Church History: What was Donatism?


Suppose you came to Christ and were baptized as a teenager. Suppose years later, while at another church, you found out the pastor who baptized you was having an illicit affair with the church organist the whole time you’d been at his church, including during the time you were baptized. Was your baptism valid? Should you be re-baptized now by a ‘real’ pastor? Most of us would not think twice about answering those questions ‘yes’ and ‘no’ respectively but the answers were not always so obvious to believers.

There were two great persecutions of the church in the pre-Christian Roman Empire. One under the emperor Nero who ruled from 54 A.D. to 68 A.D. and the other under Diocletian who ruled from 284 A.D. to 305 A.D.

However, things changed dramatically for the church after Diocletian. By 312 A.D. Constantine, a professed Christian, had unified the eastern and western empire under his rule and Christianity was on it’s way to becoming the majority religion of the Roman world.

As the church found rest from external enemies, internal tensions began to surface. During the Diocletian persecution, church officials were often ordered to turn over copies of the scriptures to the imperial authorities for destruction. Some were jailed or even killed for refusing to do so. Others, however, turned over the scriptures or, in some cases, lesser church documents, knowing the government authorities would not know the difference between those and true scripture documents. After the persecution ended, those in this second category became known as traditors , Latin for “those who handed over.”

In the important North African city of Carthage, a dispute arose over whether traditors could ever again hold church office. Some felt they should be forgiven and allowed to again be priests or bishops. Others felt, though they may be forgiven and welcomed into the church as members, they should be forever banned from holding office in the church. This second group went so far as to say that baptisms and ordinations performed by repentant traditors were invalid.

This dispute came to a head in 311 A.D. when Caecilian became Bishop of Carthage. It was reported that one of the men who’d ordained him (three were required) had been a traditor. This, according to many in North Africa invalidated Caecilian’s ordination, making him ineligible to be a bishop. Those in opposition to Caecilian elected Majorinus calling him the ‘true’ Bishop of Carthage. Before the controversy could be settled, however, Majorinus died and was replaced by Donatus, from whom the movement gained its name.

Eventually (in 314) the emperor Constantine called a council at Arles to settle the matter. The council decided the Donatists were in error and validated Caecilian as the bishop of Carthage. The Donatists, however, refused to acknowledge this and continued to worship separately under their own bishops for hundreds of years, sometimes facing persecution for their beliefs. They were still a force during Augustine’s tenure as Bishop of Hippo (also in North Africa) and he often disputed with them. Donatism finally faded away only after the Muslim conquest of North Africa in the 7th Century.

Why is this controversy important? There are certainly some things that would disqualify a man from the pastorate and refusing to stand for Christ during persecution could reasonably be one of them. However, there was more at issue here than who could or could not be a bishop. The underlying issue was where the power and authority came from to admit someone to the fellowship of the church (or remove them for that matter). Donatists said that power came from the purity of the individual and only baptisms performed by worthy priests or bishops were valid. Their opponents argued that the keys to the kingdom had been given to the church and baptisms done by the church were valid baptisms, even if the person administering the baptism had been a traditor.

Most protestant churches today also see the Ministry of the Keys (from Matthew 16:19, 18:18) as belonging to the church, not to specific individuals, meaning, for example, the moral condition of a pastor has no bearing on the legitimacy of baptisms he performs. That’s not to say the pastor’s moral condition is unimportant, just that it’s the Holy Spirit, not the pastor’s personal righteousness that empowers the means of grace.

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