I have wanted to post this for some time. Actually, I wrote it a while back, but because many will say that I have a vested interest, I held off posting it. The truth is I may well have a vested interest, but that doesn’t make it less true. There are still valuable lessons to be learned from the church’s history. I think the Donatist controversy of the 4th century still informs so much of our church life today.
The primary disagreement between the Donatists and the rest of the early church was over the treatment of those who 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 of these 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 after the persecution, but the Donatists proclaimed that any sacraments given by these Christians were invalid. So, if someone who had betrayed Christ and the church during the persecution baptized you, that baptism was not valid.
In A.D. 311 Caecillian was elected as bishop of Carthage by three area bishops. However, Caecillian, as well as Felix, one 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.
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, that the validity of the sacrament depends on the worthiness of the minister conferring it. The larger Christian position was (and still 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. Because of Augustine’s influence on the church the Donatists were eventually deemed heretical.
Okay, so what can we learn? Baptism and Communion are valid because they are channels of God’s grace, and are NOT dependent on human qualifications. This is a big difference between the Catholic Church and Protestant Churches. Evangelical churches in particular, have in many ways reverted to the Donatist position. That is, more weight is placed on the knowledge, qualifications, character, personal credibility, integrity, purity, and moral authority of the minister than in the imbued grace of God working through the minister. Remember how Paul spoke of the messenger as a “jar of clay”? – weak, broken, flawed. Protestant, evangelical churches do not practice this functionally. Too many people put way too much weight in the purity and moral authority of the minister. When some people discover that he is human – weak and sinful, their faith is tried, even shattered. Why? Don’t put your faith in people, put your faith in God. A person can’t bear up under the pressure. When a Catholic priest fails morally, his bishops protect him. When an evangelical Protestant minister fails morally, his bishops and parishioners no longer believe that he is “qualified” to minister, despite his many other qualifications (education and skills), and even a life that bears witness to God’s grace and the power of confession and repentance.
This may not be heresy, but something is very wrong when people and churches put more faith in the moral qualifications of a person than the ability of God to minister His grace through broken and sinful people. It is out of whack, and not consistent with what the church has believed and practiced as a matter of policy for the past 1700 years! Is the treasure in a jar of clay, or is the jar of clay the treasure?