De Unitate Ecclesiae, pt 3

Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage, continues his treatise on Church Unity. For him, love, accord, and unity are needed, prefering on two or three that gather in His name above the many that don’t. His stark language would offend many today, with his callous disregard for those that would lay down their life for the name of Christ but are not part of His Church. He also speaks words that are needed today, when in the age of prosperity preachers, false prophets, and other vile miracle workers, he reminds us that these are due course for the Church, but it is the Church that we must stand in, not miracles.

11. Against people of this kind[1] the Lord cries; from these He restrains and recalls His erring people, saying, “Hearken not unto the words of the false prophets; for the visions of their hearts deceive them. They speak, but not out of the mouth of the Lord. They say to those who cast away the word of God, Ye shall have peace, and every one that walketh after his own will. Every one who walketh in the error of his 425 heart, no evil shall come upon him. I have not spoken to them, yet they prophesied. If they had stood on my foundation (substantia, ὑποστάσει), and had heard my words, and taught my people, I would have turned them from their evil thoughts.” (Jeremiah 23:16-21) Again, the Lord points out and designates these same, saying, “They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and have hewed them out broken cisterns which can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:13) Although there can be no other baptism but one, they 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 among them, but rather are made foul; nor are sins purged away, but are even accumulated. Such a nativity does not generate sons to God, but to the devil. By a falsehood they are born, and they do not receive the promises of truth. Begotten of perfidy, they lose the grace of faith. They cannot attain to the reward of peace, since they have broken the Lord’s peace with the madness of discord[2].

12. Nor let any deceive themselves by a futile interpretation, in respect of the Lord having said, “Wheresoever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) Corrupters and false interpreters of the Gospel quote the last words, and lay aside the former ones, remembering part, and craftily suppressing part: as they themselves are separated from the Church, so they cut off the substance of one section. For the Lord, when He would urge unanimity and peace upon His disciples, said, “I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth touching anything that ye shall ask, it shall be given you by my Father which is in heaven. For wheresoever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am with them;” (Matthew 18:19-20) [compare John 20:26-29] showing that most is given, not to the multitude, but to the unanimity of those that pray. “If,” He says, “two of you shall agree on earth:” He placed agreement first; He has made the concord of peace a prerequisite; He taught that we should agree firmly and faithfully. But how can he agree with any one who does not agree with the booty of the Church itself, and with the universal brotherhood? How can two or three be assembled together in Christ’s name, who, it is evident, are separated from Christ and from His Gospel? For we have not withdrawn from them, but they from us; and since heresies and schisms have risen subsequently, from their establishment for themselves of diverse places of worship, they have forsaken the Head and Source of the truth. But the Lord speaks concerning His Church, and to those also who are in the Church He speaks, that if they are in agreement, if according to what He commanded and admonished, although only two or three gathered together with unanimity should pray – though they be only two or three – they may obtain from the majesty of God what they ask. “Wheresoever two or three are gathered together in my name, I,” slays He, “am with them;” that is, with the simple and peaceable – with those who fear God and keep God’s commandments. With these, although only two or three, He said that He was, in the same manner as He was with the three youths in the fiery furnace; and because they abode towards God in simplicity, and in unanimity among themselves, He animated them, in the midst of the surrounding flames, with the breath of dew: in the way in which, with the two apostles shut up in prison, because they were simple-minded and of one mind, He Himself was present; He Himself, having loosed the bolts of the dungeon, placed them again in the market-place, that they might declare to the multitude the word which they faithfully preached. When, therefore, in His commandments He lays it down, and says, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am with them,” He does not divide men from the Church, seeing that He Himself ordained and made the Church; but rebuking the faithless for their discord, and commending peace by His word to the faithful, He shows that He is rather with two or three who pray with one mind, than with a great many who differ, and that more can be obtained by the discordant prayer of a few, than by the discordant supplication of many.

13. Thus, also, when He gave the law of prayer, He added, saying, “And when ye stand praying, forgive, if ye have ought against any; that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25) And He 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: for God had not respect unto Cain’s offerings; for he could not have God at peace with him, who through envious discord had not peace with his brother. What peace, then, do the enemies of the brethren promise to themselves? What sacrifices do those who are rivals of the priests think that they celebrate? Do they deem that they have Christ with them when they are collected together, who are gathered together outside the Church of Christ?

14. Even if such men were slain in confession of the Name that stain is not even washed away by blood: the inexpiable and grave fault of discord is not even purged by suffering. He cannot be a martyr who is not in the Church; he 426 cannot attain unto the kingdom who forsakes that which shall reign there. Christ gave us peace; He bade us be in agreement, and of one mind. He charged the bonds of love and charity to be kept uncorrupted and inviolate; he cannot show himself a martyr who has not maintained brotherly love. Paul the apostle teaches this, and testifies, saying, “And though I have faith, so that I can remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I give all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity is magnanimous; charity is kind; charity envieth not; charity acteth not vainly, is not puffed up, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; loveth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things Charity never falleth.” (1st Corinthians 13:2-5-8) “Charity,” says he, “never faileth.” For she will ever be in the kingdom, she will endure for ever in the unity of a brotherhood linked to herself. Discord cannot attain to the kingdom of heaven; to the rewards of Christ, who said, “This is my commandment that ye love one another even as I have loved you:” (John 15:12) he cannot attain who has violated the love of Christ by faithless dissension. He who has not charity has not God. The word of the blessed Apostle John is: “God,” saith he, “is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God dwelleth in him.” (1st John 4:16) They cannot dwell with God who would not be of one mind in God’s Church. Although they burn, given up to flames and fires, or lay down their lives, thrown to the wild beasts, that will not be the crown of faith, but the punishment of perfidy; nor will it be the glorious ending of religious valour, but the destruction of despair. Such a one may be slain; crowned he cannot be. He professes himself to be a Christian in such a way as the devil often feigns himself to be Christ, as the Lord Himself forewarns us, and says, “Many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ, and shall deceive many.” (Mark 13:6) As he is not Christ, although he deceives in respect of the name; so neither can he appear as a Christian who does not abide in the truth of His Gospel and of faith.

15. 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 one does not attain the kingdom of heaven although he is found in all these things, unless he walks in the observance of the right and just way. The Lord denounces, and says, “Many shall say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy name, and in Thy name have cast out devils, and in Thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” (Matthew 7:22) There is need of righteousness, that one may deserve well of God the Judge; we must obey His precepts and warnings, that our merits may receive their reward. The Lord in His Gospel, when He would direct the way of our hope and faith in a brief summary, said, “The Lord thy God is one God: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength. This is the first commandment; land the second is like unto it: Thou shall love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Mark 12:29-31) He taught, at the same time, love and unity by His instruction. He has included all the prophets and the law in two precepts. But what unity does he keep, what love does he maintain or consider, who, savage with the madness of discord, divides the Church, destroys the faith, disturbs the peace, dissipates charity, profanes the sacrament?


[1] The Apostates and Heretics

[2] Cyprian lays out well the argument even against stand alone congregations of the True Church. There cannot be members of the Body who are not part of the Body. If we all baptize the same, and all have the same gospel, the unity of the Church must then be attained.

Post By Joel Watts (10,113 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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