From A.D. 249 to 260, many Christians denied the faith in order to escape persecution. But when the persecutions lifted, some of the unfaithful wanted readmission to the church. Novatian of Rome said no one should be allowed to return. Novatus of Carthage said everyone should be permitted to come back. Cyprian of Carthage said only those who showed signs of true repentance should be readmitted.
When we ask how we should respond to those who have been excommunicated for various reasons but want to return, we may take a “Cyprian” approach to the restoration of faith—after we ask what they think faith is. For Jesus, the paradigm for faith was the martyr. He said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny￼himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24). This was the only understanding of faith that could prepare early Christians for facing death. But such faith was not reserved for those who would actually lose their lives—it was intended to characterize every believer. To follow Jesus by taking up the cross, or, as Paul wrote, to “count all things loss” (Phil. 3:8), was to become a martyr in training.
We may use the faith of the martyrs who followed Jesus as a guide for addressing four common categories of people in our day who have been excommunicated from the church but want to return.
1. Some denied Christ and were engaged in immorality.
This is the worst situation but the easiest for the church to handle. Confession must replace denial; morality must replace immorality. A renewed confession of faith may be instantaneous, because the person had previously confessed Christ and knows what is to be affirmed. However, since the person left the faith, some time period for instruction is necessary to discern whether the person now grasps (or ever did grasp) that the paradigm for faith is the martyr.
Of course, in the merciful providence of God, a returning person will most likely not have to die physically for the cause of Christ. However, he will have to give up his immorality, and the heart motive for such self- denial flows from the basic self-denial that takes up the cross. Time is needed to see whether the old pattern of behavior has been abandoned and to track the new pattern of following Jesus.
2. Some denied Christ but were not engaged in immorality.
Since there is no immoral pattern to overcome, the restoration period may be quicker.
3. Some were engaged in immorality but claimed they never denied Christ.
In this category we probably will find some who insist their sin was simply a matter of weakness. They see themselves as the brother- believer in Luke 17:4, who sins repeatedly but whose status as a repenting brother ought to bring about immediate restoration. If the church balks and asks for time, the person usually regards the church as unmerciful.
However, such a person misunderstands the difference between relating to individuals and relating to church courts. The repentance of the offender in Luke 17 is what keeps his sins from reaching the church court. The situation is parallel to the first step in Matthew 18, where repentance ends the matter. If a sin is brought before the church court for its verdict, the offender’s claim to be a brother becomes irrelevant. Nowhere in the Matthew 18 process is the professed faith of the guilty party taken into consideration. Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 5, when Paul calls for the expulsion of the man who married his stepmother, the man was in the church at the time and supposedly still professing faith.
In our day, a sinner’s very insistence that faith was never abandoned becomes the reason why the restoration process ought to take time. Both the church court and the offender need to know what faith it is that can claim to deny self and to count all things as loss in order to face the lion’s den of martyrdom—and yet gratify the self in immorality.
4. Some claimed they neither denied Christ nor engaged in immorality.
They claim the church court has misunderstood them, and the sanction against them is a miscarriage of justice that ought to be lifted. If this means the church has not followed Matthew 18, then it is a dreadful situation and the responsible church leaders ought to repent and reinstate the person. However, what often happens is that the person charged with denying Christ or engaging in immorality refuses to participate in the Matthew 18 process. Afterward, he may say he did not understand the importance of the process, he was too sick to appear, he was too busy, he was not a good speaker, he wanted to turn the other cheek, he wanted to protect his accuser who was actually the guilty party, or he was convinced his accuser had prejudiced the church leaders against him. Each of these excuses sounds reasonable. But the real issue is that the person failed to submit to the process the Lord gave His church for seeking justice. The Lord upheld this process when He said, “If [the accused] refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” (Matt. 18:17). The reason for expulsion is not just the original accusation but the refusal to heed the church. The issue for restoration, then, becomes whether there is evidence that a person will heed the church. In the language of the martyrs, we may ask why a person who claims he has denied himself and taken up his cross did not follow what Jesus prescribed.
The ancient church leaders may have asked how they could be sure about a person until they had seen his response under the next persecution. The answer could be, then and now: “Do you see him denying himself for the sake of Christ? If so, that is the faith of the martyrs. Let’s welcome him home.”