Monday, February 16, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistles LIX-LXI

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistles LIX-LXI

Epistle LIX is Cyprian's reply to Numidian elders (they would have been in his part of Africa, but farther out in the countryside) concerning Christians in their region who had been kidnapped and held hostages by barbarians. This letter is truly moving, and worth the devotional attention of every Christian. Which makes since, given that Cyprian learned of the situation "with excessive grief of mind, and not without tears." For "it was the temples of God which were taken captive." And yet, we know what we ought to do. Whatever the government's policy, if we can we ought to save the lives of our brothers and sisters:
Christ is to be contemplated in our captive brethren, and he is to be redeemed from the peril of captivity who redeemed us from the peril of death; so that He who took us out of the jaws of the devil, who abides and dwells in us, may now Himself be rescued [in the persons of these Christians] and redeemed from the hands of barbarians by a sum of money--who redeemed us by His cross and blood--who suffers these things to happen for this reason, that our faith may be tried, whether each one of us will do for another what he would wish to be done for himself, if he himself were held captive among barbarians.
Cyprian's church took up a collection of a staggeringly large sum (given that the church at this point was still mostly composed of the poor and slaves) and sent it along to help with the ransom.

Again, just an excellent letter all around.

If we need proof that some things never change, Epistle LX tells us that actors in Cyprian's day were notorious for their immoral lifestyles. To that end, Cyprian writes to a fellow elder his opinion that one of their members should not be allowed to be a member of the church if he persists in associating with the stage. It seems that this individual was both a professional actor and a teacher of acting, and Cyprian argues that both are irreconcilable with the Christian life--the former because it involves deceit and cross-dressing, and the latter because it teaches the other to do the same. If he argues his poverty, then he should live more frugally. If this is impossible, the church should care for him, and if their church can't afford to do so they should send him to Cyprian's church, who will care for his basic needs until he finds work suitable for the faith.
Whatever our opinions on the value of acting (I happen to enjoy both the stage and the screen quite a bit), I think we can learn much from Cyprian's charge to live new and holy lives assisted by the church.

This short epistle is well worth reading!

Epistle LXI deals with an issue that is likewise common today: the question of purity between men and women. What should we do with men and women (in this case, specifically female virgins who have dedicated themselves to celibacy) who are sleeping together? Not, perhaps, having sex, but sleeping in the same bed. Obviously this is going to make people talk, and raises questions about just how "virginal" these women are. (No doubt this raises questions about the men as well, but that is not the subject of this particular letter.) What should the church do? First, it needs to order them to stop the practice immediately. Then it needs to perform a serious investigation--those who are still virgins (confirmed by midwives) must repent, but may return to communion. Those who are not virgins must also repent, but (akin to the lapsed) must spend a time of repentance to prove it's genuine before being readmitted. (Presumably, they also have the option of marriage, but again Cyprian doesn't discuss this possibility.)
I assume that whatever the sexual nature of these relationships may have become, the original purpose of dwelling together in the Ancient world would have been financial. As with acting, we might suggest that today our standard has changed somewhat, though again we want to stress purity both in act and appearance before the world. My advice (based on nearly six years of coed living conditions in college) is 1) of course be involved in a local church; 2) live with a medium sized group of people. That is, large enough that you're never really alone with a member of the opposite sex (sharing rooms is of course not an option for a Christian), but small enough that you can't disappear into the crowd and be overlooked. In this sense, dorms actually work fairly well for these kinds of things (though they obviously don't beat non-coed dorms).
Anyway, that takes us beyond Cyprian.

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