The Persecuted Lapsed in Faith

Preparing Christians for the tough times of persecution through historical accounting of those who lost faith during the most important trial of their lives.


Kathy L. McFarland

October 8, 2013

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            Persecution most likely will come against strong, witnessing Christians in their lifetime; it is the inevitable consequence in declaring Jesus Christ Lord and Savior in the midst of a profane world that hates God (John 15:18-27).[1] Sadly, when persecution begins, Christians are often separated from other Believers in both physical and spiritual ways, creating impossible situations that bring confusion, feelings of hopelessness, and potential loss of faith as the persecuted adapts to the unfolding personalized attack. Records of those persecuted during the time of the early church contain valuable insight into the plight of arrested Christians, including those whose lapsed faith leads to the denial of the Lord Jesus Christ. Historically, those who buckle under torturous persecution deny Christ and repudiate their faith by publically worshipping false gods place a tremendous pressure on the early Christian Church and cause great shame, pain, rejection, exclusion, and confusion among Believers. Present-day Christians must be aware of the chasms created by the lapsed in faith in the early days of belief and consider the efforts of the early church to address the tremendous problems caused by those who betray Christ, if they are to effectively prepare for persecution that might one day come to them.

Persecution norms of the Roman government

            Persecutions of Christians by Nero AD 64-68 were brief, large-scale executions of Christians to divert suspicions that Nero started the fire that leads to persecution and death of many Christians including Apostles Peter and Paul. Tacitus recorded Nero’s barbaric pogrom that speared Christian scapegoats upon stakes in his garden to light with fire the path, with their last breaths of life torching the fire hotter. Other Christians are torn to shreds by wild dogs as the audience of creepy people passes all understanding of the ways of the brutally wicked.[2] Persecution of Christians became more frequent after this and Christianity is made illegal in the Roman realm.[3]

          Roman Governor Gaius Plinius Luci, also known as Pliny the Younger, writes letters concerning the troublesome religious sect of Christians to Emperor Trajan, seeking his guidance in how they should be punished, should they fail to heed his directives to stop their worship of their God.  Trajan cautions him to proceed carefully and avoid hunting them down, and to only bring his judgment against those who are brought before him with charges against them.  Then they are to be punished only if they refuse to deny Christ.[4] However, if they deny their Christian faith and offer the sacrifices to the false gods of the state, they should be pardoned.[5]

          This exchange of letters expressing the rules of the bureaucratic Roman government between the governor and emperor represent the first surviving Roman discussions of the problems with Christians.[6] Pliny’s judiciary posture concerning Christians is clearly stated in his Epistle 97.2-3:[7] 

          For the moment this is the line I have taken with all persons brought before me on the charge of being Christians.  I have asked them in person if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and a third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them.  If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution.[8]

          Frankly, the threats of death to Believers who are confident of their resurrection and eternal life seldom causes fears that lead to apostasies,[9] a fact quickly learned by Pliny. When two deaconesses are brought before Governor Pliny, and they testify that their guilt is merely chanting verse in honor of Christ, and binding themselves to oaths that cause them to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery, [10] Pliny alters his tactics. He decides to brutally torture the two deaconesses, whom he believes were in leadership roles of the Christian Church, to force a more succinct confession or absolute denial to their faith, rather than the simplified version of innocent and simple worship of their God that many of the arrested Christians have spoken before them in defense of their faith. The fate of the women is not known fully, but their testimony that follows the possible scourging, laceration with hooks, and burning is recorded in Pliny’s Epistle 96.6-7[11] as persisting in faith in an unshakable obstinacy and stubbornness which should be punished by execution.[12]

            Sadly, many Christians succumbed to the horrendous torture which exacted a denial of Christ from their lips. Pliny writes Trajan:[13]

          Others, whose names were given to me by an informer, first admitted the charge and then denied it; they said that they had ceased to be Christians two or more years previously and some of them even twenty years ago.  They all did reverence to your statue and the images of the gods in the same way as the others, and reviled the name of Christ.[14]

          Present-day Christians should take heed to the weakness of flesh in these persecuted Christians, and consider the cause of their weakness that leads them to deny Christ.

