Wednesday, February 18, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistles LXIII-LXV

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistles LXIII-LXV

Epistle LXIII returns to the question of the lapsed, in this case the lapser in question being a pastor who fell away during a time of persecution and now wishes to take back his office. While the congregation seems to be somewhat willing to allow this, Cyprian tells them in no uncertain terms that the lapser in question ought to be content to do nothing but repent for the rest of his life. This is not to say there's no reconciliation for them--all who truly repent ought eventually be brought back into the congregation. But an elder who fell away should be done being an elder.

The main point here, Cyprian reiterates, is the protection of the holiness and unity of the body of believers. We are to be marked by our unity of confession and practice, and to that end we ought to be sure that only those who are true believers and whose lives reflect that are allowed to gather around the table.

In Epistle LXIV, we get a further glimpse of Cyprian's view of the church and the shaky exegesis on which it rests. Apparently, in one church a deacon had been causing problems for the pastor, who then appealed to Cyprian and the other pastors in the area. Cyprian notes that the pastor was correct not to take the punishment of the deacon into his own hands (even though he technically had the power and authority to do so), but rather to appeal it to a group to avoid any chance of accusations of personal pettiness.
The problem comes in when Cyprian argues that 1) elders/pastors are appointed by God himself ("apostles"), while deacons are chosen by elders/pastors; and 2) this because of the way the OT worship and government was set up.
Don't get me wrong, Cyprian is correct that the church should work for unity; that there should be some kind of accountability process; and that deacons ought to submit to elders (and if they have a problem go through the process). The problem again is a problem of exegesis and theological application. Israel in the OT is not a practical model for the NT church--there's something different going on there. What's more, while it is true that pastors and elders do declare the Word of God to their congregations, and in that sense they do have some kind of Divine appointment, even in Cyprian's day they were still chosen the same way that deacons were--by congregational election.

Epistle LXV is an interesting short work arguing that elders and pastors cannot serve as executors of wills--which then meant a much more substantive practice than now. The big point is that their job should be worship and facilitating worship, not caring for worldly matters (which also means that the church needs to care well for them in the process).

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