Cyprian found himself face to face with schismatics and heretics who were creating much unrest in the Christian community. Therefore, he set out to construct a theology of the Church that would explain what the Church is, and what it is not. This would bring clarity in clearly distinguishing between heretics and schismatics (who differ only in degree for Cyprian) and the Church, showing that the Church is still one and not broken. Absolutely fundamental for Cyprian is that the Church is in absolute unity, the Church must be one. I find Fr. N. Afanasieff’s observation in this regard particularly significant. Fr. Afanasieff realized that Cyprian’s idea of unity derives from the ideal of the one Roman Empire. Different dioceses in the Empire could function with relative autonomy but did not constitute in themselves the Empire, nor could they break up the unity of the Empire. Dioceses, then, were of secondary importance, the strength of the Empire did not rest in its autonomous dioceses but rather in the stability of Rome, and the office of the Emperor that brought stability to the whole of the known world of Cyprian’s day. Unity, as Cyprian says, flows from one.
This unity flows from one (Peter), into the multiple Bishops who share the one ministry of Peter in common. This seems to be somewhat inconsistent in Cyprian, since the Empire has only one Emperor. However, an explanation becomes clear when one realizes it was the occupant of Peter’s See (the Pope of Rome) who opposed him. Cyprian needed his ecclesiology to be independent of the Pope. The basic fact of the Church is its unity. Referring to the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ he explains that it is not the multitude of people that show the presence of Christ, but precisely their unity. The bearer of this unity is not, however, the whole people of God but the episcopate. For Cyprian the Church is one, because the episcopate is one. The people, laity, do not play any role of significance regarding the unity of the Church. A lay person is one with the Church by being under the authority of a Bishop who is in union with what Fr. Afanasieff has called the “Universal Church”.
In this scheme of things the “limits of the Church” coincide with the episcopate. Whoever falls out of communion with the episcopate belonging to the Universal Church looses all. They no longer have the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit as their God. Baptism performed in their communities no longer cleanses, but defiles, it does not engender sons of God, but sons to the devil. In other words; baptism has become the opposite of Christian baptism. It has become a demonic fraud. To Cyprian there is simply no grace and no salvation outside the “limits of the Church”. In this context Cyprian uses the famous words “he can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his Mother.” To Cyprian, this is no hyperbole. This is simply the reality of things. It is an either/or, black and white, life or death, Christ or anti-Christ.
Whether or not Christ comes to those who call on His Name is determined by how one relates to the universal Church, and its unified episcopate. It is connected to the worldy idea of imperial oneness, and disconnected from the promise of the Lord Jesus given in the Scripture.
For the situation of today, this means that ecumenical dialogue is really pointless. If by this we mean inter-Christian dialogue to reunite the divided Church. For Cyprianic ecclesiology simply denies the problem. Outside the Church there is only undifferentiated darkness. And those captured in it need to be set free and brought into a salvific relationship with God the Father by means of baptism. And that’s the end of it. Those Orthodox groups who have rooted themselves firmly in this type of ecclesiology cannot but conclude that “ecumenism” is heresy or even “pan-heresy”. Interestingly, it is precisely these groups who themselves separated from what in Cyprian’s thought is the Universal Church. Of course, this is not generally acknowledged by such “schismatic groups”. It is almost as if we are revisiting the Donatist Schism where Cyprian’s ecclesiology is applied too rigidly, and is the cause of division rather than unity. Giving the unity of the Church, which in itself is an axiom of Orthodox ecclesiology, the form of the imperial unity of worldy Rome is both the strength of Cyprianic ecclesiology and its original sin.