A Question I Was Asked:

What is Donatism?

What is Donatism? Was it something like 'perfectionism,' or the 'holiness movement'? I heard It was an ancient heresy...

UK Apologetics Reply:

Yes, Donatism (not to be confused with Docetism which we cover here) was a heresy of the 4th century AD. The basic teaching was that a pastor or minister could not continue as such and could not administer the sacraments (communion and baptism) unless he were morally totally pure. The problems initially arose after the great persecution under Diocletian in 303AD, some believers were martyred, others were not. Some of those who were not, started to be considered morally and spiritually dubious, especially where there was any evidence of compromise.

Donatism was taught by Donatus, bishop of Casae Nigrae (hence the name). He taught that the effectiveness of the sacraments depends on the moral character of the minister. In other words, if a minister who was involved in a serious sin were to baptize a person, then that baptism would be considered invalid.

The persecution which had led to these problems was certainly a serious one; Emperor Diocletian had declared that all Christian meeting places and copies of the Scriptures were to be destroyed. The very next year (304) another edict was issued ordering the burning of incense to the idol gods of the Roman empire. Of course, Christians refused, however, some Christians gave up the sacred texts to the persecutors and even betrayed other Christians to the Romans. These people became known as "traditors," that is: Christians who had betrayed other Christians.

At the consecration of bishop Caecilian of Carthage in 311AD, it was found that one of the three bishops who consecrated Caecilian (Felix, bishop of Aptunga), had given copies of the Bible to the Roman persecutors. A group of about 60-70 bishops formed a separate synod and declared the consecration of bishop Caecilian to be invalid (that is, because one of the bishops who had consecrated him had given away copies of the Bible to the Roman pesecutors). In no time a big debate arose concerning the validity of the sacraments by anyone who had sinned so greatly against fellow Christians, or by any one consecrated by such a man.

A little later Donatus became bishop of Carthage; and it is from his name that the movement is called because he started to gather the separatists together into a new movement. The 'Donatists' were soon gaining "converts" to their cause, so a real division was arising within the Catholic church (please note: I use 'catholic' here to mean universal, this refers to the lineage of the church which our Lord founded; "Roman Catholicism" came along later). The new separatists started to practice 'rebaptism' this was condemned at The Synod of Arles in 314 since it basically said that the authority of the early church was lost.

Augustine Finally Stops the Rot

In 316 even Emperor Constantine got drawn into the dispute when he was asked to rule upon bishop Caecilian. The consecration of the bishop, however, was upheld. By 350AD the Donatists had gained many converts and almost outnumbered the Orthodox grouping in Africa. It was finally none other than Augustine, bishop of Hippo, who turned the tide against the Donatist movement, a movement which eventually died out in the next (5th) century.

The point is: the church must of necessity be a morally imperfect bonding of men and women, whilst discipline is important, forgiveness is essential. Those who had succombed to persecution, even betraying fellow believers, should - at length, and after repentance - have been forgiven and restored. Their failings gave nobody the right to go away and found a separate church body!

So the great problem with Donatism is that nobody is morally pure. The church could not continue to operate if the effectiveness of the baptism or administration of the Lord's supper does not cease to be effective where the moral character of the presiding minister is in question or even demonstrated to be faulty. The sacraments go above and beyond whoever is adminstering them, they point to Christ, who backs up their authority.

Donatism is Perfectionism and is Present in Several Cults and Sects

Many of the cults and sects preach moral perfectionism which is really the same thing as Donatism. They claim that they alone have this moral perfection and attack Christians in general because of moral and spiritual compromises, but the truth is that nobody gave them the authority to take this independent approach, moreover, the founders of these groups are usually found to be exceptionally flawed people who change the message of the Bible to be something different to the Gospel message which was delivered. (Matthew 28:18-20; 2 John 1:9-11).

Robin A. Brace. February 7th, 2017.