The Heresy of Donatism in the early Church

Donatism and Christianity:

The Donatist schism in Africa began in 311. It was a heretical sect of early Christianity founded by Donatus Magnus who believed that holiness was a requisite for church membership and administration of sacraments. Donatus was upset by the readiness of the mainstream church to welcome back into its fold clergy who had temporarily renounced their faith in fear of Roman persecution. Donatus believed that such people were not fit to be priests, and that church rituals led by such individuals were worthless.

During the oppression of Christians under Emperor Diocletian, many Christian leaders obeyed the order to surrender sacred texts to state authorities for destruction. After the persecution ended, some Christians believed that those who obeyed the state rather than become martyrs should not be allowed to hold church offices. Donatists argued that baptisms, marriages, confessions, funerals, communion services, and other church rituals were invalid if the priest performing the ceremony was in a state of sin. The ministry of these lapsed clergy was considered invalid. Accordingly, Donatists declared that anyone “married” by a sinning priest was actually fornicating, and anyone who confessed and received absolution from evil clergy never actually received forgiveness of sins. After his consecration as Bishop of Hippo in 395-396, Augustine devoted continual attention for more than ten years to the challenge of Donatism.

Donatism was declared a heresy at the Synod of Arles in 314 A.D. There it was decided that the validity of ordination and baptism were not dependent upon the merit of the administrator in question. Many Christians in North Africa were probably Donatists by the 5th century, but they were wiped out in the Muslim invasions which occurred in the 7th and 8th centuries.

The Bible teaches:

“The righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. …” (Romans 3:22-28 ESV)

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39 ESV)

“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1 ESV)

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