Monday, November 12, 2007

The Lesson of the Donatists

I love church history because there are lessons to be learned. Human nature has not changed in 2000 years. So I don’t try to reinvent the wheel every time a question comes up. If you have the patience to stick with me I hope the Donatist heresy of the 4th century can open your eyes to some things.

The primary disagreement between the Donatists and the rest of the early church was over the treatment of those who had renounced their faith during the great persecution under the Roman emperor Diocletian (303–305). The rest of the church was far more forgiving of these people than the Donatists were. The Donatists refused to accept the sacraments (baptism and communion) and spiritual authority of the bishops who had fallen away from the faith during the persecution. Many church leaders had gone so far as to turn Christians over to Roman authorities and had handed over scriptures to authorities to be publicly burned. These people were called traditors (“the lapsed”). These traditors had returned to positions of authority, but the Donatists proclaimed that any sacraments given by these Christians were invalid.

In 311 Caecillian was made a bishop in Carthage (North Africa) by three area bishops. However, Caecillian, as well as Felix, one of the three that elected him, was accused of handing over scriptures to the authorities during the persecution. A council of North African bishops met and elected a new bishop, Majorinus, to replace Caecillian. Majorinus soon died, and was succeeded by Donatus. Now here’s what happened: The church’s official position was that those who had lapsed during the persecution (denied Christ or handed over scriptures to the authorities) were to be forgiven and reinstated in the church – even to positions of leadership. Donatus and his followers believed that those who had denied Christ could never be forgiven. Only he and his group were the “true church,” and anyone who had lapsed during the persecution could not administer baptism or communion – and, furthermore, anyone who was baptized by one of the lapsed had received an invalid baptism. Therefore the Donatists practiced rebaptism. Donatist letters accuse the rest of Christianity of baptizing in “filthy water.”

The Donatists held that all sacraments administered by those not of their sect were invalid. So by their sinful act, such clerics had rendered themselves incapable of celebrating valid sacraments. This position is known as ex opere operatis - Latin for “from the work of the one doing the working,” that is, the validity of the sacrament depends on the worthiness of the minister conferring it. The larger Christian position was (and is): ex opere operato – “from the work having been worked,” in other words, the validity of the sacrament depends on the holiness of God, the minister being a mere instrument of God's work.

As a result, many towns were divided between Donatist and non-Donatist congregations. Constantine, as emperor, began to get involved in the dispute, and in 314 he called a council at Arles. The issue was debated and the decision went against the Donatists. The Donatists refused to accept the decision of the council, and in 317 Constantine sent troops to deal with the Donatists in Carthage. More laws against the Donatists were issued by Valentinian. In 409, Marcellinus of Carthage, Emperor Honorius's secretary of state, decreed the group heretical and demanded that they give up their churches. They were harshly persecuted by the Christian Roman authorities. It is unknown how long this belief persisted into the Muslim period, but some Christian historians believe the Donatist schism and the discord it caused in the Christian community made the military takeover of the region by Islam easier.

Okay, so what can we learn?

No sect or subgroup of Christianity has the right to declare their group to be the “true church” over an understanding of scripture, baptism, communion, or moral authority.

Such groups (and every restorationist group in Christian history has done this to some extent) have been labeled heretics and schismatics since the 4th century.

Baptism and Communion are valid because they are channels of God’s grace, and are NOT dependent on human qualifications. And yet I have seen people baptized again because the right words weren’t spoken or an arm came out of the water. What about people administering baptism or Communion? Can a woman administer it? Can an unbaptized person administer it? Do we have rules about who can administer what?

Rebaptizing someone who has already been immersed is like spitting in God’s eye. Do we insist people from other denominations are baptized again into the “Church of Christ?”

Disunity among Christians is poison!

Any other observations or lessons?


Bill Jordan said...

The problem with history is in most cases the emotion is removed from the story – especially if it is 1700 years removed from today's events.

It's almost like tragic news. A storm can kill 3,000 in New Orleans and our world is turned upside down. But 30,000 can be killed in a storm in India and in just three days you won't read anything else about it in the newspaper. The further removed we are from a story, the less impact it has on us and our emotional investment is smaller. And the further removed we are from a story by time, the less impact it has on us and the less emotion we feel for what took place.

It's easy to see the lesson we need to learn from the example you've layed out. But once we mix our current issues with emotion, then the lesson is lost on us.

Anonymous said...

As a member of a local church of Christ, I feel compelled to weigh in on this discussion.

I found this website last week, and read the majority of the recent posts and comments. I find myself agreeing with several of your positions. However, after reading your latest entry, I think I have finally pinpointed my biggest concern. I hope that you will accept this post with the respect and care with which it has been crafted.

You suggest in your latest entry that ‘disunity is poison’. A point that is difficult to refute.

However, you posted previously that you would like to be like Larrimore, preaching in both churches with and without instrumental music. While I can see the many admirable qualities of this man, I also see a man embroiled in much disunity. From the pain you have expressed in some of your posts, it is not a stretch to surmise that you have already endured quite a bit because of disunity. I can’t help but wonder what role emotion plays in your aspirations…

A change agent's job is never easy. I guess I am confused why you would choose the role of going against the grain in the church of Christ.

There are plenty of churches, even in Kaufman, Texas, where your views would be accepted with open arms. If you started in a place where your views were not counter cultural you would have the ability to attract people from numerous churches, including those unhappy with the 'traditions' of the church of Christ. Yet, you wouldn't be a part of stirring the pot based on tenets you deem not specifially laid out in scripture.

I would like to reiterate that this post comes from respect and care. And these questions I have posed are solely intended as food for thought and discussion. I look forward to your response.

Another Jennifer

Charles North said...

"Another Jennifer" - thanks for reading (so much) and commenting. I have answered you in the form of a whole new post.