Church Discipline in Church History (Part 2)


ForgivingIn our first installment we addressed the prescription and practice of church discipline and restoration in the Apostolic, 1st Century, Church. In this post we will turn our attention to the second through fourth centuries which brought forth various challenges to the church at large. During this time two African church leaders were at work preaching and teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Tertullian and Cyprian both ministered in Carthage.

Tertullian was born in Carthage into a likely pagan home. He was the beneficiary of an excellent education which saw him studying law in Rome. While in Rome he was impressed with the courage displayed by condemned Christians which ultimately resulted in his conversion. Following his conversion he returned to Carthage and became a vocal opponent of the false teachings of Monarchianism [1]. In addition to producing works which were critical in defending the doctrine of the Trinity, Tertullianhe also wrote on the subject of repentance [2] as well as his polemical Against Marcion which is rightly considered one of the first Christian biblical commentaries [3].

In a section of his writings known as Of Repentance, Tertullian writes of sin as an offense and offensive to God [4]. It is from this biblical understanding of sin he is able to conclude that repentance is a precursor to forgiveness and that once forgiven (saved/converted) a return to a life of habitual sin is showing preference to Satan/evil over the goodness of a forgiving God [5].

Tertullian also connected the action of repentance with a changed life to the extent that the repentance proclaimed with the lips was visible in the life of the penitent [6]. This conclusion may be why he posits that repentance in the sight of the brethren is a demonstration of repentance before Christ [7]. Tertullian went so far as to allow for a ‘second repentance’ for serious sin occurring after baptism prior to his confusing transition to Montanism later in his life [8]. In view of his writing upon repentance, it would seem safe to believe Tertullian believed the repentance of a sinner to salvation, and then as a continuing part of sanctification, should result in a restored relationship both to God and the church.

Such was the ministry of Cyprian that the Reformer, John Calvin quoted him more than any other early church leader before Augustine [9]. Cyprian was a later contemporary to Tertullian and it is said he never went a day without reading his works [10]. Cyprian may be best known in regards to the topic of church discipline and restoration for his work The Lapsed which addressed how to deal with those whose Cyprianfaith had lapsed under the persecution of the emperor, Decius (249-251). [11].

Cyprian took the persecution seriously, even considering the martyrdom of the saints as a type of dismemberment of the Body of Christ [12]. He noted the fact that the failure of some bishops of the church had the effect that some of the laity ended up “throwing down themselves by a voluntary fall” [13]. However, even with such strong views of the actions of bishops and laity alike, Cyprian demonstrated compassion toward the lapsed, especially those who faltered under torture [14]. But this compassion did not allow him to overlook the severity of the offense. He believed that strong rebuke, followed by a period of penance was necessary for the offender to demonstrate repentance before being granted access to the Eucharist, having drawn this conclusion from Revelation 6:9-11 [15]. Even with this view of restoration to full privilege within the church being accepted by councils in Carthage in both 251 and 252 AD, there were still some who believed the process to be too stringent while still others saw it as too lax. [16].

It would seem the orthodox view of the church in the third century was not far from the view of the apostolic church of the New Testament. Namely, forgiveness was granted by God and thus the goal of all repentance/penance was the restoration of the lapsed sinner to the church. My next post for this series we will shift the focus to The Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century.

[1]. Steven J. Lawson, A Long Line of Godly Men, vol. 2, Pillars of Grace: Ad 100-1564 (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2010), 110-112.

[2]. Ibid., 114.

[3]. Bryan M. Litfin, Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 105.

[4]. Tertullian, Apologetic and Practical Treatises, trans. C. Dodgson (London: Oxford, 1842), 353.

[5]. Ibid., 354, 356.

[6]. Ibid., 364.

[7]. Ibid., 366.

[8]. Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought, completely rev. and expanded ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 265-266.

[9]. Lawson, 128.

[10]. Ibid., 130.

[11]. Robert C. Walton, Chronological and Background Charts of Church History, rev. and expanded ed., Zondervan Charts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), Chart 9.

[12]. Cyprian, The Treatises of S. Caecilius Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage and Martyr, trans. Members of the English Church. (London: Oxford, 1840), 156.

[13]. Ibid., 156-157.

[14]. Ibid., 161.

[15]. Ibid. 162-165.

[16]. Lane, 25.