Unity or Tyranny?

How good and pleasant it is
    when God’s people live together in unity!

  • Psalm 133:1

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

  • Ephesians 2:8-10

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.

  • Romans 5:1-2

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. / Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

  • Ephesians 4:1-6, 11-12

But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.

  • Matthew 10:33

”Cyprian regarded the question of schism or division with the utmost seriousness. His most important treatise, The Unity of the Church, is devoted to it. The unity of the church is a given fact. There is no room for a variety of denominations in one place. The only true church is the Catholic Church. It is not possible to divide the church, only to leave it, as Novatian had done. The schismatic, who leaves the Catholic Church, commits spiritual suicide.
“ ‘If a branch is broken from a tree, it cannot bud; if a stream is cut off from its source, it dries up  Nor can he who forsakes the church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger, he is an enemy. Without the church for your mother, you cannot have God for your Father. If it was possible to escape outside the ark of Noah, then it may be possible to escape outside of the church.  There is only one baptism, but they [these schismatics] think that they can baptize. Although they forsake the fountain of life, they promise the grace of living and saving water. Men are not washed there, they are made foul; sins are not purged, they are piled up. That birth makes sons not for God but for the devil.  Do they fancy that they have Christ with them, when they gather together outside of his church? Suppose these men were to be killed for confessing Christ’s name. The stain [of schism] is not even washed away by blood [of martyrdom]; the unforgivable grievous sin of discord is not even purged by their suffering. You cannot be a martyr outside the church. (Cyprian,
The Unity of the Church 5,6, 11, 13, 14)
“The unity of the church is focused on the bishops. ‘You ought to know that the bishop is in the church and the church in the bishop. If anyone is not with the bishop, he is not in the church.’ Bishops are the successors of the apostles, i.e. they take over the functions of the apostles. The bishop is supreme in his own church, though he remains a bishop only in solidarity with the other bishops of the Catholic Church. The bishops are like shareholders in a company (the episcopate) – the shareholder has a share in the company only in conjunction with all the other shareholders.

  • Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought

Thaschus Caecilius Cyprianus (210-258) was bishop of Carthage during the Novatian “heresy” and the reunification of the church thereafter.  He drove a hard line, as you can tell from the quote above, yet he left it to each individual bishop in Northern Africa to decide whether to allow the Novatian baptism to stand or have the people returning from Novatism to be rebaptized.  It is obvious how he felt.

During the reign of emperor Decius, Decius persecuted the church (persecution from 249-251).  During this period the bishops of Rome, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Caesarea were martyred.  Cyprian went into hiding to avoid martyrdom, at least at that time, eventually martyred 14 September 258 AD.  But many churches capitulated to the emperor.  The Christians, about this time, were considered atheists due to not believing in the Roman gods.  Thus, to prevent being martyred, many churches offered a sacrifice to the pagan gods.  Since they had denied Christ at the point of death, they were not allowed into the communion of the Catholic church.  A theologian, Novatian, provided a different denomination, allowing these people, who had denied Christ in order to not be killed, an opportunity to return to the Grace of God.

Cyprian would have none of it.  Novatianism is recorded as heretical, mostly based on the writings of Cyprian.  With his stern hard line, it is amazing to think that he would allow the other bishops to make that call, but in doing so, they would openly be defying Cyprian.

Under Cyprian’s leadership, the Catholic church shifted from a church of the martyrs to a church of the bishops.  Thus, bureaucracy, and reaching a certain level in the church, became more important than salvation by Grace through faith.

Note that Cyprian, in this short quote, identifies salvation to be linked with church membership and loyalty to the bishop.

Many denominations that have felt that they were the only true interpretation of the Gospels have backed off from that hard line stance in the past fifty years.  My wife married me in a Presbyterian Church.  Many family members were allowed to attend the service and even be bride’s maids and groomsmen (ushers), but my wife was told that she was not allowed back into the Catholic church.  When I grew up in rural Mississippi, we had great youth group meetings at our Presbyterian church, and we visited the Methodist church’s youth group meetings on special occasions.  But no Baptist youths visited either church for fear of the penalty of Hell for even setting foot in a different church.  With that in mind, they had a youth choir one year consisting of all churches at the Baptist church to avoid their sensitivity in stepping into another church.  Even within the Baptist church, my maternal grandfather never went to church for his latter few decades of his life, because he would go to Hell if he went to a Southern Baptist church, the only Baptists in town.  He had been a Primitive Baptist.  I do not think these barriers still exist, but some may.

These hard lines stem more from hubris than from good theology.  If you are shaky with your theology, just tell your congregation that they will go to Hell if they ever visit a different denomination.  Otherwise, why fear a person who “shops around?”

And Jesus stated that if you disown Him, He will disown you before His Father.  But in Mark’s Gospel (at least in the NIV), Peter denying Jesus three times is stated Peter disowning Jesus.  When Peter is forgiven and reinstated, I see no problem with those facing certain death to be allowed back into the body of Christ, having confessed and repented of their sin.  Cyprian may have been creating a hard line to keep out what he thought was heresy, but he showed no forgiveness, no mercy, no grace, for the former Novatianists.  I think I might have agreed with other church leaders of his time that he had gone too far.  Yet, his Latin writings made him the Latin scholar of the church until such people as St. Jerome.

If you like these Tuesday morning essays about philosophy and other “heavy topics,” but you think you missed a few, you can use this LINK. I have set up a page off the home page for links to these Tuesday morning posts. I will continue to modify the page as I add more.

Soli Deo Gloria.  Only to God be the Glory.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: