Cyprian: On the Unity of the Church

Full essay title: Biblically and theologically critique the ecclesiology of Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, as found in his On the unity of the church.  What relevance for ministry today do you find in his ecclesiology?  (3000 words).

Part 1


Cyprian (200 – 258 AD) has played a pivotal role in the history of the Church.  Sinclair sums him up well when he says ‘his distinction among the early fathers is that he was the first to gather into one powerful agency the previously scattered and floating elements of episcopal autocracy, and to give actual consistency to the idea of the exclusive unity of the visible Church’ (Sinclair 1896, 119).

And Lightfoot describes how Cyprian only said what Ignatius had a century and a half earlier, except for ‘the single exception of the sacerdotal view of the ministry which had grown up meanwhile….This one exception however is all important, for it raised the sanctions of the episcopate to a higher level…. he raised it (episcopacy) to a position of absolute independence, from which it has never since been deposed’ (Lightfoot 1883, 240).

Apart from the many letters and treatises he wrote as he dealt with various situations as they arose, Cyprian is probably best known for his treatise ‘On the Unity of the Church’ (De Unitate Ecclesiae), although the concepts in it which he puts forward are found throughout all his writings. 


Up to Cyprian’s time the idea of what the Church is had been changing from the New Testament ideal, and this almost from the beginning.  The elevation of the priesthood had already begun with Clement (Clement 1994, 16), who lived 30-100 AD, developed even further with Ignatius (30-107 AD), and continued through the apologists such as Irenaeus and Tertullian; but it was Cyprian who crystallized the newly developed ecclesiology into the episcopal system as we see it today in Eastern Orthodoxy and, in varying degrees, Anglicanism.

Cyprian revered Tertullian, finding in him ‘a perfect teacher’ (Frend 1973, 111); Wand (1965, 105) said ‘as a Christian he took for his hero his fellow-townsman, Tertullian.  Indeed he went even further than Tertullian in his refusal to study any literature that was not Christian’.  But Cyprian must have read Ignatius deeply as well because it is striking that De Unitate Ecclesiae owes more to Ignatius than anything else. Sinclair (1896, 118) says that Cyprian ‘composed a tract against Polytheism, freely borrowing, but without acknowledgment, both from Minucius Felix and from Tertullian’, so it was not beyond him to use Ignatius so heavily without acknowledgment.  However he probably would not have seen himself as stealing one man’s ideas, rather, using Ignatius in expressing the currently accepted idea of ecclesiology.

De Unitate Ecclesiae

The essential points of ecclesiology Cyprian makes in De Unitate Ecclesiae are

  1. The place of Peter in the Catholic Church
  2. The Catholic Church is One
  3. The Episcopate is One
  4. No Salvation Outside the Catholic Church
  5. No Ministry Outside the Catholic Church

1.  The Place of Peter in the Catholic Church

There are two different versions of De Unitate Ecclesia in circulation.  One version describes the apostles as being equal to Peter; the other very clearly states that Peter (and therefore Rome) has primacy of authority over all the other apostles (and therefore bishops).  Common to both versions is the application of Matt 16:18, 19 to Peter, giving him primacy of honour in the Church; and John 20:21 stating that the other apostles have equal authority and power in the Church with Peter; this is known as the Common Text.  Unique to the other, known as the Primacy Text, are those words which assign primacy of honour and power and authority in the Church to Peter.  

Bettenson (1978, 263) states that there is a ‘complicated manuscript tradition’ of this treatise, but that now ‘it is generally supposed that both versions are the work of Cyprian’.  Until recently it was thought that the Common Text was the original, but the dominant view now is that Cyprian altered the Primacy Text to the Common Text because of the controversy with Pope Stephen on baptism.  Bettenson concludes by saying, ‘M. Bevenot, S.J., by a diligent examination of the MSS., has succeeded in establishing the two distinct texts…. Bevenot maintains that the “papalism” of the “primary text” is more apparent than real, Peter’s “primacy” being emphasised to support the apostolic authority of bishops, not the pre-eminence of the Bishop of Rome’ (Bettenson 1978, 263).

