I have read the writings of Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, which were written during the middle of the third century. Cyprian served as bishop during a time of great persecution and controversy in the Church of Jesus Christ. He served the Christ and His Church during a very trying time for the people of God.
In the year 250 AD, the Roman Emperor Decius ordered that all the inhabitants of the empire had to offer a sacrifice or burn incense “for the safety of the empire” for which they would receive a certificate. The sacrifice and the burning of incense were both forms of pagan worship and Christians refused to comply with the order. This in turn led to fierce persecution of Christians. Many Christians had all their property confiscated by the government, while others were imprisoned, tortured and killed for failing to comply to the order of the emperor. Other believers fled and hid from government officials.
During this time there were Christians who compromised their faith and capitulated to the orders of their pagan rulers. They obeyed Caesar rather than God. Many of those who failed the test repented of their failings and sought to be reconciled with the Church. This led to a crisis in the Church. Those who had were able to keep their property. They also avoided imprisonment, torture and death, by denying Christ before government officials.
This crisis in the church was dealt with and the “lapsed” who repented were reconciled to the Church in time, but for a while there was a schism over how to deal with those that failed th test but wished to be reconciled to the Church. Some people wanted to just forgive and forget and let the lapsed return, even while fellow believers were still being tortured and killed for their faith in Christ. On the other extreme were some Christians who believed the lapsed should never be allowed back into the Church.
Bishop Cyprian, the bishop of Rome and the majority of other bishops in the empire took a middle course, which sought to reconcile the lapsed believers to Christ Church. Still, Cyprian and the bishop of Roman disagreed on a number of particulars and it becomes clear when reading Cyprian that he did not believe that he, or his fellow bishops in Africa, were answerable to or had to bow before the edicts of the Roman bishop.
While reading Cyprian it became clear to me that he did not believe the Bishop of Rome had authority over him or over other bishops. J. Patout Burns Jr, in his book Cyprian the Bishop comes to the same conclusion. He writes, “When Stephen [Bishop of Rome] asserted such a right, by virtue of being the successor of Peter and the bishop of a church which preserved authentic apostolic practice, Cyprian explicitly rejected the claim. Firmilian [bishop] of Caesarea ridiculed Stephen’s assertion… Neither could conceive of such authority being wielded legitimately by a single bishop over his colleagues.” (pg 158)
Elsewhere, Dr Burns concludes that the bishops of that time, “consistently rejected the Roman bishops’ claim to authority on the basis of apostolic foundation.” (pg. 165)
The 6th decade of the 3rd century was a very trying time for the Church. Three of Rome’s bishops were killed because of their faith in Christ, as was St. Cyprian in 258 AD, but it needs to be remembered that at that time the Bishop of Rome was not recognised by Cyprian, Firmilian or their fellow bishops to have authority over them.