Persecutions are historically and Biblically predictable

          The devil becomes angry at the moment the Word of God appears, and he takes measures to stir up “endless sects and offenses, persecution and slaughter,”[15] to prevent it from reaching the ears of those who are graced by God to hear. Satan plants lies that are spoken by false teachers, and he murders Believers through tyrants that are given extra wicked power by him to destroy God’s people.[16]

          Martin Luther’s grasp on the predictability of persecution is profoundly stated:

'Therefore let us learn from the very name of the devil as “father of lies and murderer” – which Christ ascribes to him in John 8:44 – that as long as the Gospel flourishes and Christ reigns, it is necessary for such sects of perdition to arise and for everything to be filled with the raging of murderers who persecute the truth.  Anyone who does not know this will be very easily offended; he will forsake the true God and true faith and will return to his old god and to his old faith.'[17]

Why then does persecution show lapsed faith in Christians?

            The historical persecution of Christians from the early church offers great insight into the conditions of persecution that exist at the time of the lapse of faith and denial of Christ by weak-in-spirit Believers.

          Torture is unbearable - Foremost in all faith failures are the excruciating, piercing, bloodletting, potentially life-ending tortures that defy human endurance or the fear of those things happening. One of the first that persecuted belief in Christian doctrine,[18] Nero begins the most barbaric pogroms in history (64-68), with persecution leading to the brief, but large-scale execution of Christians.[19]  A fire has destroyed the city of Rome in AD 64, and Nero needs to divert suspicions that he started for his own entertainment; he orders the mass arrest of Christians and their torturous deaths as scapegoats to remove suspicion from him.[20]  Many Christians are speared upon stakes in Nero’s garden and lit with fire to light his path with their last breaths of life torching the fire hotter, others placed in skins of slain animals and torn to shreds by wild dogs, among many other atrocious activities of violent tortures against Believers. Nero’s unfathomable ferocity toward Christians is recorded by Tacitus;[21] and the martyrdom of Peter with his arrest and legendary upside-down crucifixion and Paul’s beheading are victims of Nero’s wicked outbursts noted in the writings of the early Church Fathers.[22]

          But, there are few eye-witness accounts, if any, of lapses in faith during this terrible time for Christians under Nero’s murderous hands. The events of persecution were so extreme, albeit localized and intermittent, and started with the explicit purpose of covering up Nero’s fiery entertainment that led to persecution of the early church leadership. There was just no reason to create conditions to force denial of Christ from Christians, because they were not forced by Nero to call him their god.

          After the first persecution episode, Christian belief and practice is made illegal and Christianity maintains that status until the official end to persecution by Constantine through the Edict of Milan. The historical atrocities are seared in Believer’s minds, and thereafter, those Christians approached to declare or renounce their faith must surely had Nero’s atrocities in their fears. Suddenly, the Christian faith expressing the light of Christ is forced to hide that light from authorities lest they be found participating in illegal worship and having a criminal faith.

          Second and third century authorities of government recognize the need to control the secretive gatherings and beliefs of Christian faith if they were to have full power, prestige, and right to rule. Emperors Domitian (81-96), Trajan (112-117), Marcus Aurelius (161-180) Septimius Severus (202-210), Decius (250-251), Valerian (257-259), Maximinus the Thracian (235-238), Aurelian (270-275), and Diocletian and Galerius (303-324) apply varying degrees of Nero’s techniques with an arena of wild animals added for extra entertainment for Christians under their authority. Their goals are to persuade them to reject their faith in Christ and embrace the ruler as god through sacrifice and declaration of allegiance with the refutation of Christ.  The lapses in faith of Christians began as Nero’s techniques are perfected by wicked leaders after him and a terrible dilemma is forced upon the early church as they struggle to deal with those who lost their faith in the midst of such terrible tortures.

          Volunteer persecution – There is a historical difference in the ability to endure terrible torture between those that have persecution thrust upon them in a place and time of no escape and those that volunteer for persecution in a way to receive attention or material gain for their actions. Starting with Emperor Domitian’s rule, Christians are forced to declare their faith misplaced, and give allegiance and honor to him as god, with the promise of persecution and death if they do not obey his edicts.

