A New Donatist Controversy?

What do we do with those who want to come back to Orthodoxy?

Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner

The Church at Carthage is one of those important places in Church History because if you look at it you can see a microcosm of the Church from the 1st to the 6th century. If it affected the church catholic, it was probably magnified in some way at Carthage. Carthage was where the first martyrs’ blood was spilled and in Carthage where the Christians first gained recognition for their care for the sick during a plague. Similarly, it was also a magnifier of some of the many controversies that arose within the Church and was the origin and epicenter of the Donatist Controversy from the 4th to the 6th centuries. It broke out over an appointment b of a Bishop by another Bishop who had turned over copies of Holy Scripture to the Romans under the Persecution of Diocletion. The Donatists believed that priests and pastors had to be perfect, there could not be any impurity in them and so for a bishop to be appointed by a traitor meant that he was impure, since he was appointed by a traitor. The controversy lasted for almost 200 years and drew writings from another North African Bishop, Augustine of Hippo whose writings would prove to be a stinging critique of Donatism. One most notable critique was that the Donatists had separated themselves from the Church Universal: “Caecilianus,” Augustine writers: “the Biship of Carthage is accused with the contentiousness of men; the Church of Christ established among all nations, is recommended by the Voice of God, and love forbid us to receive the testimony of men whom we do not find in the church, which has the testimony of God, for those who do not follow the testimony of God have forfeited the weigh which otherwise would attach to their testimony as men.”

It is important to note what Augustine is saying here: Those who have separated themselves from the Church Universal have no recourse to make accusations against those who are inside the Church Universal. The Donatists had separated themselves from the majority opinion, namely that there could be forgiveness for clergy and for Christians in general who had given in to the Empire so long as they were truly repented. By separating themselves then, the Donatists lost the authority that comes from the Testimony of God. If God had told us not to forgiven apostates, then perhaps the churches majority opinion would have been different. But the contrary is the position of the scriptures, when someone has truly repented of sin, receive them back into fellowship as a brother. Further, the church should not entertain accusations against Clergy on theological matters that come from those who have separated themselves from the Church catholic because the have forfeited their testimony by dividing the people of God. In Augustine’s mind, the Donatists had responded to sin with more sin. Demanding the perfection of the clergy meant no grace could be shown to those who had fallen and so no restoration could be granted, it was to deny them the power of the sacrament of Bread and Cup. Further, dividing from the church was and still is an sin because it divides Christ and Christ cannot be divided. Those who split are to be considered “outside” the church universal.  In our modern context, while this argument makes our denominational divides a sin, it also pushes us past mere ecumenicism to deep unity wherein we agree on the essentials and allow disagreement on the non-essentials.

Underneath the entire controversy was the question: “What do we do with those who succumbed to the pressure to apostatize and worship the Emperor but are now repenting and want to come back into the fold?” That has the baseline to the question I have seen people posting on Twitter, what do we do with the people who sold themselves out for political power, who will, when this over want to come back to the fold as if nothing happened?

I have written before about the heresy of Christian Nationalism. Statism that masquerades as Christianity is no different than the Priests who sold themselves out and either turned over Holy Books, or who burned incenses to the Emperor. The choice by Diocletian was either denounce Christianity or die or rot in prison. Those who sold out the imperial cult under Diocletian and Galerius in the East now found themselves in a Roman Empire under Constantine that was favorable to Christianity and so it made sense for them to renter the Church and it would have been understandable if people like Nicholas of Smyrna, who had languished in prison, took exception to this returning. Yet, they met the challenge with grace, unlike the Donatists who gracelessly refused to accept anyone who had betrayed Christians, regardless of how penitent they may have become.

I wrote way back in 2015 that those who were clamoring for power, the “Court Evangelicals” as John Fea calls them, were not building up the flock, but instead feeding it to the wolves, and feeding the other shepherd to the wolves as well. The reality on the ground, that is, the reality of those of us who interact with real people in the real world is that the world looks at us and hears Christian and automatically associates us with the power hungry who think that the future of Christianity hinges on a political party (fact check, it doesn’t). Not some of these people want to come back to the Orthodoxy table like nothing happened and so we are faced with the inevitable question: “How do we treat those who sold themselves out for power, who separated themselves from the Church Universal to support Statism masquerading as Christianity, and more so, what do we do with the Cultists who might want to re-enter the fold after this is over and they realize they are on the wrong side of history?

As Christians we do not have purity tests, or at least we should not, if we do have one it is the only Jesus gave, and that is by the fruits of the believer, we will know who they are. Those fruits are the fruits that come with repentance and a life in the Spirit. The key there is repentance, the complete change in thought, attitude, and action from one direction to another in keeping with the transformed life of the Spirit. If you have truly repented , there will be evidence in the transformed life of the Spirit, those who have not repented will not show evidence of a transformed life.

