In this series we take a look back at some of the most notorious errors and
heresies that have threatened the church over the centuries, as well as the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in
which those false teachings continue to haunt 21st century thought and theology.
Unlike other errors, Donatism did not grow out of futile attempts to explain the deep things of God. It sprouted from the aftermath of persecution.
Roman Emperor Diocletian (A.D. 284-305) initiated a severe persecution in an effort to turn Christians back to paganism. Many Christians then renounced the faith, and many others were imprisoned, tortured, or put to death.
After the persecution, a point of controversy was whether Christians who had forsaken the faith could come back to the church. The church said that they could be readmitted after a lengthy penance. Some, however, referred to those who had renounced the faith as traditores (“traitors”), and said they would need to be rebaptized. Donatus, in North Africa, was one of these opposition leaders and the one from whom Donatism receives its name.
Donatists also said that no traditor could serve in the church, and that any sacraments performed by a traditor were invalid. By contrast, the church taught that moral unworthiness among the clergy did not affect the validity of the sacraments they administered.
The division in the church grew as each side worked hard to gain congregations. In the ensuing years, the fortunes of the Donatists rose with freedom and fell with persecution according to each new emperor’s wishes and whims.
When the Vandals conquered Africa in 428, the Donatist controversy was effectively ended. A few Donatists remained even then, but like the rest of Africa, these were swept away by the Islamic conquest at the end of the 7th Century.
The historic Lutheran Confessions condemn the Donatists and their practices while upholding the true nature of the Church. “Our churches condemn the Donatists and others like them who have denied that the ministry of evil men may be used in the church.” (Augsburg Confession, VIII, see also Apology of the Augsburg Confession, VII and VIII)
The questions asked after Diocletian’s persecution echoed in eastern Europe after the fall of Communism, “Should men who collaborated with Communists be considered for leadership in the churches?” Variations of the Donatists’ incorrect application of Scripture continue to echo within Christianity. Applying God’s Word faithfully gives clear direction.
The “way back to the Church” after falling from faith is not through church-prescribed penance and rebaptism. Rather, it comes only through the atoning work of Jesus and the forgiveness that is received by grace through faith. The goal is not to punish those who have stumbled, but to restore them. “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1) “You ought rather to forgive and comfort him [the penitent], lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow.” (2 Corinthians 2:7-8)
The blessings that come to us through Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not dependent on the faith of the one who administers them. If that were true, how could we ever truly know whether or not we had received God’s gifts? Rather, it is the Gospel in Word and Sacrament that is “the power of God to salvation.” (Romans 1:16) Nevertheless, it is also true that called servants are to be “blameless, as a steward of God” (Titus 1:7), so there can be situations in which a called servant’s fall into sin leaves him unable to continue effectively serving in the public ministry.
When sin creates difficult situations, the right course will always and forever be to “follow Christ.” The solution is to keep our eyes trained on Him (Hebrews 12:2), and to let the Gospel of forgiveness through Christ alone lead the way.
In reaction to the Donatists, Augustine said, “The church is composed of sinners; if we excluded all sinners, no one would be in ministry.” We are indeed all sinners—redeemed sinners through the blood of Christ. That is the proclamation that drowns out every one of error’s echoes.
Wayne Eichstadt is pastor of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Spokane Valley, Washington.