          Church Father Cyprian addresses those Christians that at the very first words threatening persecution, sacrifice to idols rather than withdraw from the enemies’ presence, as instructed by Christ.[23] First, he gives praise to the strong Christian martyrs who suffer torture and death with Christ’s testimony upon their lips, standing firmly in their faith.  It is the martyrs’ brave faith that makes the lapsed faith of cowards so despicable to early church members. Cyprian accuses some of the lapsed in faith of seeking to increase their wealth through sinful coveting that false swearing and a denial of Christ provides them.[24] Sinners manipulating the system by voluntary rejection of their Christian faith for profitable gain are scorned, and Cyprian urges the early church congregations to separate themselves from such types.[25]

          However, there is a more serious issue of lapsed faith that concerns Cyprian, and his Treatise III struggles mightily to order the serious rejection of Christ, with the compassion and love required of a man of God.  Cyprian asks the question of what Christian leadership should do about a broken soul coming to them with words such as these in testimony:

          I wished indeed to strive bravely, and, remembering my oath, I took up the arms of devotion and faith; but as I was struggling in the encounter, varied tortures and long-continued sufferings overcame me.  My mind stood firm, and my faith was strong, and my soul struggled long, unshaken with the torturing pains; but when, with the renewed barbarity of the most cruel judge, wearied out as I was, the scourges were now tearing me, the clubs bruised me, the rack strained me, the claw dug into me, the fire roasted me; my flesh deserted me in the struggle, the weakness of my bodily frame gave way, - not my mind, but my body, yielded in the suffering.

          It was these types of persecuted victims that Cyprian wrestled with in weighing judgment of inclusion or excommunication with his duties as a Christian leader to the early church. He thought that the heavy weight of judgment should produce leniency only in the cases when the entrails are gaping, or the limbs broken, and the blood pouring; lack of physical torture evidence among those with the plea for mercy require rejection, not inclusion according to Cyprian.[26]

          Meanwhile, contrary to the vigor of the Gospel for the persecuted to endure, contrary to the law of the Lord and God to escape if possible and stand strong if faced with persecution, and due to the temerity of some within the Christian congregations, communion is allowed with the heedless people who went to persecution and came back with lapsed faith and no evidence of trauma.[27] Cyprian calls this a “vain and false peace, dangerous to those who grant it, and likely to avail nothing to those who receive it.”[28] Cyprian charges those who give false forgiveness to the lapsed as going against the Gospel of the Lord that says, “Whosoever shall confess me before men, him will I also confess before my Father which is in heaven: but he that denieth me, him will I also deny” (Luke 12:8).

          Cyprian relates a story[29] of a young girl that was brought to a wet-nurse to be cared for by fearful parents; the wet-nurse turned the small child over to the magistrates.  The magistrates fed her sacrificial bread mingled with wine and the immolation of those that had been persecuted and martyred for their faith, in the presence of idols.  Eventually, the mother recovered her child, and brought her to church.  As the prayers and supplications were spoken in the midst of righteous Believers, she would violently shake and weep in spasmodic episodes.  At the age when she was able to receive the communion cup, she instinctively turned her face away and resisted. When the deacon persisted, and forced a small amount of sacrament into her mouth, she sobbed and vomited; unable to keep the Eucharist in her body, the “draught sanctified in the blood of the Lord burst forth from her polluted stomach.”[30] Cyprian shares his witness in this matter to try to establish how the secrets of darkness are disclosed under God’s light.  Thus, there is a good chance that the lapsed in faith can never return again to God. It is only the Lord who can grant forgiveness for lapsed faith, and if forgiveness comes, it will come when prayer from the whole heart and groans of true lamentations and tears of repentance might incline Him.

Persecuted Saints given supernatural strength to endure

            Those Christians who find themselves in the place of no escape, to face persecution even to death, can be assured of the supernatural blessings of endurance to be bestowed upon them by the Lord who will be present with them to the end.  There are too many historical accounts to throughout the Word of God and the ancient documents of the early church that capture the lasts breaths of brave faith, confident of salvation and eternal life, with the love of Christ spoken to the end.  Honest persecution comes to honest Christians who live and love Christ fully, and are honored to declare that strong faith in the midst of persecution to bring the greatest glory to God and a witness of Christ to mankind.

