During the Decian persecutions of the mid third century, a debate arose over the proper treatment that the church should accord to Christians who had denied their faith during the persecutions. Following the [[martyr]]dom of [[Bishop]] [[Fabian of Rome|Fabian]] in January 250, an election could not held for his successor until spring of 251 because the church was in such dire straits. At the 251 [[Synod|council]] a majority vote was cast for Cornelius, who favored acceptance of those who had lapsed under terrible duress. The election of [[Cornelius of Rome|Cornelius]], as Bishop of Rome, was repudiated by the [[clergy]] who had been most firm against the lapsed during the persecution and, in opposition, they consecrated [[Novatian]] Bishop of Rome. Novatian was a Roman [[presbyter]] who was known for his orthodox theological work, ''On the Trinity''. Thus, the Church of Rome was faced with two rival bishops, each seeking support of the wider church.
Novatian's party maintained that only God could grant forgiveness for such grievous sin. The Cornelius party argued for a judicious use of "the power of the keys" in forgiving the lapsed after a period of penance. Bishop [[Cyprian of Carthage]] became the major proponent for clemency, siding with Bp. Cornelius.
As the arguments mounted, the demarcation between to two sides became more pronounced. Cyprian maintained that salvation was impossible outside the [[communion]] of the church and that true penitents must be received back into the fold as expeditiously as possible. Novatian and his supporters held that the church must be preserved in its purity without the defilement of those who had not proved steadfast and even went so far as to deny forgiveness for any serious offense after [[baptism]], such as fornication or idolatry, though pardon might be offered to those deemed near death.