Cyprian of Carthage was a third-century leader of the Christian church. He was one of the earliest, strongest proponents of the idea that only the church, particularly the bishops of the church, had the power to administer sacraments and determine who was or was not worthy of those rituals. His debate over apostate Christians laid the groundwork for modern Catholicism’s stance on sacraments given by un-approved ministers. At the same time, Cyprian rejected the idea of a single bishop—e.g., a Pope—having authority over other church leaders.
When Roman persecution came to Carthage, a great number of self-professed Christians compromised their witness in order to save their lives. Some obtained signed waivers proving they had sacrificed to Roman deities in order to avoid suffering at the hands of the government. When the persecution died down, many of these believers sought to re-join the church. Some Christians, including those who had held fast to their faith and had been brutalized, welcomed them with open arms. Others insisted that these apostates be permanently excommunicated.
Cyprian’s leadership struck something of a middle ground between these two extremes. Those who wanted to rejoin the church would need to show some kind of contrition or penance. Notably, Cyprian discouraged the attempts of apostates to obtain waivers from other Christians vouching for their sincerity. Cyprian’s objection was not over the idea that forgiveness required human approval; rather, he objected to the idea of laypersons (non-priests) having the authority to make such pronouncements. According to Cyprian, only penance administered by a bishop was valid.
Cyprian’s definition of penance was severe, but his middle ground left the door open for reconciliation in a way that satisfied most Christians of his era. Some, however, rejected this approach strongly enough to break away and form their own sect: the Novatians, named after Novatian, the Roman bishop who led the new faction.
Cyprian’s approach to the Novatian Schism strongly influenced later Catholic interpretations of the role of the church and the priesthood. Contrary to what Cyprian espoused, Novatian insisted that any person who denied Christ under persecution could never be restored. In other words, those who followed Novatian considered apostasy a mortal sin: unforgivable and permanent. This attitude came hand-in-hand with a view that only those who were subject to a bishop of the general church—literally, the “catholic” (universal) church—could be saved.
After Novatian’s teaching was declared a heresy, Cyprian ruled that sacraments such as baptism obtained under a Novatian bishop were invalid. In broad strokes, this means Cyprian agreed with the idea that only those receiving sacraments from officials in the “true” church were really saved. His disagreement was not over the role of sacraments but whether Novatian bishops were authorized to administer them. Cyprian endorsed the idea that only sacraments administered by a “legitimate” bishop held the power of salvation.
However, during this same controversy, Cyprian rejected the idea of any one Christian bishop having special authority over the others. Stephen, the acting Bishop of Rome, claimed—for the first time—that, since his office descended from Peter, he was a higher authority than other Christian leaders. Using that reasoning, he attempted to coerce Cyprian to change his views on rebaptism. Cyprian refused both Stephen’s command and his reasoning, effectively rejecting the modern Catholic concept of the papacy. This disagreement was unresolved at Stephen’s death.
From a historical and theological perspective, Cyprian has proved to be a controversial figure. His stance on the “mother church” is often cited by Catholic theologians in support of their views. At the same time, his stance on the universal equality of all bishops—without any singular leader—is frequently referenced by those who oppose Catholic theology.