Although Kreider devotes only four pages to Cyprian’s conversion, we do well to give it significant attention. Why? In part because Cyprian was a very influential figure in the early (and subsequent) story of the church. (Click here to see many of his writings.) In addition, he was the kind of person many churches today covet (at least in our culture). He was a wealthy, successful, powerful high-roller who was also somewhat dissatisfied with the high life. Here’s the story.
Cyprian probably came into contact with the Christian community through a friendship with a leader in the church. Cyprian was intrigued by the church – especially its claim to offer true freedom – but he had mixed feelings about his lifestyle. He ate fine foods, enjoyed the company of powerful elites, and dressed in very expensive clothing. He sensed that most like him who enjoyed these things were more possessed by them than they realized [The rich person “is held in bondage by his gold, and . . . is the slave of his luxury and wealth rather than their master”], but he wasn’t sure he could change. But he did long to be free.
He became a “catechumen” (a candidate to become a baptized Christian) and though we are sadly not told what he was taught during this period, we know that he sold lands and estates to give to the poor. He still struggled during this period, however, not with believing what Christians believed so much as living how Christians lived. As Kreider puts it,
Cyprian, encountering a community in which “thrift” and “ordinary simple clothing” were normal, found that luxury was bred in his bones. “The errors of my previous life” were, he sensed, a part of his corrupted human nature; they were “actually parts of me . . . and indigenous to me.” Furthermore, they were deeply etched on his person by long habit. “These things,” he reported, “have become deeply and radically engrained within us.” He was, to use our language, addicted to wealth and power.
Though Cyprian was often filled with despair and occasionally lapsed back into his old ways, he continued to live among people learning to live differently. [Note: In our churches, we’d probably just go ahead and baptize him and tell him not to worry so much! Yikes!] He eventually broke through and found freedom. Cyprian pointed to his baptism as the decisive moment in this regard. Into his despairing sense that change was impossible flowed “the water of new birth” and “the agency of the Spirit breathed from heaven.” What had previously seemed difficult if not downright impossible now appeared to him as something capable of being accomplished. He became a free man, “an ex-addict endowed with ‘liberty and power’.”
Shortly after his conversion he became a leader in the church, and over time he became known for his simple clothing! He eventually gave his life as a martyr, and special note is often made that he died without a hint of purple clothing on him (purple clothing was a rough equivalent of our brand names).
I notice three things especially about Cyprian’s conversion: (1) Even though as a powerful, wealthy aristocrat Cyprian would have no doubt been “helpful” to the church, the church called for him to make serious changes in his life. Apparently, he was expected not to remain rich or live the high life, for one thing. Contrast this with the way we usually accept people with power, and it’s a bit scary. (2) Because of his extensive pre-conversion teaching and experience, he was quickly ushered into a leadership position from which he led with historic wisdom and courage. (3) The dominant theme in his change was moving from bondage to freedom. Before conversion, he wasn’t able to live faithfully (again, specifically in terms of power and wealth); after baptism, he was.