Contemporary Donatism: A Heretical Response to Scandal in the Church

When I first sat down to pen this article in March of 2021, it was in the midst of a wave of scandal breaking out from the evangelical church. While it is beautiful to see the truth coming to light, I am admittedly troubled as a historian and student of our ancient fathers. One of the most difficult discords in the ancient faith prior to the 11th century was that of Donatism. Many of you are likely to be somewhat unfamiliar with the term so I will do my best to explain its significance and history within the church in the following paragraph.

In the 4th and 5th centuries the theological notion that the efficacy (or effectiveness, legitimacy, etc…) of sacraments was dependent on the status of the administer. In this let me first set out parameters which our modern experience wouldn’t immediately think about. This time in church history had a baseline assumption that only believers could interact with the sacraments and so the status of the administer had more to do with whether or not they were fully blameless before God by way of full confession of Sins. This full confession would mean that there were no secret sins. Donatism made the argument that if one was not without blemish in their ministry and life then the sacraments they administered were not legitimate. This ultimately led to a schism and was denounced as heretical by St. Augustin.

The problems with Donatism for our day and time are as follows:

  • Ministry work is tossed aside in response to scandal.
    • Often times this is done for the wrong reasons. If there is scandal we ought to re-examine but not immediately dismiss the work that has been done. Especially in scandals related to theologians and or authors.
  • Because most protestant perspectives deny Sacramental theology this heretical perspective goes unaddressed whenever it appears.
    • This is largely due to the shift in protestant pastoral training to more heavily emphasize personal creeds and individual relationship combined with exegetical understanding of the OT and NT without regard for Historical and Ancient Perspectives in Pastoral training. (Church history often makes up less than 1/3 of a Seminary degree).
  • Scandals have become political weapons because of Donatism’s resurgence in protestant theology.

So what do we do?

It is my estimation that perhaps we should consider re-examining the work of those individuals who have perpetuated harm within the Body and world at large after say 10-15 years have passed from the initial discovery of that harm. This would allow the academic and pastoral world to recognize and remove authority from the voice of those individuals until their work can be analyzed from a more historical perspective and be juxtaposed with the knowledge that they likely did not live in and may not have even attempted to live in accordance with their own teachings.

This isn’t the end of the conversation, but I’m hoping this can be something to help start one.

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