This is why I had no faith in the claims that many of the Evangelical Elites that President Trump was a “Baby Christian.” There was no evidence of repentance or a transformed life, instead, his sinful habits and worst characteristics have gotten worse overtime. If you do not believe, just look at Twitter. A repentant man would have humbly confessed the truth to the many allegations against him when they were true, a repentant man would have apologized for the harsh rhetoric and dehumanizing speech directed at Blacks, Latino’s and other minority groups. A repentant man would not have lied and downplayed real threats to public health and our soldiers overseas,  A repentant man would have been one showed contrition, but also vowed to do better, to turn things around. Repentant people don’t act tougher, don’t act like they have a mandate from heaven to do whatever they want, speak however they want. One of my prayers for the president these last four years would be that he would genuinely repent of all these things, the greed, malice, hatred, fearmongering, lying and slandering, all of which are vices mentioned in scripture that we are to turn away from, to put off, if we truly have put on the Spirit of God.

I know that some want to “Forgive and forget” but that is a little harder when we are as divided as we are. There has to be true and real reconciliation and that can only come through repentance from those who have wronged other. But here is the thing, those who have remained in the Orthodox Camp may have to do some self-evaluation of our own attitudes. There may need to be some things that repent of as well, maybe it is unrighteous anger, maybe it is a pure hatred of the “other side” or demonizing or dehumanizing on our own account.

But here is the thing, if they or we are genuinely repentant than forgiveness has to follow suit, if we are to be like Jesus, then those who genuinely repent have to allowed a twentieth chance. I am sorry, but this is not my thought, it is Jesus, he is the one who tells us to forgive, he is the one who tells us to love our neighbor and our enemies. I do not get a say in whether I offer forgiveness, it is there fore the taking if repentance comes. At the same time, if repentance doesn’t come we have to still be willing to forgive, even if the lack of repentance means we cannot fellowship together until that repentance has occurred. As Dr. Bryan Lorrits says: “Forgiveness if required, with reconciliation there is a loophole.”

But, with that I have to remind everyone that God’s goal is reconciliation, that is stated several times in Scripture including in Colossians 1:15-20. God’s desire is to draw all people to himself and if He is drawing all people to Himself then He is also drawing all people to each other. There is a trajectory towards God we are all taking, or should be taking, and if we are on that trajectory then we have inevitably getting closer to one another To look and see a Brother and Sister who I disagree with and say: “If these are the people you’re inviting into the Kingdom God, then I am out.” Doesn’t halt their trajectory towards God, it halts yours. It is important to note that we are all taking the same path towards God, Jesus Christ, if we are all on the same road we should not cause a roadblock by fighting over who should or should not be here. We do not get to determine that, only God does.

Because here is the reality before us, the Church was left here to prepare the way for the return of Christ. That means we are to do everything we possibly can to make it as easy as it can possibly be to see God’s desire that all people be saved (1 Tim 2:5) come to fruition. If our actions turn people away from God, we are not preparing the way, we are hindering the way. Isaiah prophesied long ago that a voice would cry out, and six hundred years later one did.

Church What a vision! What a reality and it is a reality we are currently living in and will one day realize fully. That cry, in the wilderness, it has already happened: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” John the Baptist calls out, God is coming, get ready, make the Highways Straight. And you know what, not only did John cry this, God showed up in the person of Jesus Christ the true and permanent heir to the David Throne, born to the Virgin Mary and her betrothed Joseph of the Royal Line of David. The Glory of God was revealed in Him and He proved over and over again that God’s word would endure forever, even though the leaders of the people were fickle and immoral, God showed that he would keep his promises. Then through His death on the cross He made a way for the lambs to be gathered back to God, for all sins to be forgiven and the scattered flock of God to come home and to this day He takes care of the young lambs, the rich, the poor, the lame, the sick, the imprisoned, the disabled, the disenfranchised, the lost, the least, there is not one who does not fall from his sight. Now he sits at the right hand of God and he is coming again as the right hand of God, in full power, in full splendor, as the Shepherd King and He will one day complete the gathering process. Every mountain is being made low, every valley lifted high, every rough place a plain and every uneven place even! There will no longer be any barrier to Him for anyone, His full glory will be revealed, Church Behold Your God! He is the same today, He was the same yesterday, He will be the same tomorrow, You and I will fade away and die, but He will endure forever.

This is the God who tells us to forgive, this is God who is working to reconcile us to one another as He reconciles us to Himself. So, when people repent, we will welcome them back, until then we will work on forgiving them, it is not going to be an easy road, but it is one we are required to take. We should do it by avoiding purity tests like the Donatists and let the fruits speak for themselves, just as Jesus told us to.

 

12973040_10154269785339245_3845786340930956602_oRev. Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife and daughter in Northern Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center

 

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