Jurgens (1970, 220) quotes Bevenot ‘Vol. 25 of the series Ancient Christian Writers, pp. 7-8’ as saying that Cyprian wanted to tone down the Primacy Text because ‘he had never held that the Pope possessed universal jurisdiction’.  In acknowledging that Cyprian never meant to say that the bishop of Rome had universal jurisdiction, Bevenot (in Jurgens 1970, 220) nevertheless maintains that the dogma was still there; it just needed further thought to make it clearer.  He says that Cyprian had simply ‘never asked himself the question where the final authority of the Church might be’.

So Bevenot and Jurgens, both Catholic, maintain their Catholic dogmas of the development of doctrine and of the Roman bishop’s universal jurisdiction even though they acknowledge they don’t have Cyprian to support them.

Cyprian makes it clear in his treatise that although the other apostles were equal in power and authority to Peter, ‘yet, that He might set forth unity, He arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one (i.e. Peter)….the beginning proceeds from unity’ (Cyprian 1995, 422).

Schaff, in commenting on Cyprian’s ‘persistent opposition to the pope’ says, ‘….in whom (i.e. the pope) he saw the successor of Peter and the visible center of unity, Cyprian plainly denied the supremacy of Roman jurisdiction and the existence of an infallible tribunal for the settlement of doctrinal controversies, and protested against identifying the church in general with the church of Rome’ (Schaff undated, 81).

Coxe says the Nicene Constitutions ‘were embedded in the Ignatian theory of an episcopate without a trace of a papacy; and Cyprian’s maxims had to be practically destroyed in the West before it was possible to raise the portentous figure of a supreme pontiff, and to subject the Latin churches to the entirely novel principle of Ecclesia in Papa.  To this novelty Cyprian’s system is essentially antagonistic’ (Coxe 1995, 263; italics his). 

2.  The Catholic Church is One

Cyprian (1995, 423) emphatically stresses that the Church is one.  He compares it to the sun, from which a ray cannot be separated; or a tree, from which a branch cannot be separated and still be a tree; he compares it to the unity within the Trinity (it’s gratifying to discover another early witness to 1 John 5:7 here); and to the seamless robe of Christ.  It’s clear that Cyprian refers to the visible Church, and he insists on such.  He says ‘“And there shall be one flock and one shepherd”.  And does anyone believe that in one place there can be either many shepherds or many flocks?’  Schaff comments: ‘It may well be questioned whether our Lord intended an outward visible unity of the Church in the present order of things.  He promised that there should be “one flock, one shepherd,” but not “one fold”.  There may be one flock, and yet many folds or church organisations’ (Schaff undated, 82).

And Guthrie (2004, 1047) commenting on John 10:16 says ‘This statement witnesses to the variety within the community of God’s people, yet its essential unity in Christ himself’.

So Cyprian has made a fundamental error here which underlies his whole ecclesiology.  He has confused oneness in faith with oneness of the visible Church; and membership in the Church with membership in Christ; and thus misapplies many scriptures to the visible Church and our relationship to it which should be applied to Christ and our relationship to Him.  For example, in Epistle LXVIII, Cyprian (1995, 374) writes ‘they are the Church who are a people united to the priest’, which glaringly illustrates this error.  It is truer to say, the Church is those people who are united to Christ and each other by faith in His blood (Rom 4:25), resurrection (1 Cor 15:14) and unity of the Spirit (Eph 4:3).  Unity is certainly urged (e.g. John 17:20-26; 1 Cor 1:10-30), and Cyprian was right to do so; but ‘unity does not demand uniformity’ (Omanson 1985, 232).

3.  The Episcopate is One

‘In order to condemn the (Novatian) schism Cyprian contended that the unity of the Church was episcopal, not theological.  The oneness of the Church was to be found in the union of the college of bishops’ (Blaising 1985, 291).

