The persecution of the church under Roman Emperor Decius in AD250 was vicious and far reaching, throughout the entire empire. The church was to be obliterated. Local magistrates were ordered to obtain the renunciation of faith of all Christians. Those obeying were given certificates as proof; those refusing were tortured; many were put to death, including many prominent leaders of the church. Others obtained false certificate to escape torture. Many fled to the countryside for safety. Hundreds of thousands throughout the empire renounced their faith in the face of violent persecution.
Upon the cessation of terror, the question of what to do with multitudes of lapsed Christians faced the church. Many of those who faithfully endured torture entreated church authorities to readmit into fellowship those who had succumbed. The general view of church leadership was that any lapsed Christian could be received back into, at the least, limited fellowship upon evidence of genuine repentance. Such was the view of the newly elected bishop of Rome, Cornelius, who favored liberal forgiveness.
A prominent elder of the church in Rome, Novation, strongly resisted the inclusion of lapsed Christians back into the church on the basis of Hebrews 6:4-6: “It is impossible for those who were once enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift….if they shall fall away, to renew them again to repentance.” Novation did not deny the possibility of God pardoning a truly penitent person; his doctrine was that the church did not have the power to receive sinners into its communion since they had no other way of remitting sins except by baptism, which received once could not be repeated.
Novation denounced Cornelius as being too liberal; he withdrew himself from the “polluted” church. Cornelius quickly called a council of the church that excommunicated Novation.
Novation was quick to organize the “faithful” that withdrew with him into an opposition church.
These new churches and members were called cathari (the pure ones) or puritans. Throughout the empire schism caused opposition churches to be organized in many cities. Those catholic Christians seeking to join these puritan churches had to submit to rebaptism, since the perceived corruptness of the prevailing church invalidated their previous baptism. Throughout vast areas of the empire, Novationist churches existed side by side with the catholic churches, each rejecting the other’s validity, yet each embracing the same central tenants of the apostolic faith.
Never before had the Christians in a city been divided on a basis other than locality. The previous two hundred years did not witness the interjection of a competing or separate church organization within a city area. Novation, in his attempt to create a purer church, laid the ax to a united church. His crime was not heresy, but schism. Pandora’s box was opened and remains open to this day.
So fully have the methods of Novation been accepted, that our predispositions, unless changed, preclude the impossibility of genuine local unity and building together. We presuppose that it was like this from the beginning. God, forgive us, your church, for the sin of schism as we seek to build upon our own incomplete patterns and emphases.
This article was originally published in 1985 in Discerning Times a publication of Destiny Image Publications