            Those Christians, who endure torture, persecution, and death as martyred saints, are all assisted by His Holy Spirit to successfully achieve the highest examples of faith in Christ.  Peter’s honor to be crucified in the name of Christ, but humbled in his unworthiness, is said that he hung upside-down upon the cross to avoid gaining attention that Christ deserved.  Before his death, however, he suffers another shared persecution for the loss of his wife that is often unknown.  Clement relates the tradition of the martyrdom of Peter’s wife recorded in Stromateis 7.11 that Peter shouts encouragement and comfort as his wife is led to her death.  He shouted “Remember thou the Lord” and rejoiced on her “call and conveyance home.”[31]

            The traditional martyrdoms of Peter and Paul under Nero, Polycarp’s persecution and martyrdom under Marcus Aurelius, Perpetua under Septimius Severus, or the martyrdoms of hundreds of Christians and the bishops of Rome, Jerusalem and Antioch under Decius, martyrdoms of Cyprian and Sixtus II under Valerian are historically recorded for people to read about and remember their heroic acts and blessings through the reflection of their strong faith.  But, present-day Christians must realize that hundreds of nameless Christians under the rule of Maximinus, Aurelian, Diocletian, and Galerius, along with those Emperors stated above, suffered terrible torture, persecution, and even death for their faith.  And when that persecution came, even though the Christians were separated from each other and the peace of righteous life, their faith in Christ remained strong and did not falter. Those meeting their maker in the place and time of God’s choice, are surrounded by his angels as closely in protection as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego experience in the fire (Daniel 1), Daniel experiences in the lion’s den (Daniel 16-20), or Peter as he was crucified.


            Justin Martyr says “All have been hated in whom the Word has dwelt;” many Christians will be overthrown through the name of Jesus Christ; both the prophets and the Lord Jesus Christ has taught us this.[32] Martyr’s words support the teachings of Christ as he comforts believers in preparation of persecution in John 15:18-20:

 "If the world hates you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also.  But all these things will they do unto you for my name’s sake, because they know not him that sent me."

             The Lord Jesus Christ did his best to prepare His followers for the difficult times that come to them as a result of their Christian faith.  In John 13:16, He explicitly reminds Believers that it is He that causes all the persecutions and if they stopped preaching and confessing Him, the persecution will stop.  However, His will is for Believers to stand fast and face persecution with full faith and strength (only when it comes to them, and they are unable to escape), confidently proclaiming His name and assurance of salvation and eternal life.

            The lapsed in faith in the middle of real or perceived threats of persecution becomes a big problem for the early church.  Their cowardice and lack of true and strong faith creates a chasm in the midst of the congregation.  The loving heart of some Christians thinks it necessary to forgive the shortcomings of those who lapsed in faith. This forgiveness decision, while noble looking to outsiders, has the potential of destroying the early church and bringing an end to all things of faith.

            As Cyprian struggles and pleads with parishioners to consider the ramifications of including the lapsed in faith in their midst, a strong doctrine of faith naturally develops that gives a clear line of the stance Believers must take.  Only Christ can forgive these most grievous errors, and if He does, it would require the full repentance of the sinners.  The chances of that forgiveness are slim and not something the early church can judge; it must be turned over to Christ if any hope for the sinners can come.

            Present-day Christians face persecution constantly, albeit a much gentler version currently in most cases than that of the early church.  Serious persecution is active always somewhere, and sporadically creates martyrdom in localized attacks in the world today. Currently, the developed countries with solid governments have laws that semi-protect the events of persecution from coming as ferociously as they did in the early church.  However, laws can change overnight, and attitudes of hatred for the faithful overcome thinking adults quickly, when guided by government officials that desire worship instead of election.  Christians today must be aware of the persecution pitfalls that almost destroyed the early church, so that when persecution comes to them, Believers are able to strengthen one another and help each other stand in the face of terror with the full expression of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.                                                                 



de Villiers, L. The Political Situation in the Graeco-Roman World in the Period 332 Bc to Ad. Vol. 2 The New Testament Milieu, Edited by A. B. du Toit. Halfway House: Orion Publishers, 1998.

