Maybe it’s just that I’m a church nerd. Maybe it’s because I love history. Regardless of what it is, church history is interesting to me. Especially the controversies that the church has had to deal with over the centuries.
Today has me thinking of the Donatist controversy. What, pray tell is the Donatist controversy? I’m glad you asked. If you’d like to read a paper on it, I recommend this site. It has a nice full description of the full history from the Diocletian persecution, to the resolution and ending of the Donatist church.
Don’t have time for that? Here’s the summary version. The Roman Emperor Diocletian persecuted Christians. Some of the Christians decided that saving their own necks was more important than dying as a martyr, so these Christians fell into a few camps. There was the church of the “traitors” and persecutors. And there was the church of the martyrs. The traitors were aptly named because they actively handed over people and documents to the Romans in order to save themselves.
After Diocletian retired, Constantine became emperor and signed the Edict of Milan, which essentially gave freedom of religion to everyone and returned church property.
At that point, the church had a fight over what to do with the people who had betrayed their faith in order to save their lives. Was the church going to focus on purity and reject those who rejected the faith to save their life, or would the church offer forgiveness and move on? The Donatists argued for purity, calling into question the priests who were ordained by former traitor bishops. This meant that the priests weren’t really consecrating the elements for Eucharist. It meant that the Donatists didn’t recognize the baptism of the church. It formed a separate church. Augustine was alive during this time and argued against the Donatists.
Eventually, the Church won out and the Donatists died off as a movement.
This was an important controversy for the church to go through. It determined the future direction of the church. Had the Donatists succeeded, the church would have died instead. Purity would have been the most important factor of faith. That’s a hard argument for a faith that relies on grace and mercy though.
Purity versus grace. That’s not just a church challenge and controversy. It applies to many other areas of life too. But speaking strictly of the church, since that is the focus of this post, there are a few questions to consider – Will the voices of purity win out in the future? Or will grace and mercy have the final say? How will the future church receive those who trade in faith for supposed influence and/or power? Will the church continue on with grace and mercy, or will the church resurrect the Donatist theology of purity? The time will come when the church will have to decide as it has in the past. It’s just a matter of when and who the decision makers are at that time. Let us remember though, this isn’t new. It’s been a battle that has been going on non-stop for centuries. The church has varied in its answer over time. I pray that God will guide the church in the future.