How persecution of the Early Church effected

How did the periods of persecution cause the church to think about the doctrines of salvation and the church?  That is, if a baptized believer succumbed to persecution and gave up his/her faith, did the church believe salvation was lost as a result?  Also, could the church include Christians who denied their faith?

During the early years of the church, there was wide spread persecution which led to the deaths of many Christians. Those who died were given the title and honor of being called Martyrs. The beginnings of the church while there was heavy persecution from the Jews saw relatively minor persecution from the state and even periods of relative peace. However, the emperors Decius and Valerian “declared war on the church with an effort at systematic oppression.”[1] While early on, many Christians had withstood the various persecution, this set of persecutions caused many Christians to stumble and deny their faith. What then is the church to do with those who lapsed and fell away during persecution? This was a huge problem for the church because there wasn’t clear information on how to welcome back a brother or sister who denied the faith. While Paul told the Galatians “if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted” (Gal 6:1).

In response to the crisis facing the church in Rome, Christianity once again spread, but the church leaders in Rome were being hunted down and this caused many Christians to flee to North Africa where a thriving church led by Cyprian of Carthage welcomed those who fled the persecution. Due to his position, he wrote several letters dealing directly with those who fell away from the faith as well as the division that the persecution caused. In regards to the Christians who would flee before they were even persecuted Cyprian tells them “You yourself have come to the altar an offering; you yourself have come a victim: there you have immolated your salvation, your hope; there you have burnt up your faith in those deadly fires.”[2] These men and women were essentially condemned, and some thought they could never be redeemed. There was much debate over these topics because some people questioned whether they could be let back in to the church, and was it different for someone who denied Christ with a sword to their throat compared to someone who denied Christ when they were rounding up Christians? All of this led to division in the Church and Cyprian tried to maintain the  “unity we ought firmly to hold and assert, especially those of us that are bishops who preside in the Church, that we may also prove the episcopate itself to be one and undivided.”[3] While this is something the early church did try to do, following the Great Schism and then the protestant reformation, it has become increasingly popular to not worry about church unity but rather to allow for splits more frequently.

[1] Ferguson, Everett. Church History: Volume One from Christ to Pre-Reformation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 2005) 161

[2] Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Caius, Novatian, Appendix. (accessed January 31, 2013.

[3] Christian Classics Ethereal Library. ANF05. Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Caius, Novatian, Appendix. (accessed January 31, 2013).

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