Thursday, February 19, 2015

ANF V: Cyprian Epistles LXVI-LXVII

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Cyprian: Epistles LXVI-LXVII

Both Epistles LXVI and LXVII have to do with the appointment and qualifications of pastors. And while again I may not always agree with Cyprian's views on polity, his desire for a holy and pure church is essential to any body of believers.

Most difficult is Epistle LXVI, which raises the question of what to do with a pastor who supports a pastor from a different congregation who has done some sketchy things. In this case, the pastor being supported is our old friend Novatian, who was elected (falsely?) as pastor of the church in Rome, and may have been involved in some immoral practices. (And I do want to stress the may have been part, since in the ancient challenges to practice also usually included throwing in a "and he kicks puppies too!" line. I'll wait until I've actually read Novatian's writings, at the end of this volume, before making a judgment call on his character.) Cyprian is quite clear as to what should happen to pastors who support these sketchy pastors--they need to be removed from office. While they may be restored to the congregation on their repentance, their days in positions of leadership should be over.

So, I think this is an incredibly difficult question, and I'm sympathetic to Cyprian's argument, but by no means sold on it. Let's take an example from recent Christian history, without giving any names:

  1. Pastor A is a faithful, Gospel-preaching minister who is perhaps not the wisest individual, but has led a ministry under which thousands have been converted and who is somewhat respected in the Christian world.
  2. Pastor B is openly a heretic, denying the Trinity clearly and irrefutably. 
  3. Pastor C is also a faithful, Gospel-preaching minister with good theology and practice, but is functionally unknown.
  4. Pastor A holds a conference to which he invites both Pastors B and C.
So what is Pastor C to do? What should Pastor C think about Pastor A? Should Pastor A be removed from office? Should Pastor C say or do anything? 
(If you care, this has largely worked itself out. Pastor A has imploded, Pastor B continues his heresy and Pastor C continues his faithful ministry.) 

Again, there is no clear answer here, and Cyprian's unreserved "Pastor C should denounce Pastor A" is, well, questionable. (And of course, if someone comes along and says "wait a second, Pastor B really isn't what you think he is--here are all the ways he has been misrepresented," as may be the case with Novatian, then the whole thing is even worse.)

Even with these difficulties, we should applaud and embrace Cyprian's concern for the purity of the church and of church leadership. Those pastors who fail to live up to their Scriptural calling need to be removed from leadership by their congregations. On that much, Cyprian and I can agree.

Epistle LXVII is a bit clearer, given that Cyprian is only saying that pastors who commit apostasy and then return (the lapsed again) should not be allowed back into positions of leadership. While we may not always agree on what sins should exclude someone from the ministry, surely apostasy is one of them. 
Again, it is the responsibility of the congregation to enforce this and to appoint pastors--with the cooperation of other pastors and their churches in the area--who are faithful in their leadership roles. 

Above all, it is the responsibility of the church to be faithful to Scripture: 
Since these things are announced [in Scripture, quoted just before this] and are made plain to us, it is necessary that our obedience should wait upon the divine precepts; nor in matters of this kind can human indulgence accept any man's person, or yield anything to any one, when the divine prescription has interfered, and establishes a law. For we ought not to be forgetful what the Lord spoke to the Jews by Isaiah the prophet, rebuking, and indignant that they had despised the divine precepts and followed human doctrines. 

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