The Decian Persecution
In 1 Samuel 13, King Saul established a prophetic type of the Church that found its fulfillment in the middle of the third century. Saul was at war with the Philistines, and he was to await Samuel's arrival to make the sacrifice before the battle. He waited seven days, but Samuel still had not arrived. By this time, “the people were scattering from him” (vs. 8). So finally, Saul made the sacrifice himself (1 Sam. 13:9).
As soon as he was finished, however, Samuel arrived and told Saul in verses 13, 14,
13 And Samuel said to Saul, “You have acted foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God, which He commanded you, for now the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. 14 But now your kingdom shall not endure. The Lord has sought out for Himself a man after His own heart, and the Lord has appointed him as ruler over His people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.”
Samuel is a type of Christ in this story, while Saul is a type of the Church in the Pentecostal Age. Because Christ delayed His coming, the Christians were scattering, and the bishops felt the need to usurp the authority of Christ in order to keep unity in the Church.
The events of history in the days of Cyprian manifest the fulfillment of this Old Testament prophecy more than any other time. The persecution under Roman Emperor Decius was meant to destroy or scatter the Church, and Cyprian reacted in the same manner as Saul had done.
Hans von Campenhausen's The Fathers of the Latin Church, page 37, tells us,
“Although Jerome presumed that Cyprian had begun as a professor of rhetoric, we should perhaps suppose rather that he envisaged the career of a higher government official. . . With Cyprian began the line of ‘curial’ bishops who attempted to perform their ecclesiastical office in the magisterial style of the consuls and pro-consuls, with whom he did not shrink from being directly compared (Ep. 37, 2). Compared with the Greek East, this was a novel and specifically Western type of Catholic priesthood.”
The development of this Roman-style Church government began with Cyprian, but he himself was in some ways driven to it by the fallout from the Decian persecution from 249-251 A.D. During that persecution, great numbers of Christians either fled, obtained certificates of sacrifice through bribery, or actually did sacrifice to the pagan gods.
Cyprian himself went into hiding, insisting afterward that it was purely for the benefit of the Church. That may have been true, but most leaders in the past had considered persecution and martyrdom to be the will of God and submitted to it without fleeing. His conduct gave old rivals opportunity to attempt to overthrow him and replace him with more courageous leaders. After all, they could point to courageous examples of the bishops of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Caesarea, who had been martyred in the same persecution. And so a sizable section of the African Church renounced obedience to Cyprian and allied themselves with those who confessed Christ and lived to tell about it.
A key rival was Felicissimus. Hans von Campenhausen writes in his book, The Fathers of the Latin Church, p. 45,
“A certain Felicissimus, who had been ordained deacon against Cyprian’s will, and had taken charge of the congregational purse, dared to take a stand against him publicly, and when Cyprian excommunicated him, five other presbyters eventually joined the opposition. . . In these circumstances he pointed time and again to the bishop's office as the one decisive ministry, which sustains the church. He who leaves the holy altar of the bishop and changes his allegiance to the wicked party of Felicissimus is lost to the people of Christ, and can never again join them.”
On page 48, the author continues,
“Even more significant historically is Cyprian's writing on the unity of the church . . . The security of the institutional church meant for Cyprian the security of salvation, and of Christian faith itself, for which he suffered, lived, and fought. The church is the Bride of Christ, the ‘mother church’ for all faithful; ‘you cannot have God for your father unless you have the church for your mother’ (de Un. 6). Outside her there is no salvation. . .
“One cannot separate a ray from the light, a branch from the tree, a creek from the spring without its vanishing, withering, drying up. This unity of the church, however, exists because of the bishop's office. The church is in the bishop as the bishop is in the church (Ep. 66, 8). Woe to those who will not recognize this!”
On page 49 von Campenhausen concludes,
“So the unity of the Catholic church became a tangible, firm, and canonical reality in church politics, which determined the order of the Western church as far as Spain and Gaul.”
In other words, here was the point where the Roman form of government was transferred to the Church and where the Church was firmly identified as the earthly organization beyond the point of return. The Church was now seen as a “tangible” reality—that is, bound fully to the earthly structure itself, defined by the presence of the bishop, and its extent measured by the scope of men's obedience to the bishop.
The Decian persecution, then, which was intended to scatter the Church, actually succeeded only in solidifying its organizational unity and consolidation of political power. In the process, Cyprian’s eloquent writings gave later generations many quotable one-liners that would be remembered to the present day.
The key, however, is in understanding the most basic flaw that few seemed to comprehend in those days. That flaw is in identifying the Church with the organization rather than with the people, and in making membership the requisite to salvation. While it is true that one cannot be a Christian apart from the Church, the truth is simply that Christians who have a direct relationship with Christ are the sum total of the true Church, regardless of membership in earthly organizations.
While it is certainly possible to be a true Christian and also be submitted to men (whether civil or religious governments), it is equally true that those men lack the authority to lock the gates of heaven to those who do not submit to their decrees. They have authority only to expel people from the organization, not from heaven. To act otherwise is to become “antichrist” in the biblical sense of the word.
The Decian persecution also raised the issue of how to treat those who had denied Christ. The Holiness movement insisted that such people were lost forever and should not be re-admitted to communion. The Grace movement, of which Cyprian was a part, established that these should be re-admitted after a time of penance. The penitential time frame should be established according to the nature of the offence. In other words, those guilty of bribing officials to obtain sacrificial papers were re-admitted sooner than those who had actually sacrificed to the pagan gods.
Cyprian found common cause with Cornelius of Rome, for both bishops were confronted with anti-popes. Novatus was the anti-pope of Rome, while Felicissimus was the anti-pope of Carthage. (The term “Pope” was in those days applied to a number of major bishoprics, including Rome, Carthage, Alexandria, and later Constantinople.)
Cornelius was martyred by Decius in 251, and after a short reign by Lucius, Stephen succeeded him and became the first to claim true papal status, demanding that Cyprian submit to him in their dispute over heretical baptisms. Cyprian declared himself to be Stephen's equal in authority, and as the heat intensified, the sparks began to fly ever higher.