Donatism: A Definition and Response

It is popular amongst revisionists in the Church to describe those of us who are more conservative as “Donatists”. By doing this they imply that we are simply unwilling to accept sinners in the Church, much along the lines of the Pharisees.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Theopedia helpfully defines Donatism:

Named for its leader, the theologian Donatus the Great (d. 355), Donatism included a group of extremist sects, mostly in North Africa, that emphasized Asceticism. They valued martyrdom and found lapses of faith (even under torture or threat of death) inexcusable. The heresy involved their contention that the sacraments required a priest of pure moral character to be effective and only the pure (who had not lapsed under persecution) should be allowed in the church.

In particular, the Donatist rejected those who had denied Christ under the persecution of Diocletian.

It is easy to see why the charge arises. We oppose as unacceptable the ministry of those who live in a state of unrepentant sin.

So are we Donatists? Not at all, for the key protest of the Donatists was that such “sinners” could not be restored to ministry even if they were repentant.

That is hardly the position of the modern-day Anglican conservative. We join with Augustine in his opposition as set out in his Letters to Petilian the Donatist.

Augustine argues that just because a minister is a sinner (and who is not?) it does not render his ministry ineffectual. Nevertheless, he also defends himself from the Donatist charge that he is lax with regard to disciplining open and unrepentant sin.

The Anglican Reformers held to these 2 truths that Augustine had defended. They held them together in the one Article:

Article XXVI

Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament

Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in the receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

Nevertheless it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed.

The Church, swayed by Augustine’s arguments (amongst many) resolved to accept back into fellowship all those who had previously denied Christ as long as they were repentant. We maintain the same position today. If those like Jack Spong, Gene Robinson, Katherine Jefferts-Schori and so many others would repent of their apostasy they would be welcomed with open arms. Until then we join with Augustine:

Nor would I therefore be understood to urge that ecclesiastical discipline should be set at naught, and that every one should be allowed to do exactly as he pleased, without any check, without a kind of healing chastisement, a lenity which shouldinspire fear, the severity of love. For then what will become of the precept of the apostle, “Warn them that are unruly, comfort the feeble-minded, support the weak, be patient toward all men; see that none render evil for evil unto any man?” 1 Thessalonians 5:14-15 At any rate, when he added these last words, “See that none render evil for evil unto any man,” he showed with sufficient clearness that there is no rendering of evil for evil when one chastises those that are unruly, even though for the fault of unruliness be administered the punishment of chastising. The punishment of chastising therefore is not an evil, though the fault be an evil. For indeed it is the steel, not of an enemy inflicting a wound, but of a surgeon performing an operation. Things like this are done within the Church, and that spirit of gentleness within its pale burns with zeal towards God, lest the chaste virgin which is espoused to one husband, even Christ, should in any of her members be corrupted from the simplicity which is in Christ, as Eve was beguiled by the subtlety of the serpent.

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