Donatism was a heretical sect of Christianity that challenged the established church in the fourth century, as Catholicism was on the rise. Donatism, which began in North Africa, taught that Christians were called to asceticism and personal purity and that holiness was proved in one’s faithfulness in enduring persecution. Those whose faith wavered under threat of death were impure and not worthy of being members of the church. The Donatists considered theirs as the only true church and refused to acknowledge ordinances administered in other churches.
The background of Donatism involves the Roman persecution of the church. In AD 303 Emperor Diocletian mounted a severe persecution against all Christians. All churches and Christian Scriptures were to be destroyed. During the persecution, many Christians betrayed other Christians to the Romans or handed over their copies of the Bible. These traitors became known as “traditores,” or Christians who turned in other Christians to the government. In the minds of many Christians, the sin of betrayal was a mark of evil character that could not be overcome.
In AD 311 Caecilian was consecrated as bishop of Carthage. One of the three bishops involved in the ceremony was Felix of Aptunga, who had earlier handed over copies of the Bible to the Romans to be destroyed. Thus, Bishop Felix was a traditor. A group of about seventy other bishops considered Bishop Felix to be unfit for office because of his betrayal—and, since Felix was unfit, the consecration of Bishop Caecilian was null and void. The bishops in opposition to Felix formed a synod and refused to acknowledge Bishop Caecilian as a valid church official. The debate over Caecilian expanded to include the validity of the sacraments administered by Felix and other traditores. How could someone who had betrayed the Word of God be holding Christian office? The low moral character of the officiant was seen as annulling the grace supposedly received through the sacraments he dispensed.
After Caecilian died, the bishopric of Carthage went to Aelius Donatus the Great. The term Donatism comes from his name. Bishop Donatus continued to advance the idea that any traditor who administered a sacrament polluted the sacrament to such an extent that it was no longer a conveyor of grace. Not only was a traditor to be excommunicated, but also all those who held fellowship with a traditor. The church was to be made of “saints,” not sinners. The Donatists began to re-baptize Christians who had been baptized in other churches; in so doing, they separated themselves from all other churches and basically upheld themselves as the only authoritative church body.
The Donatist issue was raised at several church councils, including the Council of Nicea. In every council, the Donatist position was rejected. Donatism, however, continued its influence until Augustine of Hippo wrote a series of books, letters, and sermons that refuted the Donatist movement and argued that the effect of a sacrament is independent of the moral character of the minister. Donatism eventually died out in the fifth century.
The main problem with Donatism is that no person is pure in the sight of God (Romans 3:23). If absolute holiness is required to serve God, then we are all unfit. Also, Donatism’s view of sin was too narrow. The Donatists demanded rectitude of the priests and bishops and other church leaders according to their own definition of rectitude—namely, an embrace of asceticism and unwavering fortitude under persecution. But, as Jesus taught, moral uprightness involves much more than external conformity to a church standard (Matthew 5–7).