Cyprian of Carthage on the Church as Family

In the middle of the third century, a bishop named Cyprian presented his understanding of the church as the “family of God” in order to answer two main controversies that were facing ancient Christianity at the time. These two controversies were over what to do with believers who denied the faith under persecution, and whether or not to re-baptize believers who were baptized by church leaders who also “lapsed.”[1] His opponents 180px-Cyprian_von_Karthago2argued that those who caved in under persecution should not be allowed back into the church…ever, and that those who were baptized by leaders who did the same were not genuinely Christian. On the opposite spectrum were those calling for the lapsed to be readmitted to the church without asking any questions.

Cyprian argued that the church is primarily a family rather than an institution, place, or social group. Thus, he viewed it as a living, breathing relationship -a relationship that was severely severed by the empire-wide persecution and those who lapsed under it. Therefore, no-questions-asked re-admittance nor permanent excommunication was the answer.  Rather, those who lapsed under persecution should be welcomed back into the family of God upon repentance, yet they must demonstrate that their repentance is sincere, for the purpose of re-developing trust, loyalty, and unity in the relationship of the church family. This was a healthy balance that aided the unification of the church after a disastrous season of persecution.

Yet the beauty of history (especially church history) is that although Cyprian’s understanding of the church as family was presented nearly eighteen-hundred years ago, it still has implications for us today.

The Christian as a Spiritual Athlete vs. a Builder and Sustainer of the Family of God

Cyprian not only viewed the church as God’s family, but the individual members as builders and sustainers of that family. Therefore, the Christian did not just go to church to “be fed” or to grow spiritually, but to contribute to the family via encouragement, serving, sharing resources, praying for one another, etc. “Being Christian,” in Cyprian’s view, was to help build up and sustain his or her family (the local church). This is not to be confused with what it means to become  a Christian (repentance from sin and faith in Christ), but rather what it means to be Christian.

In our individualistic culture, we seem to have lost this idea of the Christian being a builder and sustainer of the family of God, and replaced it with the idea of the Christian being a spiritual athlete, with the church as his gym. We don’t view the church as the family that we are born into to serve and build, but rather as the place we may choose to go to grow ourselves and become stronger, more mature Christians. In fact, the majority of Christians today view church as an option for the believer, rather than a family the believer is called to love, grow, and serve. This idea is completely foreign to the Bible, and would have been repudiated by Cyprian. For him, to love Christ was to love his body. To serve Christ was to serve his body. To say you wanted Christ without the church was to say you wanted a family without parents, brothers, or sisters. It just didn’t make sense.

Nor does it make sense today. We have been made members of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:12-14) and have been given the privilege of meeting together, worshiping with, and building up the body. We are commanded not to neglect this great privilege (Heb. 10:25). To neglect the church, according to Cyprian, is to neglect what it really means to “be Christian.” Thus, to prevent people from rejoining the church who abandoned it during persecution was to prevent people from living out what God had called them to be as Christians (if in fact their repentance was genuine). The application for us is that if we choose to neglect the church, we are not simply choosing to disregard an asset to our Christianity, but are choosing to disregard what it truly means to “be Christian” (to be a member of, love, support, and build up the family of Christ).

As we discussed the implications of this in my Church History class,[2] I recognized that my view of the church was insufficient. I have often viewed the church as a place to benefit me, a place to grow me spiritually, a place to refine my gifts, a place to satisfy me, rather a family that I am called to help build and sustain through service, prayer, and sacrifice. I am not to view the church as primarily a place where I can grow, but a family that I am to love, build up, and serve. May God help us regain this biblical view for his church- our family![3]


[1]“Lapsed” was the term used to describe any capitulation to persecution that abandoned or denied the faith, such as making sacrifices to the Roman gods to avoid imprisonment.

[2] I am indebted to Dr. Steve McKinion at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary for explaining and drawing these parallels between Cyprian’s view of the church as family to our typical present-day view of the church.

[3] I recognize that in later centuries several church leaders took Cyprian’s views of the church and penance and took them to an erroneous extreme, developing both the practice of penance for forgiveness as well as the belief that salvation lies only inside church. However, just because Cyprian has been misused in this way does not negate the fact that we can learn from him.

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