Cyprian, Calvin, and Church (S)Hopping

S-ANF-Set  (This is a slightly edited repost from January, 2010)

Around 252 A.D. Cyprian wrote a letter to several Christians (Maximus, Urbanus, Sidonius, and Macharius) who had recently been received back into the church after they had left under persecution.  They repented, professed faith, and after time were allowed full fellowship once again.  Cyprian rejoices in this letter (“Epistle L” [50] in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, V.326-7) that they repented and confessed faith.  Here’s part of his counsel:

“Although there seem to be tares in the Church, yet neither our faith nor our charity ought to be hindered, so that because we see that there are tares in the Church we ourselves should withdraw from the Church: we ought only to labour that we may be wheat, that when the wheat shall begin to be gathered into the Lord’s barns, we may receive fruit for our labour and work. [Cyprian then quotes 2 Tim. 2.20]”

In other words, he calls these restored brethren to “stick with” the church even though there may be tares and impurity.  Calvin said it this way: “Add to this, that very many, under the pretense of zeal, are excessively displeased, when every thing is not conducted to their wish, and, because absolute purity is nowhere to be found, withdraw from the Church in a disorderly manner, or subvert and destroy it by unreasonable severity (Commentary on Matthew [13.24-43]).”

Cyprian then goes on to say that it is not the job of humans to make the final separation between the wheat and the tares:

[No one] …may claim to himself what the Father has given to the Son alone, so as to think that he can take the fan for winnowing and purging the threshing floor, or can separate by human judgment all the tares from the wheat.  That is a proud obstinacy and a sacrilegious presumption which a depraved madness assumes to itself.  And while some are always assuming to themselves more dominion than meek justice demands, they perish from the Church; and while they insolently extol themselves, blinded by their own swelling, they lose the light of truth.”

Fascinating.  Cyprian was hinting at the same things that the Reformers faced during the Reformation.  With some historical/contextual clarifications, one could apply Cyprian’s latter quote to the Anabaptists of the 16th and beyond.

Cyprian and Calvin’s comments are relevant today when many people hop from church to church looking for one they like the best.  Ironically even some Reformed Christians are habitual church (s)hoppers.  This is ironic – and quite inconsistent – because in Reformed theology, we have objective marks of a true church (preaching the whole counsel of God and the administration of Christ’s two sacraments).  Finding a biblical church isn’t primarily subjective (what we want), but objective (what God wants).

Reformed Christians who habitually church (s)hop are also inconsistent because Reformed eschatology doesn’t jump the eschatological gun by aiming for a perfectly pure church on this side of heaven.  A consistent Reformed Christian will understand that there is no perfectly pure or purely perfect church in the world.  He or she will also understand the Reformed truth that Christians are saints and sinners simultaneously.

If you are a habitual (chronic!?) church hopper, or if you’re counseling one, these words are worth studying again.  Sure, we should join the church that is most true to God’s word rather than the one that is most entertaining and fun.  However, we should not hop from church to church with a critical spirit, always finding something to gripe about, only to leave in pride and anger.  Not only is this attitude contra Reformed theology, it is also against the pleasant Christian virtues of humility, patience, and submission.

(Note: if you want to read Cyprian’s treatises and letters, they are available for a decent price on Kindle).

shane lems

sunnyside, wa