Who Are “the Lapsed” and Why Do They Matter?
Tony Cooke

In the early centuries of the church, those who denied their faith in times of persecution were said to have “lapsed.” Those who persevered in their faith and refused to recant or to compromise were called “confessors.” In other words, they truly held fast the confession of their faith despite imprisonment and torture, sometimes unto death.

This contrast between the “confessors” and the “lapsed” manifested strongly in the first empire-wide persecution against the church that was launched by the Roman Emperor Decius in AD 250. All citizens of the empire were required to offer a sacrifice to the gods in the presence of a government official. Those who did so were given certificates of compliance. Those who refused could suffer greatly, even to the point of death.

Prior to this, the church had experienced a generation of relative calm, and many were unprepared for this challenge. Some Christians promptly and voluntarily complied—confessing that “Caesar is Lord” and paying homage to the Roman gods—in order to receive the certificate. Others paid bribes to obtain credentials which falsely indicated they had made the necessary offerings to the Roman gods. Still others denied Christ when threatened or tortured and obtained the necessary document from the government.

The Church has long celebrated its martyrs. This includes those who “loved not their lives unto the death” (Revelation 12:11) and those John saw in his heavenly vision: “the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held” (Revelation 6:9). Jesus himself spoke to the church at Pergamum of “the days in which Antipas, my faithful martyr… was killed among you” (Revelation 2:13). Tertullian (AD 160-220) spoke of the resilience and tenacity of believers when he declared, “The more often we are mowed down by persecutors, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”

We are strengthened and inspired by the valor, courage, and grace that enabled countless believers throughout history to hold on to their faith in the midst of horrific pressures and persecution. However, realistically and historically, many Christians did not hold up well under threats. As a pastor, you understand that people are always at different levels of maturity, and while some stand strong, others falter.

If we think that 100% of the early Christians had absolute spiritual resolve and iron-clad convictions, it is very easy to feel disheartened about today’s Christians who fail to exhibit the unwavering devotion of the early confessors. We want to see every Christian possessing “faithful unto death” type of consecration and commitment, but during the Decian era, perhaps as many as three-fourths of some congregations “lapsed” when persecution, or the threat of persecution, presented itself.

When this persecution subsided, many Christians (especially leaders[1]) had been killed and many others had undergone severe torture. Many of those who had “lapsed” sought readmission to the churches, and the reactions were very mixed. Some of those who had remained faithful were very staunch in their view that those who had renounced their faith should not be accepted back into the church. Those holding this stricter view would have certainly remembered Jesus’ words, “Whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33).

Many felt this approach was too harsh, and it was Cyprian, a Bishop in northern Africa, whose approach ended up becoming the dominant course. Bruce Shelley writes:

Leniency, he [Cyprian] said, should be extended to those who had sacrificed only after excruciating torture and who well might plead that their bodies, not their spirits, had given way. Those, however, who had gone willingly to make sacrifices must receive the severest punishment. His argument won general approval, so to deal with these degrees of guilt, the church created a graded system of penance. Only after varied periods of sorrow for sin (penance) were the sinners allowed to return to the Lord’s Supper. The bishop extended forgiveness to the fallen, provided they proved their sorrow by coming before the congregation in sackcloth and with ashes on their heads. After this confession and act of humility the bishop laid his hands upon the penitent as a symbol of restoration to the church.[2]

Not every pastor or church embraced this view, and some refused to re-admit the lapsed while others felt there should be no restrictions (or penance) required of those coming back. Shelley notes that the stricter view “considered the church as a society of saints” whereas the more lenient views “saw the church as a school for sinners.”[3] Those advocating the most gracious view would have been mindful of Jesus restoring Peter (John 21:15-19) after Peter had denied knowing Jesus.

What I have written is a simplistic overview of a complex topic, and many intricacies related to this subject are more detailed than what this brief article allows. Today, church leaders are regularly faced with decisions about when and how to exercise discipline, as well as when and how to restore people who have fallen. We should also ask, “Are there different elements involved when offering forgiveness and restoration to fellowship, as opposed to the trust issues involved in restoring a person to a place of leadership?”

My prayer for all of us is, first of all, that we can have the kind of faith that caused many early Christians to love Jesus more than life itself, and that we can help build that kind of unwavering, tenacious faith into others. Second, I pray that we will have wisdom and grace expressing the kind of gracious and restoring attitude toward erring brothers and sisters that would be consistent with God’s heart and will.

[1] The Bishops of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Rome were martyred during the Decian persecution.
[2] Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), Kindle edition, 76.
[3] Ibid.