Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5
Cyprian: Epistle LI
In this long letter, Cyprian gives us the back-story of the Cornelius/Novatian affair and explains why he has sided with Cornelius.
Cyprian also discusses the case of the lapsed, and explains how his position on readmitting them into the church has evolved over time. He recounts the Council that met to decide the question, appealing ultimately to Scripture and desiring to 1) restore the truly repentant; 2) make sure this process was involved enough to protect the integrity of the church; 3) be flexible enough to account for individual circumstances on a person-by-person basis. But, there arose a more difficult question: what do to with people who never technically lapsed, but instead bribed officials to receive certificates saying that they had. Some of these have even done so not so much for themselves as for the protection of their wives and children. We realize that these are all different categories of sins (but still sins!) and so in need of different kinds of responses from the church. So, the new rule is that those who dishonestly received certificates may be restored, while those who actually sacrificed to idols will not be until the end of their lives. Though again, this is a general rule and to be modified on a person-by-person basis as needed according to the rule of mercy.
Whichever approach to the lapsed each individual church takes, we must again remember that unity ought to be our goal. We ought to tolerate brothers and sisters who come to different conclusions or practices in their church, just as different churches have different responses to the sin of adultery. The goal again really is restoration, we just want to be careful in how we go about it. After all, "he who is not in the Church of Christ is not a Christian." (This said about Novatian.)
We also see in this letter some of Cyprian's ecclesiology. "There is one church, divided by Christ throughout the whole world into many members, and also one episcopate diffused through a harmonious multitude of many bishops." To attempt to divide this unity is to give evidence that we do not belong to Christ. One sign of this, as with Novatian, is his claim to be able to tell what goes on in the hearts of believers while tolerating sins that the true church would never allow (such as idolatry or adultery). We ought to mourn when heretics so strive to cut off believers from hearing the sweet promises of the Gospel proclaimed by God's true church!
While there are things here that are untrue, (you can be a believer outside of the visible church, for example), Cyprian's high view of the church is a necessary corrective for today's lax approach to the body of Christ!