Lethal Persecution and Theology in the Early Church
Tragically, the subject of religious persecution and martyrdom has become all too relevant for the modern Christian. As I have watched in absolute shock and horror the atrocities performed by ISIS, I have solemnly contemplated the following questions: If forced to either deny my faith or be executed, how would I react? If I denied my faith and was allowed to live, how would that affect my salvation? Would the Church ever take me back? Could it? Likewise, the periods of persecution under the yoke of Roman rule caused the early church to think about the doctrines of salvation and the church in the following ways.
There were two opposing schools of thought. Simply put, if a Christian denied their faith under persecution, either you believed they were still able to be saved or that they were forever condemned to be damned.
The first extreme believed that if a baptized believer succumbed to persecution and gave up their faith, then that person’s salvation was void. This faction was known as the “rigorists.” Which (I’m certain I am not the only person who thought) sounds awfully close to rigor mortis. Rigorists would “teach the seriousness of sin and strengthen the faithful to confess during any renewal of persecution.” This extreme, of course, was too unyielding allowing no room for God’s grace and mercy.
The other extreme believed if one denied their faith, but was penitent, that the apostate could be returned to full communion immediately. This faction was known as the “laxists.” Which (I’m certain I am not the only person who thought) sounds awfully close to lackadaisical. Laxists would “restore the numbers of the church and strengthen the fallen in the face of further temptation.” This extreme, of course, was too apathetic allowing no room for accountability and responsibility.
The obvious question is: Could the Church include Christians who denied their faith? Early Church leader, Cyprian solved the dilemma by recommending a third, less polarizing solution. He suggested a middle of the road approach that treated each instance on its own. He “made distinctions according to the gravity of the transgression.” Therefore, the Church would offer the needed steps required to re-instate Christians who had succumbed to persecution on a case by case basis. I’m sure Cyprian’s neutral proposal gave hope to those in a perilous situation and instilled strength to the weak. His solution was more compassionate and therefore, more Christlike.
As Christians are being ruthlessly executed for their faith all over the globe, let us remember that God is sovereign and that He takes care of His children. I pray that none of us are ever put in a situation where our lives are threatened. However, if we are, I pray for strength that can only come from Jesus.
 Everett Ferguson, Church History Volume 1: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 164.
Ferguson, Everett. Church History Volume 1: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation. 2 ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.
Submitted to Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the completion of the course CCHI 520: History of Christianity.