The Lapsi

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?

One Response to “The Lapsi”

  1. Dee Andrews Says:

    Wow – you’re asking some tough questions this morning, John!

    And I don’t know that I have the right answers or am even sure what the “right” answers are.

    I just took the time to read the CNN article and am not sure that I agree with (fully, anyway) any of the positions expressed there on either/any of the “sides” presented. I thought just about all of those expressing opinions were somewhat “bigoted,” as well. (Boy, am I trying to cover all the bases here, or what, does it sound like to you? I don’t know – I guess I just find the issues presented in the CNN article to be quite different than what the early Christians faced as far as persecution and for different reasons. Your thoughts? So, I think I’ll stick to what you wrote here in your article, what Dionysius wrote and try to sort through my own thinking on these matters to answer your questions.)

    I think that being afraid of the threat of bodily harm, either to ourselves or our families, is quite different than being made fun of or being called a bigot. As for Dionysius, he sounds too harsh to me, or maybe just someone who had not personally faced such threats. I mean – all of these questions suppose a “what if” and those are always difficult to address. I would like to think that I would be able to stand strong in faith in the face of bodily persecution, but I really have no idea how I might react, so would hope that God would forgive me for my “lapse” in the face of torture or such.

    I think Dionysius should have been more forgiving, yes. When I stop to consider how judgmental and unforgiving of others I was myself for way too long, due to “indoctrination,” probably as much as deep conviction, I am appalled with myself. In most ways, it was only after I faced some of the same problems in life and really extremely difficult circumstances that I learned not to be (so) judgmental. I cannot, of course, say that I am not judgmental at all, as that would not be true.

    As for today, as Christians – yes, I think we are too soft. Yes! And, I do think that we should expect more from other Christians today, when the only “torment” is being made fun of or being called a bigot. Although, here let me say that I am NOT talking about the issues being addressed in the CNN article. I’m talking about standing firm in our convictions that Jesus is Lord over us and that it is only through our faith, trust and obedience in Him that we shall be saved, by grace.

    That may include speaking up and speaking out – but I don’t know that “shouting out” on matters such as were portrayed in the CNN article is the “right” thing to do, and perhaps may cause way more harm than good for Christians trying to live out their lives and reach the lost around them, in whatever ways that might be.

    I tend to be more personal in my work with others and do not see the need in my own life to be brazenly bold about any matter of faith. Does that make ME too soft? I’m not sure. What do YOU think, John?

    I DO think that there may come a time in the not too distant future when Christians in this country – America – WILL be persecuted and threatened in all manners of ways from monetarily to emotionally to economically to even bodily harm. I really believe that is coming here, if the world continues, maybe even in the lives of our own children. As pessimistic as that may sound. I’m just trying to be a “realist” about this world, knowing full well that Christians are being persecuted all around the world daily, as I write this. There has been a lot of interest in the news about a young Christian husband and father who is now being held in solitary confinement and beaten and more in Iran because of his conversion from being a Muslim to becoming a Christian.

    This has gone on too long – as usual with me – but I think these questions you ask are really important for us all to think about with an attempt to get them straight in our minds as Christians. In fact, I’m going to share this article with all of my friends on Facebook!

    Thank you, John. As always! Dee