Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Early Church II-2: The Lapsed and the Problem of the Martyrs

If you haven't read section 1 you may find it here:

II-1: The Martyrs
II-3: Bishops and Succession
II-4: The Rule of Faith
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The 'Martyrdom of Polycarp' is a powerful example of how Christians regarded martyrs and the practices that surrounded those who were martyred. We'll recall what was said of blessed Polycarp:
“Of the elect the most wonderful Polycarp was certainly one—an apostolic and prophetic teacher in our times, and a bishop of the Catholic Church at Smyrna” (sec. 16).

How, then, could problems arise from such courageous and promising examples of our faith? Justin Martyr said of martyrdom, “He who denies anything [of our Catholic faith], either denies it because he has condemned it, or shrinks from confessing it, because he knows himself to be unworthy of and alien to it; neither of which is that of a true Christian” (2nd Apology, sec. 2).

Herein lies our problem: it was the case that many on account of fear, coercion, and violence fled from the Church, fled from persecution, or renounced the faith. These men and women became known as the “lapsed” for they did not proclaim Christ in times of trial. When persecutions died down they, on account of love of Christ sought to return but were in many places rejected. You can understand the zeal of those who stood before the flames of persecution: they and their loved ones died and were disfigured for the One they loved. Those who were scattered, some out of cowardice, sought to share in the same Eucharist again.
Martyrdom is difficult to witness and accept in all ages. Not all are prepared at this moment to accept Christ's life even unto death. Some were and became glorious examples as a result. Here is one depiction of the martyrdom of Paul Miki and companions, Japan 1597.

There were many disputes, as a result, of what to do. Some admitted these 'lapsed Catholics' back into the Church, but only after a lengthy period of penitence which included fasting, intense prayer, moral scrutinies, and being kept from the Eucharist for a period of time, sometimes 7 years or until they were on their deathbed. Others, harsher still, said that all men have only one chance—to deny Christ is to permanently cast one out from His presence.

Those who had witnessed many cruel martyrdoms were intolerant with those who wished to return. Bishops and believers in many churches held such a stance because of (1) the high esteem they held the martyrs in and (2) the lesson of the martyrs was that it was better to choose death than life. Those who ran, they believed, chose 'life' and thus forfeited it.

The zeal of the martyrs was well-founded, but the devil—ever the deceiver—seeks to use even our zeal and courage to cause division. The martyrs and their followers wanted to protect the Church from those who would perhaps again apostatize and give the others into slavery and death. A martyr, it should be stated, does not seek death but rather accepts it when it comes to him. Of of the great phrases describing saints and martyrs in found in Revelations: “Love of life did not deter them from death” (Rev 12:1). Those who were confessors, ones who survived torture, could be strict in regards to the lapsed. It was backed by the scars, dismemberment, and disfigurement they wore. Likewise, many sought them for spiritual courage and advice.
Satan does not deceive us by revealing what is evil, he uses our love of what is good and turns it against us. C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters is a good allegory/reflection of that.
"Satan Exulting Over Eve" by William Blake, c. 1795.

The bishops, some sympathetic and others not, had to decide how to deal with these Catholics who had fallen away. Cyprian, in his work “On the Unity of the Church,” claimed that those martyred outside the Church had no merit and that even confessors could be subject to error and sin. While his words, to numerous to write here, may seem harsh his message is a sound one: even those of us who have proven ourselves courageous in faith and steadfast in truth are subject to error. Zeal for the faith is a trust in what that faith teaches, but there are times when that trust becomes not a trust in faith but a trust in ourselves.

An additional lesson is that experience is valuable, but not infallible. Those who are experts in patience are not necessarily experts in teaching patience through their words. God has given certain gifts to each of us, but we must be on guard that this gift does not become a source of pride. Likewise, each gift must be attended by humility and obedience. Bishops and priests had been given the gift, that is the grace, of leadership and governance. It does not mean they are without error, but it does mean that division is the direct result of those who outright deny the priest or bishop. Priests and bishops are, in turn, accountable to those whom they serve as well as the counsel and concord of their brother presbyters and the whole Church.

We should, however, look with sympathy upon the martyrs just as we look with understanding upon those who fled. The decision of the pope (Stephen at this time, 256 AD) was that the Lapsed were to be readmitted as penitents in the Church.

One thing, among many, was made clear: In this period the Church had “to deal with the all-too-human phenomenon of failure” (Sommer 248). Even the lapsed felt guilt and shame for their former renunciations. The order of the bishops—many bishops disagreed and dissented all the same—was that they be readmitted, albeit slowly. It's possible that they took their cue from the Apostles who scattered when Christ was struck down. Peter himself denied Christ three times and afterward wept bitterly. His sorrow, and his restoration by Christ, in turn made him a powerful advocate for the faith. This was the hope of the bishops and others who sought reconciliation: that the Lapsed might become even stronger in their faith by means of forgiveness, penance, and instruction—we can see the seeds of the sacrament of confession arise from this situation.
It was through forgiveness that Peter was restored to Christ and it was because of this Peter was prepared to give his entire person to Christ. An important lesson for us when we fail, and especially when others fail.

We see that God works in all things, that even the zeal of the martyrs and scandal (for some) of the Lapsed produced a conflict that would force the Church and her leaders to consider more carefully the extent and character of her forgiveness and unity. Truly, it reaffirms that God uses all of our affections and triumphs to draw us closer to him, despite the trials we and every generation must undergo.


We have observed that “there arose no little dissension and debate” (Acts 15:3) on the issues mentioned above. Dissension arose among the lay faithful, priests, and bishops alike. People's lives and souls were at stake, but at the same time the Church emphasized proper teaching and took her faith seriously. How did the Church address such problems? Moreover, how did the Church maintain unity of churches and thought? It all stems from our notion of “Tradition” (mentioned in part I) which comes from Apostolic succession. What developed in response to this and many other conflicts was the “Rule of Truth,” which we'll explore in the next section.