Note on sources: My discussion makes use of the following resources: With reference to the history, I’ll largely be following the first volume of Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, and for the theology I’ll be following the discussion in Everett Fergusson’s Baptism in the Early Church.
In the late 3rd century CE, Christians were starting to get a bit soft. Christianity was not yet what you would call legal, and it certainly wasn’t yet the official religion of the Roman Empire, but it was generally tolerated. Local persecutions would break out from time to time as mobs got angry about something or another, but there was little systematic, imperial pressure applied. At least, that is, until Decius took the purple in 249.
Decius inherited a bad situation: there was an economic downturn underway, and barbarians threatened the empire’s borders. It wasn’t that Decius was particularly cruel. He just happened to be a traditionalist who concluded that the ills facing the empire were brought on by a lack of consideration for Rome’s ancient traditions, both cultural and religious. One can’t help but make comparisons to some of the less reflective and more vindictive of Christianity’s self-appointed PR representatives in the wake of 9/11.
However, rather than pushing the gospel of return to traditional familial models, as have these contemporary figures, Decius decreed that all Roman subjects had to worship the traditional Roman gods. Those who complied were given a certificate documenting their loyalty, some of which have survived the sands of time, and the incompliant were reduced to outlaw status. Christians were just one group, even if maybe the largest, that had to determine how to respond.
As I said, the church had gotten soft. They were not ready to deal with this systematic imperial program. Making things even trickier for the church was that Decius did not want to kill Christians and make martyrs. He wanted to make apostates. So, when Christians refused to make the required sacrifices, they were arrested and much effort was made through threats, promises, torture, etc., to convince them to make the sacrifices. However, they were only very rarely killed. This created a new category of Christian: the “confessors.” Like martyrs, they had withstood a difficult test of faith; unlike martyrs, they did not die as a result.
Many Christians failed this test to varying degrees. Some of them immediately capitulated to the imperial demands and became apostates, some of them capitulated under duress, some of them acquired forged certificates of compliance with Decius’ decree, some of them capitulated but repented of their capitulation before the persecution had ended and so faced consequences. The persecution only lasted a few years, and when it was over the church was left with a problem: what were they to do with those members who had apostatized when they wanted to return to the church? Given the various ways in which members of the church avoided persecution, there could be no one-size-fits-all answer.
Then the confessors got involved. They began weighing in on who should and should not be allowed back into the church, or on what penance should be required of them. Moreover, in some cases they did so in opposition to decisions made by the church’s duly appointed hierarchy. That was a problem. In the next installment, we’ll see how Cyprian addresses it.