Luci, Plinius (Pliny the Younger). "Letters (Latin)." Medford, MA: Perseus Digital Library.

Luther, Martin. Luther's Works, Vol. 26 : Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4, Edited by Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann Jaroslav Jan Pelikan. Sant Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999.

Molinari, Andrea Lorenzo. Priscilla Papers Volume 22, 1. Minneapolis, MN: Christians for Biblical Equality, 2008.

Molinari, Andrea Lorenzo. "Women Martyrs in the Early Church." In Priscilla Papers. Minneapolis, MN: Christians for Biblical Equality, 2008.

Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe. The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. I : Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997.

Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe. The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. V : Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997.

Schaff, Philip. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series. Vol. I. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997.

Tacitus, Cornelius. Annales (Latin), Edited by Charles Dennis Fisher. Medford, MA: Perseus Digital Library, 1906.

Wood, D. R. W. and I. Howard Marshall. New Bible Dictionary. 3rd ed. ed. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1996.


[1] The inevitability of persecution is addressed by Paul in Galatians 4:29, explaining that those born of the Spirit will be persecuted by those born of the flesh. The Lord Jesus Christ warns of the escalation of persecution at the end time as a sign of His coming (Matt. 24:9); however, He makes it clear that persecution is an ongoing problem not limited to just eschatological events, but thrust upon Believers by the wickedness of men who hate God during all times and seasons. He offers specific means of coping with the persecutory violence, including to flee a city for another to avoid the entanglement of attacks (Matt. 10:23). The Lord’s blessings are given upon those who are reviled and persecuted, with both words and violence;  in the final analysis, it is His blessed reassurance that a Believer must hold with surety because the persecutions of Christians are not going to stop until the return of Christ (Matt. 5:11, 12).

[2] Cornelius Tacitus, Annales (Latin), ed. Charles Dennis Fisher (Medford, MA: Perseus Digital Library, 1906), 15.44.

[3] Recognizing the need to control Christians, Emperors Domitian (81-96), Trajan (112-117), Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Septimius Severus (202-210), Decius (250-251), Valerian (257-259, Maximinus the Thracian (235-238), Aurelian (270-275), and Diocletian and Galerius (303-324) used varying degrees of Nero’s madness, especially the utilization of wild animals to persuade the rejection of Christian faith. (Specific recorded witnesses of persecution can be found in Bright’s “The Bloody Theater or Martyr’s Mirror of the Defenseless Christians.”)

[4] Andrea Lorenzo Molinari, "Women Martyrs in the Early Church," in Priscilla Papers(Minneapolis, MN: Christians for Biblical Equality, 2008), 7.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Plinius (Pliny the Younger) Luci, "Letters (Latin),"  (Medford, MA: Perseus Digital Library), 97.2-3.

[8] Molinari,  7.

[9] Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe, The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. I : Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325 (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 192.

[10] Molinari.

[11] Luci,  96.6-7.

[12] Molinari,  8.

[13] Luci.

[14] Molinari.

[15] Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Vol. 26 : Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4, ed. Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann Jaroslav Jan Pelikan (Sant Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), Ga. 4:29.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series, vol. I (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 129.

[19] L. de Villiers, The Political Situation in the Graeco-Roman World in the Period 332 Bc to Ad, ed. A. B. du Toit, The New Testament Milieu, vol. 2 (Halfway House: Orion Publishers, 1998), 413.

[20] D. R. W. and I. Howard Marshall Wood, New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed. ed. (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 816.

[21] Tacitus, 15.44.

[22] Schaff, 129.

[23] Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe, The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. V : Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325 (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 437.

[24] Ibid., 438.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 441.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., 444.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Molinari,  3.

[32] Andrea Lorenzo Molinari, Priscilla Papers Volume 22, 1 (Minneapolis, MN: Christians for Biblical Equality, 2008), 3.

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