In chapter 5 (Cyprian 1995, 423), Cyprian states ‘The episcopate is one, each part of which is held by each one for the whole’.  Coxe (1995, 422) comments ‘This maxim is the essence of the treatise; i.e. “Ecclesia in Episcopo”’

As Wand puts it, ‘while the unity of the Church rests on the solidarity of the episcopate as a whole, each member of the episcopal body exercises the powers and functions of the whole’ (Wand 1965, 111).

There is no room here for a universal bishop; Cyprian’s idea is that each bishop is sovereign within his own see provided he remains within the Church.  The operations of grace are closely confined within this unity; any minister who breaks communion, therefore, loses all power to administer the sacraments.  Thus Cyprian felt free to contend with Stephen, bishop of Rome, over Stephen’s claim of universal jurisdiction which he introduced in the dispute over baptism.  In fact, as Lietzmann (1963, 254) says of Cyprian, ‘he felt himself to be the senior, and the more experienced of two equal colleagues’.

4.  No Salvation Outside the Catholic Church

Cyprian’s famous statement ‘He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother’ (1995, 423) again illustrates his wrong understanding of what the Church is.  Much of what was said in ‘Oneness of the Church’ in Point 2 applies here as well, so it only remains to be said that, according to Cyprian, only the Catholic Church had the true sacraments (see Point 5), therefore to have God for Father meant being born anew through the agency of the Catholic Church, the mother (1995, 423 – end of ch. 5), the only source of regeneration.  He compares the Catholic Church with Noah’s ark; just as it was impossible to be saved outside the ark, so it is impossible to be saved outside the Church.

Schaff well says (italics his) ‘The Scriptural principle: “Out of Christ there is no salvation”, was contracted and restricted to the Cyprianic principle: “Out of the visible church there is no salvation”: and from this there was only one step to the fundamental error of Romanism: “Out of the Roman Church there is no salvation”’ (Schaff undated, 82).

5.  No Ministry Outside the Catholic Church

Just as it is impossible to be saved outside the Catholic Church, so it is impossible that there is a valid and effective ministry outside the Church.  Cyprian had taken the concept of the elevated priesthood from Ignatius and Tertullian, developed it, and used it against his opponents, the Confessors and presbyters, who had taken control of the church in Carthage during his absence, and against Novatian.  He asks ‘Does he think that he has Christ, who acts in opposition to Christ’s priests….and forsaking God’s priests, he dares to set up another altar, to make another prayer with unauthorized words, to profane the Lord’s offering by false sacrifices’ (Cyprian 1995, 427)

He equates those who set themselves up as bishops outside the Catholic Church with Korah, Dathan and Abiram, and pronounced the same destruction against them (1995, 427).  He denounced them in the same way the Old Testament denounced those who rebelled against God, saying they were worse than the lapsed (1995, 427).   

His misuse of Old and New Testament examples to consign his opponents to the judgment of God and to hell is typical of those in abusive churches today who want to shore up their own system and personal power and control the “ordinary” believers. The fear of offending the priest/elder is ever-present in the members of such churches, and the consequences of doing so are severe, even eternal.  The misuse of scripture to consolidate power only produces legalism, guilt and fear. 

Wand (1965, 111-112) says ‘There is indeed, says Cyprian, no grace outside the Church, and it is on that theory that Cyprian can with remorseless logic deny the validity of heretical and schismatic baptism’.  But this is Cyprian’s problem; logic, especially ‘remorseless logic’, often reaches conclusions that scripture never meant to teach.  This is not to say that scripture is illogical, simply that it is spiritually discerned (1 Cor 1:12; 2:5). Instead of correctly interpreting relevant passages of scripture relating to ministry and the Church, such as 1 Tim 3 and 1 Cor 3:5-9, 16, Cyprian’s logic built on the logic of the earlier apologists instead of scripture, and developed an unbiblical church and priesthood, and also added a further rung to the ladder of the Catholic theory of development of doctrine, and of Holy Tradition (see 1 Cor 3:10-15).  Starting with a false premise Cyprian built a logical and efficient, but still unbiblical, church system.

