Day Nineteen: St. Cyprian: On the Unity of the Church: 10-18
Who: Third century bishop of Carthage (in modern Tunisia), and martyr from Africa
What: A letter to encourage the unity of the church against schisms and heresy during massive Roman persecution
Why: A disturbance had happened in the church because of a priest called Novatian — a schismatic of the third century, and founder of the sect of the Novatians. Cyprian wrote to counter this and argues that there can only be one united Church, and the Novatian breakaway was a false church and that Novatian was an antipope.
When: Around 249 AD
You can find today’s reading on page 97 here: lentfatherscomplete.pdf
Continuing on from yesterday's theme about those who depart from the true and unified Church, Cyprian moves into saying that this is the reason heresies are frequently appearing — “while a discordant faithlessness does not maintain unity”.
1 John 2:19
They went forth from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, surely they would have continued with us.
He goes on to say that the “Lord permits and suffers these things to be” so that personal liberty may still exist, but that God will use these for his own glory to show that which is genuine in contrast to the false, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 11:19
Indeed, there have to be factions (Gk. Heresies) among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine.
Of these people, Cyprian makes reference to Psalm 1 as those who sit “in the seat of pestilence”. He has much harsher words about them too, which I just have to quote in full so you can really understand how serious this matter of creating heresy and schism was taken:
[They are] deceiving with serpent's tongue, and artful in corrupting the truth, vomiting forth deadly poisons from pestilential tongues; whose speech does creep like a cancer, whose discourse forms a deadly poison in the heart and breast of every one.
No minced words here, that's for sure! These are also the people Jeremiah prophesied about too, he says, quoting Jer 2:13; 27:15; 23:21-22 as one combined paragraph against the heretics.
Explaining more about how these schismatics operate, Cyprian points to Matthew 18:20 – “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them”, and explains that this verse has been abused and misinterpreted by these heretics for their own ends as a way of saying their church gatherings are just as valid as the rest.
He says that these “false interpreters of the Gospel” only quote the last words, ignoring the previous verses, and so cut off one section of the Lord’s words, just as they cut themselves off from the Church.
Quoting the full statement from Jesus (vv. 19,20), Cyprian goes on to bring quite an in depth interpretation of these verses and explains what they do and don’t mean.
Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
There are a few preachers today, mostly within the Prosperity Gospel movement, who would claim this verse means that you can literally ask for anything and have it (and if you don’t get it, then it’s your own lack of faith stopping you). Cyprian interprets this instruction by Jesus as a way of him urging for “unanimity and peace upon His disciples” in the things which they pray for; that they are all of one mind and purpose when they come together and come before God. This is similar then to what Jesus says in John 17:11 where he prays for his disciples to “be one, as we are one”. So that when two or three are gathered in His name, Jesus is “showing that most is given, not to the multitude, but to the unanimity of those that pray”.
When Jesus says “I am with them”, it is meaning that he is “with the simple and peaceable–with those who fear God and keep God's commandments” and goes on to give some examples from Scripture based on this, such as; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego being in one accord with their prayers in the fiery furnace, and Christ came among them to deliver them; and again in Acts 5:17-20 (or Acts 16:25-26) when the Apostles were arrested and put in prison, but then were delivered miraculously delivered because they, or the Church, were “simple-minded and of one mind” in what they asked.
This single-minded unity of prayer and purpose is asked of by Jesus because “He is rather with two or three who pray with one mind, than with a great many who differ”. A powerful statement indeed, I think.
But not only this, to ensure full unity within the Church body, Cyprian then says that when Jesus “gave the law of prayer”, he made sure to add a prerequisite, so that everyone who asks of God, may be required to live in unity with one another if they expect to be heard. This is why in Mark 11:25, Jesus says, when “you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone” because then God “calls back from the altar one who comes to the sacrifice in strife, and bids him first agree with his brother, and then return with peace and offer his gift to God”, therefore requiring unity and peace with one another at all times.
Stronger still, Cyprian goes further to say that even if those who have separated from the Church were to be martyred for the name of Jesus, that this wouldn’t ensure they were crowned with righteousness and enter the Kingdom, since “he cannot show himself a martyr who has not maintained brotherly love”. Using 1 Cor 13 to back up his point, Cyprian goes on to say that though they may die or do works, to do it without love and unity of the Church, it is nothing; to not remain in the unified brotherly love of the Church Body is to go against what John wrote in 1 John 4:7-8;12 too.
“For both to prophesy and to cast out devils, and to do great acts upon the earth is certainly a sublime and an admirable thing” – but these things do not guarantee the Kingdom to you, as Jesus made clear in Matthew 7:21-23, “unless he walks in the observance of the right and just way” of Christ and the Church, as outlined by Jesus in Mark 12:29-31, which teaches love and unity in one –
Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
But what peace, love and unity can one keep if “with the madness of discord, divides the Church, destroys the faith, disturbs the peace, dissipates charity, [and] profanes the sacrament?”. Quoting from 2 Tim 3:1-9, Cyprian basically says “but what do you expect?” since the Apostle Paul already predicted this would happen through the Holy Spirit.
Despite this, and the schisms and those who would cause them, Cyprian says that this shouldn’t worry the believers “but rather strengthen our faith in the truthfulness”. Referencing Jesus’ words when he says that the “blind lead the blind” (Matthew 15:14), he warns that if any come across these people, to avoid them so as not to be lead astray by blind leaders and thus “fall into the ditch”.
Cyprian closes up this chapter with a recap of various times in the past when God’s people rebelled against his appointed leaders and rules, and how they faced the consequences for their actions, being judged by God; one such example being the rather drastic event in Num 26:9-10 when the earth opened up and swallowed those who rebelled and the fire that consumed 250 others who were party to it!
I think the point is clear: Jesus is the head of the Church, and any who would try to divide his Body takes a grave risk of provoking the anger of the Lord against them, and any who should follow their deception.