A Story of Diversity from Early Christianity

by Ellen L. Babinsky, Associate Professor of Church History, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Austin, Texas

Paper prepared for the Covenant Network of Presbyterians


In the centuries before Constantine, the early church exhibited diversity in the practice of Christianity. Frequently bishops did not agree about how certain practices should be carried out. What is helpful for us in our time of differing viewpoints is the way in which church leaders were able remain together as a church. yet at the same time to maintain what seem to be polar opposite views. One story comes to us from the third century about Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, and Stephen, Bishop of Rome, who were able to maintain the unity of the church despite their deeply different theological views and practices regarding baptism.

The persecution of Christians by the emperor Decius (249-251) is the starting place for this story. The persecution was a systematic attack on the church since Christians were required to sacrifice in front of authorities on pain of torture and death, receiving certificates of proof that they had complied with imperial orders. Apparently property owners and others who had a great deal to lose economically were among the first to comply with the imperial order, not waiting for the threats to be implemented. In the face of imperial coercion, there were many who valued their lives more than their ecclesiastical standing and complied, either by sacrificing or by purchasing the necessary certificates from local officials.

When the danger passed, Cyprian's most immediate concern was the problem of how to readmit lapsed believers. In Carthage there were confessors who had survived imprisonment and torture who believed that their status as confessors gave them special charismatic grace and thus were empowered to forgive immediately those who had lapsed. Cyprian maintained that a period of time for penance was necessary, and that this decision was the prerogative of the bishop alone. Cyprian was supported in his views by two separate councils of bishops thereby indicating on the one hand that the true visible church was a mixture of worthy and unworthy believers; on the other hand, readmission as the prerogative of the bishop implied that bishops empowered to remit deadly sins therefore possessed sufficient grace as to be able to confer this grace on another who lacked it. The nature of the church and the state of grace of the bishop has direct relevance for the rest of the story.

The issue of diversity received immediate attention when Cornelius was elected bishop of Rome to fill the vacancy left by his predecessor who had been martyred. Cornelius was opposed by a rival contender named Novatian. The division was deep: Novatian and his supporters advocated the view that those guilty of murder, adultery, and apostasy could receive forgiveness only from God at the last Judgment. They insisted that bishops did not possess sufficient grace to remit such sins and could only intercede for divine mercy on behalf of the guilty ones. The supporters of Cornelius, however, maintained that the bishop possessed sufficient grace to remit the gravest sins after a time of penance. The Novatianists were not about to compromise what in their view was the necessary and essential purity of the church. Novatian and his supporters, having been condemned by Rome, formed their own communities, both in areas around Rome and in North Africa.

Time passed, Bishop Cornelius died, and Stephen was elected as bishop of Rome (254-257). It seems that at that time some persons who had been baptized in the Novatianist churches were seeking membership in the Catholic church. Cyprian was adamant: those baptized in Novatianist churches were in fact not baptized at all, because the schismatic Novatianist leadership did not possess grace to confer it at baptism; baptism outside the Catholic church was no baptism at all. Therefore, anyone seeking membership in the Catholic church was to be rebaptized. Bishop Stephen of Rome, however, held the view that baptism in water in the name of the Trinity was valid wherever it occurred. Those baptized outside the Catholic church should not be rebaptized but reconciled as penitents by the laying on of hands. Stephen held that the sacrament is not the church's but Christ's; the efficacy of baptism is not in the person administering the rite but in its form.

The vehemence of the disagreement was such that apparently Stephen refused to hold communion with any churches that practiced rebaptism. As for Cyprian, he gathered a council of the bishops of North Africa which unanimously voted against Stephen and declared that rebaptism of Novatianist converts should prevail. There was no schism, however, for other bishops successfully prevailed upon Stephen not to excommunicate those whose views and practice differed. Cyprian likewise held firm against division when he wrote: "It remains that we should individually express our opinions on this same subject. judging no one. and removing no one from the right of communion if he should entertain a different opinion." The two leaders' differences were ended abruptly with the persecution of the emperor Valerian (257-260). Stephen was martyred in 257, Cyprian was beheaded in 258.

My concern in the retelling of this story is to help us to ponder creatively how we might honor one another in the context of deep disagreement. I believe we can be faithful followers of Jesus Christ as we engage each other in our disparate views. I believe this story teaches us that while we may faithfully disagree, we need not be divided. May we always find our unity in Christ Jesus alone.


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