Ante-Nicene Fathers/Volume V/Cyprian/The Epistles of Cyprian/Part 61
To Pomponius, Concerning Some Virgins.
Argument.—Cyprian, with Some of His Colleagues, Replies to His Colleague Pomponius, that Virgins Who Had Determined to Maintain Their State with Continency and Firmness, But Who Had Yet Subsequently Been Found in the Same Bed with Men, If They Were Still Found to Be Virgins, Should Be Received into Communion and Admitted to the Church. But If Otherwise, Since They are Adulterous Towards Christ, They Should Be Compelled to Full Repentance, and Those Who Should Obstinately Persevere Should Be Ejected from the Church.
1. Cyprian, Cæcilius, Victor, Sedatus, Tertullus, with the presbyters who were present with them, to Pomponius their brother, greeting. We have read, dearest brother, your letter which you sent by Paconius our brother, asking and desiring us to write again to you, and say what we thought of those virgins who, after having once determined to continue in their condition, and firmly to maintain their continency, have afterwards been found to have remained in the same bed side by side with men; of whom you say that one is a deacon; and yet that the same virgins who have confessed that they have slept with men declare that they are chaste. Concerning which matters, since you have desired our advice, know that we do not depart from the traditions of the Gospel and of the apostles, but with constancy and firmness take counsel for our brethren and sisters, and maintain the discipline of the Church by all the ways of usefulness and safety, since the Lord speaks, saying, “And I will give you pastors according to mine heart, and they shall feed you with discipline.” And again it is written, “Whoso despiseth discipline is miserable; and in the Psalms also the Holy Spirit admonishes and instructs us, saying, “Keep discipline, lest haply the Lord be angry, and ye perish from the right way, when His anger shall quickly burn against you.”
2. In the first place, therefore, dearest brother, both by overseers and people nothing is to be more eagerly sought after, than that we who fear God should keep the divine precepts with every observation of discipline, and should not suffer our brethren to stray, and to live according to their own fancy and lust; but that we should faithfully consult for the life of each one, and not suffer virgins to dwell with men,—I do not say to sleep together, but to live together—since both their weak sex and their age, still critical, ought to be bridled in all things and ruled by us, lest an occasion should be given to the devil who ensnares us, and desires to rage over us, to hurt them, since the apostle also says, “Do not give place to the devil.” The ship is watchfully to be delivered from perilous places, that it may not be broken among the rocks and cliffs; the baggage must swiftly be taken out of the fire, before it is burnt up by the flames reaching it. No one who is near to danger is long safe, nor will the servant of God be able to escape the devil if he has entangled himself in the devil’s nets. We must interfere at once with such as these, that they may be separated while yet they can be separated in innocence; because by and by they will not be able to be separated by our interference, after they have become joined together by a very guilty conscience. Moreover, what a number of serious mischiefs we see to have arisen hence; and what a multitude of virgins we behold corrupted by unlawful and dangerous conjunctions of this kind, to our great grief of mind! But if they have faithfully dedicated themselves to Christ, let them persevere in modesty and chastity, without incurring any evil report, and so in courage and steadiness await the reward of virginity. But if they are unwilling or unable to persevere, it is better that they should marry, than that by their crimes they should fall into the fire. Certainly let them not cause a scandal to the brethren or sisters, since it is written, “If meat cause my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.”
3. Nor let any one think that she can be defended by this excuse, that she may be examined and proved whether she be a virgin; since both the hands and the eyes of the midwives are often deceived; and if she be found to be a virgin in that particular in which a woman may be so, yet she may have sinned in some other part of her body, which may be corrupted and yet cannot be examined. Assuredly the mere lying together, the mere embracing, the very talking together, and the act of kissing, and the disgraceful and foul slumber of two persons lying together, how much of dishonour and crime does it confess! If a husband come upon his wife, and see her lying with another man, is he not angry and raging, and by the passion of his rage does he not perhaps take his sword into his hand? And what shall Christ and our Lord and Judge think, when He sees His virgin, dedicated to Him, and destined for His holiness, lying with another? How indignant and angry is He, and what penalties does He threaten against such unchaste connections! whose spiritual sword and the coming day of judgment, that every one of the brethren may be able to escape, we ought with all our counsel to provide and to strive. And since it behoves all by all means to keep discipline, much more is it right that overseers and deacons should be careful for this, that they may afford an example and instruction to others concerning their conversation and character. For how can they direct the integrity and continence of others, if the corruptions and teachings of sin begin to proceed from themselves?
