article by clicking here.
It got me thinking about a category of people in the early portions of Church History. They were known as “the lapsi” — believers who, under the pressure of persecution, lapsed or recanted their faith in Jesus.
Now, when I say “persecution” here, I mean actual persecution. Christians were being rounded up and forced to kneel before the Roman Emperor. They were required to say, “Caesar is lord.” If they did not, they might be beaten with rods or have stones hurled at them. They might even be torn to shreds by wild animals. They could be killed.
Some chose that fate. Some ran towards death and embraced it with a strange sort of joy. These were called the martyrs. Others bore up under the assaults and survived with the scars to prove themselves. These were called the confessors.
The Church had no problem with martyrs and confessors. They were heroes, and their stories were told over and over to give strength and encouragement to those who maintained their faith. The lapsi, however, posed a problem. How were you to treat one who renounced their faith? Should you welcome them back into your gatherings? They were unsure.
Dionysius of Alexandria wrote a letter to Fabius, Bishop of Antioch, about this in the middle of the third century:
Immediately, the news spread abroad. The rule that had been more kind to us was changing; now the fear of threatened punishment hung over us. What is more, the edict arrived; it was almost like that which the Lord predicted. It was most terrible so as to cause, if possible, even the elect to stumble. All cowered with fear. A number of the more eminent persons came forward immediately through fear. Others, because of their business and public positions, were compelled to come forward. Others were dragged forward by those around them. Each of those were called forward by name. They approached the impure and unholy sacrifices, some pale and trembling, as if they were themselves the sacrifices and victims to the idols. The large crowd that stood around heaped mockery upon them. It was evident that they were by nature cowards in everything — cowards both to die and to sacrifice. Others, however, ran eagerly toward the altars, affirming by their forwardness that they had never been Christians. For these, the Lord truly predicted that they shall hardly be saved.
So, here’s my question: does Dionysius sound too harsh? Should he have been more forgiving of those who recanted under threat of bodily harm? Or are we too soft? Should we expect more from people today when the worst thing that can happen is you might get made fun of or called a bigot?