In 250, Emperor Decius initiated a brief but bloody persecution of the church. The majority of Christians renounced their faith or purchased a certificate saying they had renounced it. Once the danger was past, they began to rethink their decisions and wanted to rejoin the church. How should the church respond?
Back in Rome, the bishop had been martyred, and for a year there was nobody to take his place. In 251, Cornelius was elected and immediately offered penance to the lapsed. Novatian, who had helped lead the church in the transition, declared that this was impossible, and became the head of a rival church. Cornelius excommunicated them, and tension remained between the two groups for over a century.
In 303, Emperor Diocletian initiated what became known as the Great Persecution, and when it was over, the controversy arose again. This time, it was worst in North Africa, where the persecution had been lightest. All that had been asked of Christians there was to hand over their scriptures to be burned. Many Christians, particularly wealthy ones, acceded to this request, including clergy. These people were branded “traditores” (literally “those who had handed over”) and is where the word “traitor” comes from. The Donatists, led by Donatus, declared that any sacraments administered by traditore priests were invalid. They remained a force for centuries; it was only the Muslim conquest in the 7th century that put an end to the division.
Society of Saints vs. School for Sinners?
The questions raised in each of these schisms are very difficult, so much so that the church has continued to wrestle with them for the entirety of the past 2000 years. On the one hand, is the church not a pure, spotless bride? We cannot really claim to have faith in Christ if that faith doesn’t change how we live. On the other hand, we are all sinners; in the eyes of God we have all fallen short, and can we really claim that some other person’s sin is so much worse than ours as to put them beyond redemption? On the other hand, if we do not hold each other to account then aren’t we really just a bunch of hypocrites? On the other hand, we are specifically enjoined to be careful about judging, because the same measure will be applied to us. On the other hand, if we don’t judge and even expel some sinners from the congregation, we may indirectly cause others to sin who would have otherwise learned from the examples of those who were expelled. On the other hand, perhaps by staying in fellowship with a fallen brother, we can influence him back towards Christ and better behavior.
Wheat, Tares, and Augustine
As a bishop in North Africa, Augustine spent a lot of time combatting the Donatists. Sermon 23 succinctly lays out his view of sinners within the church, both among clergy and laity:
In the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, to burn them, but gather the wheat into My barn. Why are you so hasty, He says, you servants full of zeal? You see tares among the wheat, you see evil Christians among the good; and you wish to root up the evil ones; be quiet, it is not the time of harvest. That time will come, may it only find you wheat! Why do ye vex yourselves? Why bear impatiently the mixture of the evil with the good? In the field they may be with you, but they will not be so in the barn.
O you Christians, whose lives are good, you sigh and groan as being few among many, few among very many. The winter will pass away, the summer will come; lo! The harvest will soon be here. The angels will come who can make the separation, and who cannot make mistakes. We in this time present are like those servants of whom it was said, Will You that we go and gather them up? for we were wishing, if it might be so, that no evil ones should remain among the good. But it has been told us, Let both grow together until the harvest. Why? For you are such as may be deceived. Hear finally; Lest while you gather up the tares, you root up also the wheat with them. What good are you doing? Will ye by your eagerness make a waste of My harvest?
I tell you of a truth, my Beloved, even in these high seats there is both wheat, and tares, and among the laity there is wheat, and tares. Let the good tolerate the bad; let the bad change themselves, and imitate the good. Let us all, if it may be so, attain to God; let us all through His mercy escape the evil of this world.
Consider how you would handle following in your church
- A man who sacrificed on the pagan altar to the emperor.
- A man who didn’t sacrifice, but bought a certificate saying he did.
- A Pastor who turned over scriptures to be burned.
- Church leadership which ordained a practicing homosexual.
Suppressing the Donatists
Augustine went beyond preaching, though. He called upon the state to help end the schism:
Again I ask, if good and holy men never inflict persecution upon any one, but only suffer it, whose words they think that those are in the psalm where we read, “I have pursued mine enemies, and overtaken them; neither did I turn again till they were consumed?” If, therefore, we wish either to declare or to recognize the truth, there is a persecution of unrighteousness, which the impious inflict upon the Church of Christ; and there is a righteous persecution, which the Church of Christ inflicts upon the impious. She therefore is blessed in suffering persecution for righteousness’ sake; but they are miserable, suffering persecution for unrighteousness. Moreover, she persecutes in the spirit of love, they in the spirit of wrath; she that she may correct, they that they may overthrow: she that she may recall from error, they that they may drive headlong into error.
Finally, she persecutes her enemies and arrests them, until they become weary in their vain opinions, so that they should make advance in the truth; but they, returning evil for good, because we take measures for their good, to secure their eternal salvation, endeavor even to strip us of our temporal safety, being so in love with murder, that they commit it on their own persons, when they cannot find victims in any others. For in proportion as the Christian charity of the Church endeavors to deliver them from that destruction, so that none of them should die.
The Donatist schism by his time had existed for nearly a century, and the division now went much deeper than the original controversy. It often turned violent. Sometimes, Donatists would loot and destroy Catholic churches. They also prevented people among their ranks from going over to the Catholic side by using violence. Does this change your view any?
And what are we to say of those who confess to us, as some do every day, that even in the olden days they had long been wishing to be Catholics; but they were living among men among whom those who wished to be Catholics could not be so through the infirmity of fear, seeing that if any one there said a single word in favor of the Catholic Church, he and his house were utterly destroyed at once? Who is mad enough to deny that it was right that assistance should have been given through the imperial decrees, that they might be delivered from so great an evil, whilst those whom they used to fear are compelled in turn to fear, and are either themselves corrected through the same terror, or, at any rate, whilst they pretend to be corrected, they abstain from further persecution of those who really are, to whom they formerly were objects of continual dread?
But if they have chosen to destroy themselves, in order to prevent the deliverance of those who had a right to be delivered, and have sought in this way to alarm the pious hearts of the deliverers, so that in their apprehension that some few abandoned men might perish, they should allow others to lose the opportunity of deliverance from destruction, who were either already unwilling to perish, or might have been saved from it by the employment of compulsion; what is in this case the function of Christian charity, especially when we consider that those who utter threats of their own violent and voluntary deaths are very few in number in comparison with the nations that are to be delivered?
What then is the function of brotherly love? Does it, because it fears the shortlived fires of the furnace for a few, therefore abandon all to the eternal fires of hell? And does it leave so many, who are either already desirous, or hereafter are not strong enough to pass to life eternal, to perish everlastingly, while taking precautions that some few should not perish by their own hand, who are only living to be a hindrance in the way of the salvation of others, whom they will not permit to live in accordance with the doctrines of Christ, in the hopes that some day or other they may teach them too to hasten their death by their own hand, in the manner which now causes them themselves to be a terror to their neighbors, in accordance with the custom inculcated by their devilish tenets? Or does it rather save all whom it can, even though those whom it cannot save should perish in their own infatuation? For it ardently desires that all should live, but it more especially labors that not all should die.
Consider the many people who are prevented from even hearing the gospel due to violent men who keep it out of their country. Now, imagine that you could change this by removing their oppressors by force. Would that be wrong?