Throughout history it is puzzling to see the church change its doctrine from one generation to the next. How does this happen? If the Bible clearly states a truth and the church believes the truth, how then does the church’s doctrine change?
I. The Effects of Persecution
During the 2nd & 3rd century, the persecution of the church by the Roman government was gaining speed. Though there were brief respites such as from 211-250, the vast majority of these years produced the blood of millions of martyrs. Imagine the fear of a roman sword at your throat. Imagine the feeling of entering an arena, being stripped naked, then being attacked by wild beasts. The threat was not imagined for the church. It was very real. In A.D. 246, a wealthy, well-educated man of Carthage was led to faith in Christ by a leader of the Carthage church – his name was Cyprian. Within two years, he was made Bishop of the entire church. Another two years later, the persecutions erupted forcing Cyprian to flee his post. While he was gone, many Christians were brought before officials and threatened by death if they were unwilling to deny Christ and sacrifice to false gods. Many faithful Christians died because they refused to deny the one who saved their souls. Yet, there were the Lapsi, who denied the faith and were saved from immediate death, who were returned to their homes and places of business unharmed.
II. Denier Be Damned
These traitors to the Christian faith were ridiculed by those who lost loved ones, family, and friends that were unwilling to deny the faith. Naturally, these deniers were socially ostracized and excommunicated from the church. Yet, Christians are a forgiving folk, and the leaders of the church that remained, began to welcome back into the fold those who had denied the faith in the face of certain death. Cyprian, the novice, was enraged and demanded that the deniers be kicked out of the churches, and never allowed to return. This led to a major church split, a schism that divided all of the churches in the city. Upon the death of Decius the Emperor, Cyprian returned to his city, regained control of the churches and excommunicated those who opposed him. It was during this time that church membership was confused with eternal salvation. It was supposed that if one was excommunicated from the church that their eternal soul may be at stake. Some truly believed that if you were to deny the faith, be you would excommunicated and damned to hell for being outside of church fellowship.
III. Doctrine Forever Tinged
Though Cyprian eventually promoted a moderate view in his On the Lapsed, which taught that deniers should neither be eternally excommunicated nor fully restored, the doctrine of the church would never be the same. Creeping in like a cancer, came the false notion that a person’s eternal destiny is related to their church membership and that if the church determined to excommunicate, your eternal soul could be in danger. This false doctrine can still be found in the Roman Catholic Church today.
In short, difficult times in a church can lead a church to change it’s doctrinal position slightly and thereby have unintended consequences for many years to come.