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He cannot have God for his father who does not have the church for his brothers and sisters

Posted by on Sep 14, 2009 in church history, definition | 21 comments

One of the most famous early Christian quotes (outside of the NT) is this:

He cannot have God as his Father who does not have the church for his Mother.

This was written by Cyprian in the third century AD (died 258). Here is the quotation in context:

The spouse of Christ cannot be adulterous; she is uncorrupted and pure. She knows one home; she guards with chaste modesty the sanctity of one couch. She keeps us for God. She appoints the sons whom she has born for the kingdom. Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress, is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. (Treatise on the Unity of the Church 6)

In this treatise, Cyprian is responding to people who had “lapsed” during a recent persecution.

I wonder if Cyprian missed something in this statement. Notice that Cyprian separates “church” from those who are part of the church. In fact, he says, “She [the church] keeps us for God.” Thus, there is a distinction here between the church and “us” – that is, those who are kept for God.

Cyprian also says, “She [the church] appoints the sons whom she has born for the kingdom.” Once again, we see a separation between the church and the ones who are part of the kingdom of God.

I don’t think we see this same type of distinction and separation in Scripture. Instead, in Scripture, we see that the people are the church. We are the ones who cannot be adulterous, who are uncorrupted, and who are pure. We are the ones who guard one another for God.

Thus, the church is not our mother – as if “the church” is some entity that is separate from us. Instead, we are the church. If we wanted to keep the family language, perhaps we could say something like this:

He cannot have God for his father who does not have the church for his brothers and sisters (siblings).

I think there is a danger in separating “the church” from those who are the church… from the people themselves. It is impossible to be adopted by God and not be part of God’s family. (Of course, being part of God’s family is not the same thing as being associated with a particular church organization.)


21 Comments

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  1. 9-14-2009

    Your amendment to this quote is quite excellent, and a great observation on the times. I’d like to suggest that somewhere between the time Paul died and this was written the good old ‘mother church’ had started sleeping with all kinds of royalty and political allies and rather sadly forgotten the marriage bed she was supposed to occupy.

    Separating the concept of church from the people enabled the structures to be created that allowed man control and attempted to marginalise God. We seem the legacy of those structure at work in our present age with a clergy and laity, the concepts of a priesthood and sacraments that require authorised individuals to perform them. I find it fascinating to read the various sets of ‘rules’ created in the 3rd and 4th centuries, about whole was allowed to wear what and all kinds of stuff – not quite heresy, but running close.

    I love The Church, but have a deep loathing for churchianity and the structures it’s built. This is a great reminder of who the true Church is.

  2. 9-14-2009

    What St. Cyprian means by the Church being a mother is related to baptism. In Catholic understanding of baptism we are born again by water and the Spirit and this is done by the Church.

    Your corruption of St. Cyprian’s comment is correct in its own right, but so is St. Cyprian’s.

  3. 9-14-2009

    Alan,

    I love the rewrite, though I would make one additional change: “He cannot have God for his father who does not have the church as his brothers and sisters (siblings).”

  4. 9-14-2009

    Alan

    “I think there is a danger in separating “the church”
    from those who are the church…“

    Much agreed, it is a great danger.
    You can see the results all around us. Oy vey!

    When I hear the word “Church” I want to think of;

    The redeemed of the Lord.

    The habitation of God.

    The Israel of God.

    The body of Christ.

    Haven’t we told the unbelieving, unsaved,
    that they need to go to a good Bible believing church?

    Don’t they picture in their mind; a building with a steeple on it?
    Is that in the Bible?

    Don’t they picture; a pastor, in a pulpit,
    preaching to people in pews?
    Is that in the Bible?

    How many will know and understand that they can
    become “the ekklesia of God.” The called out one’s of God.

    How many will know that “The Church of God”
    “The ekklesia, the called out one’s of God” are;

    Kings and preist’s unto God.
    The Bride of Christ.
    Servants of Christ.
    Sons of God.
    Disciples of Christ.
    Ambassadors of Christ.

    Haven’t we deceived them by telling them
    the church is a building or “a mother?”

    When all the time “you’re” the ekklesia of God.
    The habitation of God. The Isreal of God.

    Haven’t they missed the awesomeness of God,
    The beauty of His Church, How we all become one in Him?

    Neither bond nor free, neither male nor female,
    No Complementarinism nor Egalitarianism.
    No denominationalism nor non- denominationalism.
    All obeying Jesus, All following Jesus, as one new man.

    Be blessed.

  5. 9-14-2009

    Alan,

    Very interesting observation.

