Decius eventually died fighting the Goths in June of 251 and the persecution ended. But after that time a controversy arose within the Christian community. Apparently, some believers avoided persecution during the time of Decius' edict by either sacrificing to false gods, or stealing the necessary papers that proved that they did. Now that everything has settled down, they want back into the community.
This caused a schism in the Church. Some imprisoned believers gave pardons to mass groups of returning believers. Some pardons were faked. Some believers were in a quandary due to their feelings about friends and relatives who had died refusing to give in to authorities, and refusing to deny Jesus. What would you do?
The problem may be in how we look at the issue.
- The problem is not a legal one. They tried to answer the question: "Should we forgive people who deny Jesus?" The answer would set a precedent in how to deal with situations like this. The final answer was "Yes. If Peter can be forgiven and even retain a position of leadership, then these people should be afforded no less." The problem with this conclusion is that the answer doesn't apply to the unrepentant or the unbeliever. You can't forgive someone for denying Jesus, who doesn't believe nor wants to. You can't forgive someone who thinks they did the right thing in denying Jesus. You can only seek for their repentance by working with them or asking God to grant it to them. (2 Timothy 2:24-26)
So then, how would you know? You can't, unless there are real relationships that can reveal this. It is a relational problem, not a legal one.
- The controversy surrounded the role of forgiveness. But is that really the issue? Maybe it is partly the issue. But I believe to be the bigger issue is about value. How valuable is the name of Jesus? How heinous is denying him? Does it require more understanding to repent of, than a desire to return to the fold? Obviously, many of the believers who returned were later martyred for their faith, so they may have understood very well what they had done.
- Last, in our context we see the issues differently than they did. In our context of religious freedom, we move too easily in and out of the Christian community, easily accept the faith (like joining a health club), and easily hold our beliefs too often along side competing belief systems. Because there is little consequence for these actions in our culture, we are often too quick to answer in the affirmative when discussing forgiveness.
Do we really understand the anguish unfaithfulness really causes?