The Authority of the Church

When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (vv. 4–5).

- 1 Corinthians 5

Cyprian of Carthage was a third-century North African bishop known for his leadership and devotion to Christ’s church. Though he is obscure to many Protestants, he said these famous words: “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother” (On the Unity of the Church 6).

Many of us may find this statement jarring, even troublesome. How could anyone say that, we might ask? Is Cyprian adding church membership to faith in Christ as a condition of salvation? Do the bishop’s words not lead finally to the notion of an infallible church that dispenses grace and diminishes the glory of our Savior?

Such questions are not wholly inappropriate, as Cyprian’s words have been used to oppress those who have stood on biblical grounds against errors in the visible church. Still, the aforementioned questions are not the first ones we should be asking about Cyprian’s statement. Instead, we should first ask whether the quote reflects biblical truth and, if so, what Cyprian’s words mean for believers today.

In themselves, Cyprian’s words reflect a key biblical truth: the Apostles would never have affirmed the Christian professions of those who do not subject themselves to the church. The Apostles had no illusions of ecclesiastical infallibility. They knew church leaders can and do err (Matt. 7:1–5; Acts 15:36–41; Gal. 2:11–14; James 3:1). Nevertheless, the Apostles teach that the church is the “pillar and buttress of the truth” when it acts according to God’s Word (1 Tim. 3:15; 2 Tim. 3:16–17). Church decisions have divine authority when they are faithful to the Apostolic and prophetic revelation of Scripture. This authority extends even to matters of salvation. When elders wisely consider a professing believer’s life, discern by Scripture that said person is impenitent, and excommunicate that individual, the elders are declaring that the man or woman is not a Christian. In such cases, the church and the disciplined individual are to see that God regards the excommunicated person as an unbeliever, not a citizen of heaven (1 Cor. 5).

As our mother, the church has the God-given authority to determine the identity of the true members of God’s family. This is not a doctrine invented by Roman Catholicism but the plain teaching of Scripture itself. After all, no less a reformer than John Calvin recognized the biblical truth of Cyprian’s words (Institutes 4.1.1).

Coram Deo

Today’s passage is a proof text for question and answer 85 of the Heidelberg Catechism, which deals with how church discipline opens and shuts the door to the kingdom of heaven. Excommunication shuts the door by declaring that the excommunicated person is not a Christian. When this decision is made carefully and in accordance with Scripture, the word of church leaders carries biblical warrant, and we are foolish not to heed it.

Passages for Further Study

Numbers 15:22–31
Ezekiel 14:1–11
Hebrews 13:17
2 John 7–11

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