    In my understanding, the Roman Catholic view of the Church has, to a large degree, reflected this basic misunderstanding of Cyprian. There are, however, movements within Catholicism, such as the “We are Church” movement (http://www.we-are-church.org/), which are seeking to correct this. However, official Catholic teaching (if I am remembering correctly) is that, in a strict sense, “the Church” is comprised of the pope, the bishops, and the rest of the “clergy,” not the “faithful” themselves.

    I would be interested to know if you know of any early Christian writer(s) and/or quotes who/which directly contradict this view of Cyprian.

  6. 9-14-2009

    Toni,

    I’m not strictly opposed to organization (although I think organization for the sake of organization can be a hindrance). Whenever even two or three people get together, there will be some kind of organization. However, as your comment warned, we must be very careful not to confusion the church with the organization. The church is the people and the people are the church.

    Brian,

    Yes, Cyprian was talking about baptism. In this passage, though, it seems clear that he makes a distinction between the church and the people.

    Laura,

    “As” sounds good to me. Just wondering… why do you like “as” better than “for”?

    A. Amos Love,

    Yeah, the biblical evidence seems overwhelming to me. The church is the people, not something separate from the people.

    David,

    No, I haven’t looked into how other early Christians agreed with or contradicted Cyprian’s quote. I know that Cyprian and Augustine went back and forth over the issue of the “lapsed”.

    -Alan

  7. 9-14-2009

    The church is a living, breathing body, and we are the parts. I think that there is a difinitive danger to creating megalithic organizations with popery and grandeur – it only serves to allow sinful man to insert corruptive influences into Christ’s body of believers. The mongering for worldly possessions (reference: mammon), political positioning, and unjust wars that the Catholic Church and its asserted royalty have been a part of are evidence thereof. Many reformed spinoffs are merely carbon copies of the same.

    Christ meant for us to be a priesthood of believers, with Him as the direct mediator between us as individual believers and God the Father. There should be no other way.

  8. 9-14-2009

    Jeremiah,

    Popery. That was awesome.

    David,

    According to official Catholic teaching, the Church is the Body of Christ. The lay faithful are indeed part of the Church in any sense of the word. You are mistaken.

    Alan,

    He doesn’t make the distinction to create an either/or situation. It is (as I have said before I am sure) a both/and situation. For Catholics, the Church in St. Cyprian’s understanding is correct and the Church in your editing of his statement is correct as well. We do not feel that they are mutually exclusive any more than God’s justice and mercy are mutually exclusive.

  9. 9-14-2009

    Alan – you make a good point that we need to not confuse the church with the organisation. The issue to me was spiritual and political adultery at this time.

    *snip*

    This is turning into a bit of a rant about the church in this period and I don’t want to go there.

  10. 9-14-2009

    Brian,

    I have gone back and skimmed over the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and indeed, according to what I read there, you are correct on this.

    Yet, somewhere in the past, I distinctly remember being taught that the clergy were considered “church” in a way the “faithful” are not.

    There must be some quotes by Catholic theologians that would tend to support this view. I don’t have time right now to do the necessary research. Perhaps you know of some.

    In any case, on this point, I retract what I wrote. You are indeed correct.

  11. 9-14-2009

    Jeremiah,

    Unfortunately, most of what you said could also be said of the modern Protestant church as well.

    Brian,

    Yes, I understand the Catholic position, and I see that position in Cyprian’s writings. But, I don’t agree with it. :)

    Toni,

    I understand what you were saying, and I agree. I try to keep rants to a minimum too, but sometimes they come out.

    -Alan

  12. 9-15-2009

    Alan,

    “For” seemed a bit utilitarian, as if one were lacking siblings and the church functioned as a “place” to rustle some up.

    “As” suggests identity.

