Cyprian: Treatise III On the Lapsed
Having read Cyprian's letters on this question, there really aren't any surprises here. Cyprian thinks that
- Persecution is terrible, albeit under God's control and used for the purification of his church. "The Lord has desired His family to be proved; and because a long peace had corrupted the discipline that had been divinely delivered to us, the heavenly rebuke has aroused our faith, which was giving way... and although we deserved more for our sins, yet the most merciful Lord has so moderated all things that all which has happened has rather seemed a trial than a persecution."
- Remaining faithful as a "confessor" to Christ through persecution, even to the point of death and so becoming a martyr, is a glorious thing to praise God for. "We look with glad countenances upon confessors illustrious with the heraldry of a good name, and glorious with the praises of virtue and faith." Even those who withdrew from society into isolation rather than suffer (as Cyprian himself did) have some merit, albeit not as much as the confessors and martyrs.
- Those who neither withdraw nor confess but instead reject the faith, "lapse." These we ought to be mightily grieved over--and Cyprian does have some seriously sad language here. "I need tears rather than words to express the sorrow with which the wound of our body should be bewailed, with which the manifold loss of a people once numerous should be lamented. For whose heart is so hard or cruel, who is so unmindful of brotherly love, as, among the varied ruins of his friends, and the mournful relics disfigured with all degradation, to be able to stand and to keep dry eyes, and not in the breaking out of his grief to express his groanings rather with tears than with words?"
- Now that the persecution is over, the lapsed should be allowed back in, but only after a sufficient time that they demonstrate true repentance and we have some kind of evidence that they truly believe, and aren't just back because it's easy once again.
- Those who have lapsed who get angry and being told to be patient and penitent may very well be giving evidence that they are not regenerate.
- We should be charitable, especially to those who rejected Christianity but did not actually worship idols, but also cautious, especially with those who rejected Christianity when persecution had been announced, but not actually yet started.
- God will accepted the repentant lapsed back into His church (as should we!), but the rule He has given us is His Word, not our own feelings of pity for those who want to return to the body of believers. "Yet, beloved brethren, the cause of truth is to be had in view; nor ought the gloomy darkness of the terrible persecution so to have blinded the mind and feeling, that there should remain no light and illumination whence the divine precepts may be held."
All of this to say that this treatise is excellent, convicting, and sometimes a bit unfortunate in its language. We should of course be willing to suffer for our faith (but when do we Americans ever really have to do that?). We should weep when people who had claimed to be believers reject the faith and leave the church. This is something which is felt more when churches exercise good membership practices, at least in my own experience. I can't even imagine what it's like to go through that while being persecuted...
And, we should accept those who repent and wish for readmission not only in the case of having lapsed, but also in the case of any who have been put out of the church. (See Paul in II Corinthians for more on that.) We ought to rejoice and readmit repentant sinners of any stripe when they return to the faith. And yet, Cyprian is also right to say that that readmission needs to be tempered with wisdom. Those who have fallen and wish to return ought to consider Cyprian's advice to the lapsed:
[To those who have lapsed] do you in repentance and grief look into your sins; acknowledge the very grave sin of your conscience; open the eyes of your heart to the understanding of your sin, neither despairing of the Lord's mercy nor yet at once claiming his pardon. God, in proportion as with the affection of a Father he is always indulgent and good, in the same proportion is to be dreaded with the majesty of a judge. Even as we have sinned greatly, so let us greatly lament.To a deep wound let there not be wanting a long and careful treatment; let not the repentance be less than the sin.
Unfortunately, Cyprian is a bit flowery with his words at times. Not that he is wrong, but that if we're not careful this can (and at times in Christian history, did) slip into a works-righteousness. Repentance does not cause forgiveness or readmission, but it must attend forgiveness. So hopefully it's clear why this language can be a bit challenging if we're not cautious with it:
If a man make prayer with his whole heart, if he groan with the true lamentations and tears of repentance, if he incline the Lord to pardon of his sin by righteous and continual works, he who expressed His mercy... may pity such men."
Repentance is essential, but we do not want it to turn into any form of physical penitence. Rather, it must be a directing of the soul to the cross and the forgiveness that was bought there as all our sins, even the sin of temporarily falling away from the church, were paid for by our Holy Substitute.
As the church of course we can only see the externals, and in that case the best bet may be some level of delay while relationships are rebuilt and the members and elders have a chance to observe the repentant believer and make a judgment call. Again Cyprian is probably technically right here. Time is what helps us tell if the individual is truly penitent, and has been making good-faith efforts to live the lives that we as Christians are called to live.
So, short version: read this treatise!