Cyprian also seems to have taken no account of the situation in Mark 9:38-41, where a man outside the apostolic circle and prevented by them from working in Jesus’ name, was rather commended by Jesus because ‘whoever is not against us is for us’

The New Testament concept of ministry is that of servanthood (Mark 10:42-45); of the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet 2:9); and of ‘living sacrifice’ (Rom 12:1).  But by the 3rd century the concept was that of a mediating priesthood, a class of men who stood between God and the people by virtue of their ability to offer the sacrifice in the Eucharist and bestow the Holy Spirit in baptism.  Lindsay (1977, 265) says ‘the main thought was much more the power of the priest than his mediation’ (italics his).

Blaising says ‘(Cyprian) also is important in the development of the doctrine of the Mass, as he taught that the supper was a sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood which the priest, functioning in Christ’s stead, offers up to God the Father on behalf of the people’ (Blaising 1985, 291).

Thus Cyprian’s reason for elevating the priesthood; it was a sacrificing role, and as such, was separate from the laity.  Also, according to Cyprian (1995, 425), it is only the priest in the Catholic Church who is able to dispense the ‘living and saving water’ of baptism.

Lightfoot says ‘If Tertullian and Origen are still hovering on the border (of sacerdotalism), Cyprian has boldly transferred himself into the new domain….he treats all the passages in the Old Testament which refer to the privileges, the sanctions, the duties, and the responsibilities of the Aaronic priesthood, as applying to the offices of the Christian Church’ (Lightfoot 1883, 258).

Wand (1965, 112) also tries to defend Cyprian by saying ‘we are not to think of Cyprian as a hard and narrow ecclesiastic’, describing the ‘consistent mildness of his tone in controversy’.  But the fact remains that any teaching which is unbiblical, however well meant and mildly put, is still unbiblical, and therefore produces problems.  In this case, the simplicity, freedom and autonomy of the local church had been replaced by a two-tiered system consisting of an autocratic priesthood separated from, and elevated above the “ordinary” Christians; while assembling together in the simplicity of Acts 2:42 and 1 Cor 14:26, and meeting ‘from house to house’ Acts 2:46 (margin) developed into a visible organisation, and an increasingly developing system of prayer, liturgy and sacrificial Mass performed by the priest with the laity as spectators.


De Unitate Ecclesiae presents the Ante-Nicene idea of the Church which Cyprian inherited, and thus represents the ecclesiology of the period.   Cyprian didn’t invent a new system; he expounded, systemized and completed what he had received.  His logical and disciplined mind produced a logical and disciplined system.  Irenaeus had successfully fought against the Gnostics using a Church and Faith handed down from apostles to bishops, showing that they (the Gnostics) didn’t have the true Faith because their leaders were not of the true Church.  Cyprian used this same idea but against those who were not heretical, and who did have the same Faith as the Church.  He excluded them from the Catholic Church and therefore salvation, on the basis of ecclesiology (they were schismatics) not theology.  His treatise sets out his ecclesiology and the way he uses that ecclesiology to overcome his opponents. 

Part 2

As mentioned above, Cyprian inherited his ecclesiology from the apologists who preceded him, systematized it, and developed it further by elevating the priesthood beyond what Ignatius had by attributing to it the power and authority of the Aaronic priesthood.  He reinforced this by misapplying scripture, choosing those passages which appeared to support his position.  In other words, he started off with his theory, and then supported it by selected scripture.  As a theory of ecclesiology therefore, the only relevance for ministry today is what can be learned from his mistakes.  It is built on a false premise rather than scripture, and as such is not binding on the Church. 

There are positive principles in his ecclesiology however, his opposition to the concept of one bishop having universal jurisdiction over the whole Church being one of them.  The Roman Catholic Church is a very practical and logical system – it works well.  But it is not scriptural, and it continues to stake its claim to primacy of authority over every other church; therefore the churches today need to remain aware of what is happening in Rome.

