Cyprian on Leprechauns, the Tooth Fairy, and Church Schisms
In AD 250, Roman Emperor Decius mandated every inhabitant of his empire to publicly sacrifice to the Roman gods in order to prove their loyalty to the empire. Refusal to sacrifice was punishable by death. Many Christians died under Decius, like the Roman Bishop Fabian, but many others chose sacrifice over martyrdom. To further his damage, Decius prevented the appointment of a successor to Fabian in Rome.
When Decius departed Rome for war in the spring of 251, a new bishop named Cornelius was elected. Cornelius allowed Christians who had wavered under the persecution of Decius to return to the church in contrition. A Roman priest named Novation however, was appalled at Cornelius and named himself Rome’s new bishop within weeks. Unlike Cornelius, Novation demanded the re-baptism of believers who had lapsed under Decius.
CYPRIAN STRIKES BACK
An African Bishop, Cyprian of Carthage, responded with a series of letters to other African bishops which are extant today as a short book titled “On the Unity of the Church.” Without naming Novation, Cyprian assailed those who leave the Church, those who “assume to themselves the name of bishop,” and those who follow such “brethren that walk disorderly.” Cyprian made it very clear in these letters that he considered it is impossible to divide the Church:
“Let no one think that the good can depart from the Church.”
“As there are many rays of the sun, but one light; and many branches of a tree, but one strength based in its tenacious root; and since from one spring flow many streams, although the multiplicity seems diffused in the liberality of an overflowing abundance, yet the unity is still preserved in the source.”
“Thus also the Church, shone over with the light of the Lord, sheds forth her rays over the whole world, yet it is one light which is everywhere diffused, nor is the unity of the body separated.”
Neither did Cyprian allow the idea that anyone can be a Christian outside of the Church:
“Do they deem that they have Christ with them when they are collected together, who are gathered together outside the Church of Christ?”
“Does he think that he has Christ, who acts in opposition to Christ’s priests, who separates himself from the company of His clergy and people?”
We have come to accept today an idea which Cyprian would no more allow than he would lay claim to leprechauns or the tooth fairy. We speak of “Church schisms.” Many of us view the “Great Schism” of AD 1054 as the ultimate example of true division of the body of Jesus, the Anointed King of kings.
Cyprian claimed the Church can no more be divided than the robe of our Master could be divided upon his crucifixion. He noted in chapter seven of On the Unity of the Church that the Lord’s garment was “woven from the top” because the Church has been woven together by God. The soldiers had to gamble for His robe, because it could not be divided. Just as the Lord’s robe was undivided, Cyprian quoted our Lord’s declaration that there is “one flock and one shepherd.”
Whatever the Great Schism broke, Cyprian left no room for it to have truly divided the one flock of the Shepherd into two flocks. The political battles of Ephesus and Chalcedon could not have broken the one Church and Flock of our Lord. Neither could they have broken the succession of apostolic bishops any more than the body of the Anointed1 Lord Jesus can be broken into two, three, or four bodies. Jesus is undivided. Likewise undivided is His body which is His bride and His Church, His “Called-out.”
Paul called the church at Corinth one church, despite the fact that they had the appearance of separating themselves under four names as four lines of authority. Likewise, the apostolic succession today resides under four primary names and apostolic lines as the Assyrian Church of the East, Oriental Orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Roman Catholicism. Yet Paul made it clear that we are not truly divided, asking rhetorically, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Likewise, he told the saints at Ephesus:
“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”
THE PROTESTANT QUESTION
Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Catholic Church, however, left little room for Protestantism to actually be Christian. Protestants left the “company of His clergy and people” just as Cyprian condemned in chapter seventeen. Protestants have also committed Cyprian’s chapter ten crime of naming their own leaders rather than depending on the existing bishops to make such designations. In Cyprian’s writing, those outside the Church clearly are not Christians. He punctuated his point in chapter nine by quoting the Apostle John:
“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.”
To count Protestantism as outside of the Church is to count Protestantism as “not of us,” that is to say, not truly Christian. If Martin Luther and his company truly left the Church, then they departed because they were not truly Christians. I believe Luther and company committed much folly in the sixteenth century and should have followed after the manner of Desiderius Erasmus, protesting hierarchical problems from within the apostolic succession. After much research and despite serious fault-finding with Protestantism, I cannot claim that Luther and company were not Christians, much less that they departed from Rome due to a feigned faith in the Anointed Lord Jesus.
