The persecutions by Decius and Valerian, as well as the peaceful times which preceded and followed, brought a great interior crisis to the Christian Church in the third century. The question arose about how to care for the “lapsed”—Christians who had denied Christ under the threat of torture and execution, but who afterwards wanted to return to the Church. This sin of apostasy, as well as the sins of murder and adultery, were considered the three most heinous sins, and many in the Church thought that it was entirely inappropriate, if not downright impossible, for the Church, as the pure Bride of Christ, to offer the possibility of repentance and forgiveness for such sins. Hence, they felt that such sinners must endure lifelong excommunication.
Gradually, however, through the first half of the third century, most of the bishops were realizing that as the Body of Christ, the All-Merciful One Who came “not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Mt 9.13), the Church must allow for the possibility of heartfelt repentance for even the worst of sins. They were careful to stipulate, though, that such repentance must be worked out through a lengthy period of penitence, after which absolution and restoration to Eucharistic communion would be given through the proper channels under the authority of the bishops.
Many rigorists in the Church, however, refused to accept this pastoral decision. They preferred a concept of the Church as “the society of the pure” rather than as “the hospital for sinners.” One such figure was the illustrious Carthaginian theologian and Apologist, Tertullian (c. 160–c. 220), known as “the Father of Latin theology” for his prolific, insightful writings on many topics. But he always had rigorist tendencies. This made him susceptible to the claims of the Montanists, whom he joined in about 205, despite their having been officially condemned by several Church councils. Very sadly, he died outside the Church.
Another rigorist who objected to the Church offering the possibility of repentance for the worst sins was Hippolytus (c. 170–c. 235), a leading priest and theologian in Rome. He felt strongly that Bishop Zephyrinus (r. 198–217) of Rome and his successor Bishop Callistus (r. 217–222) were too “soft on sin” since they held a more lenient view.
Hippolytus also accused these two of being too “soft on heresy,” as they were slow to condemn the teaching of Sabellius, another priest in Rome. Sabellius taught that “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” were just three different names for God, rather than being the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. As a result, in 217 Hippolytus refused to recognize the newly elected Callistus as the legitimate bishop of Rome and started his own church. Thus he became the first of over twenty different anti-popes in the history of the Roman Church.
But as it happened, some time after 230, both Hippolytus and Bishop Pontianus (r. 230–235) of Rome, during a brief period of persecution, were sent to the mines in Sardinia, where they were reconciled before their deaths. This is what made it possible for Hippolytus to be recognized as Saint Hippolytus.
After the Decian Persecution, a new rigorist sect arose in opposition to the Church’s policy of offering repentance to those who had lapsed and denied Christ during that period of persecution. This was Novatianism, founded by Novatian, a leading priest of Rome who led his followers into schism upon refusing to accept the authority of the newly elected Bishop Cornelius (r. 251–253), who favored mercy towards the lapsed if they were sincerely repentant. The virulent sect of Novatianism spread quickly through the Empire; it was still in existence in the 5th century.
The greatest defender of the Catholic Church at this time was Saint Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (c. 200–258), who strenuously opposed the so-called “pure Church” of the Novatianists—and especially the divisiveness of that movement. Although a great reader of Tertullian (most of whose works were written before he became a Montanist), Saint Cyprian defended the Catholic Church, with Her unbroken apostolic succession of bishops, against the newly formed spiritualistic “churches” of the rigorists, or maximalists. He stated in one of his most famous works, entitled On the Unity of the Church, which he wrote to prevent schism occurring in his own church:
Does he who does not hold this unity of the Church think that he holds the Faith? Does he who strives against and resists the Church trust that he is in the Church, when moreover the blessed Apostle Paul teaches the same thing, and sets forth the sacrament of unity, saying, ‘There is one body and one spirit, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God’ [Eph 4.4]?
And this unity we ought firmly to hold and assert, especially those of us who are bishops, who preside in the Church, that we may also prove the episcopacy itself to be one and undivided. . . . The episcopacy is one, each part of which is held wholly by each one. The Church also is one. . . .
Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father who does not have the Church for his mother (On the Unity of the Church 4–6).
Saint Cyprian also strongly resisted the second attempt by a bishop of Rome to dictate to a Church beyond her territory. This occurred when Bishop Stephen I (r. 254–257) tried to force the Church of Carthage to receive converts from schismatic or heretical Christian groups by anointing with oil, or even just by a statement of faith, rather than by baptism, as long as the heretical baptism had been done with the proper form. Cyprian, taking a more rigorist stance on this issue, insisted that any sacraments done by those outside the canonical Church have no validity whatsoever; as he said, “How can he who does not have the Spirit impart the Spirit?”
While the Church through the centuries has generally taken Stephen’s approach on this difficult issue, Cyprian was certainly right in resisting Rome’s pretension to have authority over the Church of Carthage. As he said concerning such jurisdictional matters, “None of us claims to be a bishop of bishops or resorts to tyranny to obtain the consent of his brethren. Each bishop in the fullness of his freedom and his authority retains the right to think for himself; he is not subject to any other and he does not judge others.” And as in the time of Bishop Victor’s attempt to force the Quartodecimans to accept Roman practice, strong protests were raised by bishops from across the Empire against Bishop Stephen’s imperious attitude.