There are also negative principles in his ecclesiology from which the churches can learn.  An important one is that the Church needs to draw its ecclesiology and theology from scripture, not superimpose scripture over already formed ideas.  In his attempts to deal with schism, Cyprian tried to exclude the schismatics from a visible church which he equated with the invisible church, and consign them to hell.  In contrast, the way Paul dealt with schism in Corinth was to appeal (1 Cor 1:10); assure (4:14); instruct (ch. 1-4).  To be sure, 2 Cor 11:12-15 is very close to the way Cyprian tried to deal with the schismatics, but Paul used the gospel as his basis (1 Cor 1:10-2:5) whereas Cyprian appealed to Apostolic Succession and the sacerdotal priesthood.

In using scripture to defeat his opponents, he used it as a weapon to cut off and destroy, not as a means to reconciliation and healing of relationship.  Certainly Novatian and his supporters were also wrong, and perhaps intractable.  But had the Church had a right understanding of ecclesiology at that time, Novatian, whose theology was orthodox, could have had his own church and remained at peace with the other churches (Mark 9:38-41).

Finally, the New Testament purpose of the Church is for fellowship and instruction (Acts 2:42-47); mission (Matt 28:19-20); worship (1 Cor 14:26-33).  Cyprian’s ecclesiology changed all this and produced evil fruit in the Church.  Because of his successfully establishing that the priest was elevated above the laity due to his ability to perform the sacrifice of the Mass, Rome later used this to her advantage and gained the power to pursue its enemies even into the next world; nobody could hide or flee from the wrath of the Church after this.  Evangelical churches have likewise used scripture to support their own power base and gain control over their members, with similar results for their trusting congregations.  This is an extremely destructive practice and has caused untold suffering for centuries.  The Church needs to come back to Jesus’ teaching and example (John 13:4-5; 12-16; Gal 5:13; Mk 9:33-37) and remember that Jesus came to serve, not to be served (Matt 20:28). 


Bettenson, H.  1978, The Early Christian Fathers, Oxford, Oxford, England.

Blaising, C.A. 1985, ‘Cyprian’. In Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. W.A. Elwell, Marshall Pickering, Basingstoke, Hants, 291.

Clement of Rome, 1994, The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, ANF, Hendrickson, Peabody, Massachusetts.

Cyprian, 1995, The Treatises of Cyprian 1: On the Unity of the Church, ANF, Hendrickson, Peabody, Massachusetts.

Coxe, A.A. 1995, Introductory Notice to Cyprian, ANF, Hendrickson, Peabody, Massachusetts.

Frend, W.H.C. 1973, The Early Church, Hodder and Stoughton, London, England.

Guthrie, D. 2004, ‘John’ in New Bible Commentary, ed. D.A. Carson, R.T. France, J.A. Motyer, and G.J. Wenham, IVP, Leicester, England, 1047.

Jurgens, W.A. 1970, The Faith of the Early Fathers, vol. 1, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota.

Lietzmann, H. 1963, The Founding of the Church Universal, Lutterworth, London.

Lightfoot, J.B. 1883, ‘Dissertation on the Christian Ministry’ in Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, Macmillan, London, 240, 258.

Lindsay, T.M. 1977, The Church and the Ministry in the Early Centuries, James Family Publishing, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Omanson, R.L. 1985, ‘The Church’ in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, W.A. Elwell, Marshall Pickering, Basingstoke, Hants, 232.

Schaff, P. undated, History of the Christian Church, vol. 1, AP&A, U.S.A. (no details given).

Sinclair, W.M. 1896, ‘Cyprian’ in Church Leaders in Primitive Times, ed. W. Lefroy, Thynne and Jarvis, London, 118,119.

Wand, J.W.C. 1965, A History of the Early Church to AD 500, Methuen, London.