Cyprian: Epistle 51.24 and Church Unity

But I hear that some infect your number, and destroy the praise of a distinguished name by their corrupt conversation; whom you yourselves, even as being lovers and guardians of your own praise, should rebuke and check and correct.”

Cyprian, Epistle 6.4

I’ve been spending time in Cyprian’s letters, and there is no lack of quotations like the one above.  He lived in a contentious time.  Rome was persecuting the church under Emperor Decius.  Behind the scenes of the persecution, something worse was bubbling up;  The Novatian schism.  This schism led to widespread debate and was a precursor to Donatism (1).  Cyprian fought the Novatians with passion and purpose.  He knew that compromised unity is the sign of an unhealthy church.


To understanding Epistle 51.24, we must first understand the background to which it was written. Cyprian was born sometime during the first decade of the 3rd century.  His family was wealthy and pagan; he underwent a secular education.  Around 246 he professed faith in Christ and received baptism.  Near the end of 248, the church installed him as the bishop of Carthage.  The Roman persecution headed by Emperor Decius occurred two-years after his installation.  Faithful Christians endured death, torture, or imprisonment while others capitulated.  The issue behind the Novatian schism was how the church should respond to those who lapsed by either offering sacrifice, or got fraudulant certificates saying they did.  Novatian and his followers held that nobody could repent after denying the faith.  In their minds, the lapsed could never return to the church.  While Cyprian and his camp taught that there could be forgiveness and readmittance.

In this debate, there were three categories of “The Lapsed.”  The first was the apostates.  These were the former professors who walked away from the faith, never to return.  This group wasn’t a concern in the Novatian debate.  After all, they continued to deny the faith even after the persecution ended (2).  The two groups considered were the “Sacrificati” and the “Libellatici.”  The Sacrificati were those who actually offered sacrifice to the pagan gods and Caesar.  While the Libellatici obtained a certificate showing they passed Decius’ religious tests (3).

Regarding the Sacrificati, Cyprian held that their readmittance was possible.  But only on their deathbed and if they didn’t lapse again.  Sacrificing to the pagan gods was unthinkable to the church.  Especially considering how many had died or suffered when they refused (4). This is why the penance was severe. This decision regarding the Sacrificati was uniform.  Yet, the Libellatici’s punishment was difficult to determine.  Everyone who sacrificed to the gods committed the same act.  But the Libellatici had collected their certificates through different means.  Some obtained them by taking tests.  Others purchased them or stole them.  Cyprian and a council determined the readmittance of the Libellatici was possible.  Following varied periods of repentance (5).

Novatian had an easier position to explain.  It was that none of the lapsed should be welcomed back.  It was a hardline “no.”  Harsh as this sounds, it’s a tenable position.  Christ Himself said that “…whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:33 ESV).  This would be the rallying verse for Novatian.  Cyprian’s response to this is that true repentance by the conviction of the Spirit is possible. Not only is it posible, but it is consistent with all repentance (6). After all, if Peter could deny Christ and lead the church, the lasped could repent as well.

Cyprian’s Epistle 51.24 and Church Unity

Cyprian was concerned about the schism caused by Novatian.  He knew that the unity of the church was vital to the message of the Gospel.  Here is how he opened the 24th section of letter 51 (where all the following quotations are pulled from):

“In reference, however, to the character of Novatian, dearest brother, of whom you desired that intelligence should be written you what heresy he had introduced; know that, in the first place, we ought not even to be inquisitive as to what he teaches, so long as he teaches out of the pale of unity. Whoever he may be, and whatever he may be, he who is not in the Church of Christ is not a Christian.”

Cyprian had a high view of the church.  He coined the famous phrase “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother (7). This was echoed by many in church history and was used by John Calvin to argue for the Reformed church being the true church (8).  But here he states that disunifying the church is the mark of one outside of Christ.  The word unity has a special place in the false teachers’ rhetoric.  They cry for unity.  They claim to desire the church not split over doctrinal differences.  This may be the claim, but the reality is they don’t want unity.  They want the freedom to proclaim their ideas, and for the orthodox silence.  This is why Cyprian was unwilling to discuss the teachings of Novatian.  He didn’t consider Novatian united to the church.  Therefore, his teachings were irrelevant.  Cyprian instead spoke of Novatian’s actions. 

“Although he may boast himself, and announce his philosophy or eloquence with lofty words, yet he who has not maintained brotherly love or ecclesiastical unity has lost even what he previously had been. Unless he seems to you to be a bishop, who-when a bishop has been made in the Church by sixteen co-bishops-strives by bribery to be made an adulterous and extraneous bishop by the hands of deserters;and although there is one Church, divided by Christ throughout the whole world into many members, and also one episcopate diffused through a harmonious multitude of many bishops; in spite of God’s tradition, in spite of the combined and everywhere compacted unity of the Catholic Church, is endeavouring to make a human church, and is sending his new apostles through very many cities, that he may establish some new foundations of his own appointment.”

Novatian placed his own disciples in various cities without permission. Thereby denying the authority of the church.  Cyprian took this as a new church created to suplant the true church.   Cyprian continues this point:

“And although there have already been ordained in each city, and through all the provinces, bishops old in years, sound in faith, proved in trial, proscribed in persecution, (this one) dares to create over these other and false bishops: as if he could either wander over the whole world with the persistence of his new endeavour, or break asunder the structure of the ecclesiastical body, by the propagation of his own discord, not knowing that schismatics are always fervid at the beginning, but that they cannot increase nor add to what they have unlawfully begun, but that they immediately fail together with their evil emulation. But he could not hold the episcopate, even if he had before been made bishop, since he has cut himself off from the body of his fellow-bishops, and from the unity of the Church…”

False teachers will cry unity until they have the upper hand.  The way Novatian went about pushing his views pushed him out of the church.  But Cyprian had to fight against calls of unity and peace.  True peace in the church can never come at the cost of truth.  Cyprian closed this section with the same strong language that opened it:

“…since the apostle admonishes that we should mutually sustain one another, and not withdraw from the unity which God has appointed, and says, “Bearing with one another in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” He then who neither maintains the unity of the Spirit nor the bond of peace, and separates himself from the band of the Church, and from the assembly of priests, can neither have the power nor the honour of a bishop, since he has refused to maintain either the unity or the peace of the episcopate.”

There is a clear lesson here for the modern church.  Schismatists and false teachers will call for unity even though they’re the ones causing division.  It may seem like a small theological distinction at first. And let’s be real, It’s easier to let things slide.  But false teachers are never satisfied.  They call for unity until they are the majority.  Then the orthodox are open game (Just ask Machen!)  Unity is impossible when the truth is compromised and Cyprian exemplified that fidelity to truth for Christians throughout the ages.


1 – This is the condemned heresy that the sacraments are dependent on the character of the one administering them.  For example, if baptism was performed by someone who turned in Holy Scripture to the Roman authorities, it didn’t count and rebaptism was required.  Augustine was a key opponent for this idea and it eventually died down in the 5th and 6th centuries. 
2 – Robert J.H Mayes, The Lord’s Supper in the Theology of Cyprian of Carthage, CTQ 74 (2010): 307-308
3 – Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (San Fransisco: Harper and Row Publishers, 1986), 455.
4 -See The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas. This work details the social pressures for one to sacrifice to the Emporer.  They refused to sacrifice or recant and died in Carthage between 203 and 206 AD.  
5 – Chapman, John. “St. Cyprian of Carthage.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908.
6 – Cyprian, Treatise 3.36
7 – Cyprian Treatise 1.6
8 – John Calvin, Institutes 4.1.4

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