4. And therefore you have acted advisedly and with vigour, dearest brother, in excommunicating the deacon who has often abode with a virgin; and, moreover, the others who had been used to sleep with virgins. But if they have repented of this their unlawful lying together, and have mutually withdrawn from one another, let the virgins meantime be carefully inspected by midwives; and if they should be found virgins, let them be received to communion, and admitted to the Church; yet with this threatening, that if subsequently they should return to the same men, or if they should dwell together with the same men in one house or under the same roof, they should be ejected with a severer censure, nor should such be afterwards easily received into the Church. But if any one of them be found to be corrupted, let her abundantly repent, because she who has been guilty of this crime is an adulteress, not (indeed) against a husband, but against Christ; and therefore, a due time being appointed, let her afterwards, when confession has been made, return to the Church. But if they obstinately persevere, and do not mutually separate themselves, let them know that, with this their immodest obstinacy, they can never be admitted by us into the Church, lest they should begin to set an example to others to go to ruin by their crimes. Nor let them think that the way of life or of salvation is still open to them, if they have refused to obey the bishops and priests, since in Deuteronomy the Lord God says, “And the man that will do presumptuously, and will not hearken unto the priest or judge, whosoever he shall be in those days, that man shall die, and all the people shall hear and fear, and do no more presumptuously.” God commanded those who did not obey His priests to be slain, and those who did not hearken to His judges who were appointed for the time. And then indeed they were slain with the sword, when the circumcision of the flesh was yet in force; but now that circumcision has begun to be of the spirit among God’s faithful servants, the proud and contumacious are slain with the sword of the Spirit, in that they are cast out of the Church. For they cannot live out of it, since the house of God is one, and there can be no salvation to any except in the Church. But the divine Scripture testifies that the undisciplined perish, because they do not listen to, nor obey wholesome precepts; for it says, “An undisciplined man loveth not him that correcteth him. But they who hate reproof shall be consumed with disgrace.”
5. Therefore, dearest brother, endeavour that the undisciplined should not be consumed and perish, that as much as you can, by your salutary counsels, you should rule the brotherhood, and take counsel of each one with a view to his salvation. Strait and narrow is the way through which we enter into life, but excellent and great is the reward when we enter into glory. Let those who have once made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven please God in all things, and not offend God’s priests nor the Lord’s Church by the scandal of their wickedness. And if, for the present, certain of our brethren seem to be made sorry by us, let us nevertheless remain in our wholesome persuasion, knowing that an apostle also has said, “Am I therefore become your enemy because I tell you the truth?” But if they shall obey us, we have gained our brethren, and have formed them as well to salvation as to dignity by our address. But if some of the perverse persons refuse to obey, let us follow the same apostle, who says, “If I please men, I should not be the servant of Christ.” If we cannot please some, so as to make them please Christ, let us assuredly, as far as we can, please Christ our Lord and God, by observing His precepts. I bid you, brother beloved and much longed-for, heartily farewell in the Lord.
- Oxford ed.: Ep. iv. He suggests the kind of discipline by which virgins may be kept in their duty, and some matters concerning the power of excommunication in the Church. Circa a.d. 249.
- [See vol. ii. p. 57, Elucidation II.]
- Jer. iii. 15.
- Wisd. iii. 11.
- Ps. ii. 12 (LXX.).
- Some editors read here “fructu” for “ructu;” but Goldhorn observes that a similar collocation of eructation with error is found in Horace, Ep. ad Pis., 457.
- [How coarse and brutal the pagan manners, which even the Gospel could not immediately refine!]
- Eph. iv. 27.
- 1 Cor. viii. 13.
- [This abomination may have lingered in Africa much longer that elsewhere among the Punic converts from Canaanite manners. Ezek. viii. 13, 14.]
- Deut. xvii. 12, 13.
- Prov. xv. 12, 10.
- [The frightful condition of heathen society inspired the effort to maintain celibacy, but all this suggests the divine wisdom and clemency in restricting it to the few. Matt. xix. 11.]
- Gal. iv. 16.
- Gal. i. 10.
- [The horrible subject of this letter is treated in a valuable note (k) in the Oxford trans., p 7. It began earlier (see Hermas) than that learned annotator supposes; but the silence of Minucius Felix, and the pagan objector of his story, as to this specific reproach, suggests that it was of rare occurrence. Vol. ii. p. 235.]