  13. 12-25-2009

    Hi Alan,
    I have not read the comments left here, I may later. Busy! Christmas Day.
    However, I wanted to break away to do some research for an article I am not convinced I can publish, yet. The article is in essence speaking to the luke warm church.
    In reading your article, here, I came to a different understanding for what Cyprian was saying. What Cyprian was stating is the very problem my own church family has. Lack of concern for individual’s relationships with Christ. Is lack of concern for those in the church who are not the Church. Not the Family of God. They, by choice are in the church, but are of the world.
    This came to my attention when I began to notice, those things we ought to be ashamed of, were being done in our small groups. I.E., taking a small group to Capital Ale House, here in Richmond, and some of the group members drinking alcohol. One woman who plays an instrument in the church orchestra is a bouncer at a night club and lives with her boyfriend. I was at one of the deacon’s place of business; his receptionist and I had time to talk while I was waiting. She just began working there. I asked her, “How did you get this job?” She said, she attends church at the same church as the deacon whom she works for. (I did not let on to my belonging to the same church). She tried to think of the name of the church! Not invested, at all. Then, I asked her, “How did you meet the deacon?” She said, through her boyfriend. “How did you meet your boyfriend?” . ‘At a bar’, was her answer.
    I am growing more and more concerned for our church. I approached some members of the staff. I received answers, like “We have more important things to do than worry that someone is drinking or going to bars. Certainly, if someone were to tell me they live with their boyfriend, we would have to address that”.
    I said, “The problem is, people come to this church, not being ashamed to bring the darkness of their live’s with them”. I told two staff members that I can not recall one time, either of them have spoken on issues of sin, from the pulpit, in three years.
    Alan, my understanding of what Cyprian is saying, is the Church has some in the Church who are fully invested. Those are the ministers, teachers and laypeople who will defend the Church by speaking out in opposition to any act or belief that is antithetical to what Christ teaches. Those are the actions of a congregation that defends the Church (family of God). To go with the shepherd’s crook and rescue a sheep is akin to going to the entire congregation and speak to them about those issues that interfere in a relationship with God. I’m not suggesting we should point any one person out or make an example of anyone. I just think the pastors have a responsibility to teach how it is we have our relationship with God and one another. This was long, but not a rant. I need you to understand what I am stating to be the problem I see Cyprian addressing.

  14. 12-25-2009

    B.T.W. Alan,
    I realize, I did take Cyprian’s address out of the context of addressing the church for fleeing persecution. What I am saying is similar. The church wants comfort, not to be convicted.

  15. 12-26-2009

    Jim,

    I understand what you’re saying. In this post, I’m simply saying that Cyprian was making a distinction between the church and the people in the context of his famous quote. I think that’s an invalid distinction.

    -Alan

  16. 5-7-2010

    Brian Britton’s explanation of the Catholic position is the fairest presentation so far, even if he does not/cannot personally support it. The dual polarity (or yin and yang) of the Catholic position is characteristic of Catholic and Orthodox theology and is regarded (by us Catholics) as more balanced than typical Protestant either/or tendencies. However, ecumenical and evangelical Catholics do appreciate the value of the Protestant witness, which is often a necessary reminder and corrective when, in practice, we have veered to the opposite end of the spectrum despite the fine balance of the teaching itself. Jim Leasure’s perspective has merit as one way of understanding the Church as our Mother (as well being for us as brother & sister). // I am a Catholic priest who sometimes has opportunities to teach seminarians, so I welcome the opportunity to dialog with you (only keep in mind that I am only 3rd tier as a theologian, no flagbearing ship-of-the-line, so don’t give excessive weight to what I have to say should we continue to dialog; you may be helping me more than I may be helping you!) // BTW, Alan, are you Reform tradition?

  17. 5-7-2010

    David,

    Thanks for your comment. What does “3rd tier as a theologian” mean?

    Much of my theology is “reformed,” but, no, I am not of the Reformed tradition.

    -Alan

  18. 4-1-2011

    I got a great idea, since prodestants have molested holy scripture, and made all kinds of stuff up to keep people from being redirected to the true faith of Orthodox, lets molest and rewright the fathers as well to fit a Prodestent foot. How about this, 1. Don’t make crap up. 2. Read the Orthodox bible (since we put it together in the first place) 3. Religion isn’t about “fitting what I like” to me. It is about what pleases God. That is why we still do things the way Peter, Paul, John, Tomas, ect. told us to do it. If you have a problem with this you have a problem with God. At any rate, I will not be the one to make up my Theology. I will not be the one to rend the veil of Christ. I will not make shit up to please me. I will do what is pleasing to God. No one can have Jesus Christ as his father, who does not have the Church as his mother. Quit being heritics.

  19. 4-1-2011

    Brandon,

    First, did you read this post, or just the title? I did not try to change what Cyprian wrote.

    I agree that we should please God, and we can only do that in Jesus Christ. I also think that Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, James, and Jude help us know best how to please God.

    -Alan

  20. 3-3-2013

    Cyprian departed grievously from Paul, who wrote “But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother.” (Gal 3:26)

    Jesus came to bring us the kingdom of God, and since the close of the New Testament age the organized church has been trying to bring the queendom of God instead.

  21. 3-5-2013

    Mike,

    Thank you for the comment. I had forgotten about this old post.

    -Alan

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