In chapter four of Unity, Cyprian made an argument which cannot be defended. He asked, “Does he who does not hold this unity of the Church think that he holds the faith? Does he who strives against and resists the Church trust that he is in the Church . . .” He then quoted Ephesians 4:4-6, “There is one body and one spirit, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God.” Protestants strove against and resisted Rome, therefore Cyprian would condemn them as outside of the one Church. Yet Protestants are united to all four apostolic branches by Paul’s Scriptural river of one Spirit, one hope, one incarnate Lord, one faith, one crucial formula of baptism,2 and the one and only triune God.
Those outside of the true church like Mormonism and the Watchtower Society deny the incarnate Lord and the triune God of the apostles. The apostles never defined the church by who appointed a bishop. According to the Lord Jesus, according his apostles, and according to the holy Writings of his apostles, the singular flock of the singular Shepherd, the singular body of Jesus are those who share one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God.
THE MODERN CORINTHIAN PROBLEM
Similar to first century Corinth, the Church today is partly divided by names and by Eucharistic practices. In the opening verses of 1 Corinthians, Paul said that they were one church, in one God, sanctified together as saints, and in the name of the Lord Jesus. Yet in verses ten and following, they lacked unity of mind and judgment, leading to contentions. They claimed four names, as if the Anointed Jesus Himself had been divided, which Paul rendered impossible in verse thirteen.
Then in 1 Corinthians 11:18, Paul said “schisms” were reported in Corinth and that he believed it “in part.” He did not allow the possibility however, of full schism. He was clearly troubled in the following verses by their failure to unite harmoniously in the Eucharist meal, establishing factions of “those who are approved” and those who were not. Likewise today, many sections of Christianity practice closed communion, requiring membership in their own faction as a prerequisite approval to partaking in the communion sacrament.
THE CORINTHIAN SOLUTION
Christianity has a type of pentarchy today which we can choose to enjoy, learn from, and embrace. As Chalcedonian Christians in AD 451 defined five patriarchates, we have five primary branches of Christianity today. Four points of the ancient pentarchy have obvious modern parallels with Rome as Roman Catholicism, Constantinople as Eastern Orthodoxy, Alexandria as Oriental Orthodoxy3, and Antioch as the Assyrian Church of the East.4 If we treat Protestantism as the Jerusalem of the ancient pentarchy, then we have five branches to embrace just as Chalcedonians once respected five patriarchates. Either we can choose between these five as if we were Corinthians, or we can embrace them as one.
I choose to embrace the singular worldwide Church by dropping the factional name I once claimed. I am not of Paul, Apollos, Cephas, nor Protestant. I am Christian, embracing the only creed which gained ecumenical acceptance,5 that of Nicaea. I embrace the 27 apostolic writings which all five branches of our faith affirm as holy Scripture. I embrace the 46 Jewish writings which all four branches of the faith affirmed as holy Scripture long before the Protestant Reformation. Most importantly, I embrace all five branches of the faith by listening to and learning from all five branches, reading the revered books of each branch, following advocates of each branch on social media, and personally befriending adherents of each branch as opportunities allow.
Factions in the one Church are tragic, but they are not full divisions, only “in part” as Paul put it: “I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it.” We are one Church, one flock, the one body of our Lord, united in those things which Paul implored in Ephesians 4:1-6. As Cyprian correctly stated, the robe of our Lord Jesus has been woven from above and cannot be divided. To preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace is as Paul mandated, we must walk in a manner worthy of our calling with which we were called:
“with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love . . .”
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- Except when quoting others, I translate “Christ” as our Lord’s title, not His last name. “Christos” means “Anointed” as prophetically defined by Psalm 2, the Son of God who conquers worldly authorities.
- Benjamin Winter provided the following helpful link which discusses early Christian distinctions on the efficacy of baptism: http://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ashland_theological_journal/23-1_37.pdf
- Oriental Orthodox churches are in full communion with one another and recognize the archbishop of Alexandria as the first among equals among their bishops. Alexandria has led Oriental Orthodoxy since the fifth century Council of Chalcedon. For more information, see http://www.coptic.net/articles/monophysitismreconsidered.txt
- Bishop Maurutha of Maipherquat (later called Martyropolis) opened the synod at Seleucia-Ctesiphon in AD 410 with a letter from the archbishop of Antioch. With three requirements from the archbishop of Antioch, Maurutha oversaw the instatement of Bishop Isaac as the first ever catholicos of the Church of the East. For more details, see chapter 8 of Samuel Moffatt’s “A History of Christianity in Asia, Volume I.”
- Moffatt, Samuel Hugh, “A History of Christianity in Asia, Volume I,” (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, NY), 155.