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How does the Church respond to a Plague? Part 3

Updated: Aug 18, 2021

We say No to Fear and Yes to Enjoying Heaven Now

Cyprian (AD 200-258), Caecilius Cyprianus qui et Thascius, is a wonderful character in church history. He was a devoted Christ-follower in life and now enjoying his glorious presence. Cyprian blended the rare qualities of a tender heart, a powerful mind, and a tenacious spirit. Before conversion, he came from a family of means, which procured for him a quality education in the arts and philosophies of the day (Pontius, Vit. Cyp. 2, 15). He was well respected by those outside the church and even had friends within the Roman government and elite classes.

Cyprian was converted sometime during the middle of the 240s, the exact date is not known. By Easter 249 we find he had been installed bishop of Carthage (see Epistles 59.6.1 and 29.1.2). Cyprian did not marry, instead devoting himself to his service as bishop and the life of study. While converted later in life, and promoted quickly, Cyprian made good use of his calling to the Lord and as bishop. He labored in rich, powerful preaching, which was followed by productive writing.

After only a decade in his role as bishop, he met his end under the persecution of Valerian. Like the famous martyrs before him, Cyprian embraced his death with dignity and fearlessness. Upon receiving a letter that named him as an enemy of the state, he responded in kind, “Deo gratias,” thanks be to God. He was publicly executed on Sept. 14, 258.

Cyprian is most famous for his strong articulation of the spiritual benefits of the sacraments as properly performed and delivered within the church. Even if you have never read him, it is likely you’ve heard his most famous dictum, ‘extra ecclesiam nulla salus,’ trans. ‘outside of the church is no salvation.’ Or in its more popular form, Cyprian contended that “He can no longer have God for his Father, who does not have the Church for his mother.” While the quote is sometimes maligned as feeding into latter Roman Catholic thought, that was not his point. Cyprian recognizes that the faith delivered once for all is passed down through the body of Christ, which is the church. The covenant community of God are the ones who labored to copy the Bible, maintain the preaching and teaching of the Gospel, and labored in the work of the Great Commission. All believers today and tomorrow are beneficiaries of the brothers and sisters who have gone before us in the church.

During his lifetime the church generally and notably in Carthage was marked by severe persecution, heresies, and a myriad of schisms. Through all these challenges he emphasized the importance of church unity, even circulating a tract called ‘On the Unity of the Church.’ The unity among the body of Christ is something of grave importance, especially in our days of deep emotional, political, and intellectual divisions (see Eph 4:3).

The hardest challenge of Cyprian’s ministry began around Easter 250 AD. Reports indicate it started near Ethiopia, and from there a nasty plague broke out across the Mediterranean. It lasted twenty years and spread from Rome to Syria. At its height, the plague claimed the lives of 5,000 people a day in Rome alone! There was not a person unaffected by the day-to-day encounter with death during this period. Everyone was personally afflicted both directly and indirectly.

Historical Setting

The time when the plague fell upon North Africa and spread across the Mediterranean was very trying for Carthage. There were already the normal challenges of church life, namely being an outpost of heaven in a world that hates the light of Christ, but Cyprian was also facing ongoing schism within Carthage too. As providence would have it, the times were extra tumultuous demanding that true faith either rise or fall. There was widespread, albeit sporadic persecution of the church under Gallus in 252. The threat of death came in the form of visible persecutors or invisible disease. The saints of Carthage, led by Cyprian, did not waver as waves tossed back and forth (Eph 4:14). Cyprian turned them to the truth.

Deadly Disease

Plagues vary in their degree of ferocity. While all diseases and viruses have the potential to kill, not all are equally deadly. Let us remember the remarkable complexity of the human body. Some eat peanut butter and shellfish in the same day—or in the same meal with a peanut sauce—while for others with allergies the mere taste results in anaphylactic shock. The world is not safe and it is not equally safe for every person. Therefore, let us be thankful to God that Covid does not have near the mortality rate of other plagues. We also benefit from modern medicine, hand sanitizer, and a much greater knowledge of germs. Let us be grateful.

Conversely, the plague that broke out in the Mediterranean brought not only death but deep societal upheaval. Pontius, the deacon with Cyprian, wrote that when death went door to door, “all were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude death itself” (Life and Passion, 1.9).

Those who contracted the deadly disease were assured of a painful path to the grave. The sufferers had severe diarrhea, vomiting, fever, loss of hearing and sight, often blindness, and paralysis of the limps. Reports also explain that their eyes filled with blood and the bleeding even stained their teeth. For onlookers, the people looked like zombies. The plague inflicted a painful death march for the victims and for those trying to help. People were so frightened by the spread of the disease that archeological remains show that the bodies were burned and then saturated in lime, which is antimicrobial.

The plague caused great loss and instability across the Roman Empire. The loss of farmers resulted in longstanding food scarcity. The loss of able-bodied men meant a lack of soldiers, which resulted in political and military unrest. Harper contends the severity of the twenty-year plague nearly caused the complete collapse of Rome.[1] The brutality of the plague would only be surpassed centuries later during the Bubonic Plague that decimated all of Europe.

Plague of Cyprian

A plague so destructive and deadly often attracts names like black death, red dragon, or global killer. So then why is something so devastating called the ‘Plague of Cyprian?’ Surely no Christian pastor wants to be associated with such suffering and death. Unless of course, we remember that the love and light of Christ shine most brightly in the darkness. The preaching, teaching, and loving response of Christians guided by Cyprian became famous during a period of immense suffering. When the world was hurting and when death was everywhere, Cyprian took hold of Christ’s grace and did not cower; he let the light of Christ shine through in powerful ways.

Cyprian preached that Christians should love their neighbors and seize the opportunity to be promiscuous agents of light in the ongoing war against darkness. Cyprian promoted and bolstered this love for people by reminding all Christians that we do not fear death. We love the Lord and his prescriptions for our life more than we love our lives.


1) What is most afflicting to the church today? (Hint: it is not death)

2) Outside of the Bible, who or what is a voice that powerfully points you to Christ today? Have these voices let you down and lead you to paths of fear?

3) How do you think the world would act if Covid’s mortality were 50%? 75%? Apocalypse movies can’t begin to capture the devastation?

[1] Kyle Harper (2017). "Chapter 4: The Old Age of the World". The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire. Princeton University Press.

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