Saturday, March 20, 2010

Does the priest have to be pure? (part one)

Given all the fuss about abuse by Roman Catholic clergy (justified fuss, certainly) I thought it would be of interest to describe in some detail an ancient church controversy, which has some relevance. At the beginning of the fourth century AD, under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, there was a severe crackdown upon the Christian church. Some members of the church, including some priests and bishops, handed over copies of the sacred Scriptures to the imperial authorities. These people were called traditores – from the Latin for handing over. From this expression derives our own words traitor and tradition.

A few years later, Constantine became the Roman Emperor and, famously, he allowed Christianity to be celebrated publicly. At this point, a quarrel broke out within the church. What should happen to those priests and bishops who were traditores? The majority view was that those people who had collaborated with the authorities should be forgiven, and allowed to continue their ministry. Some one hundred years later, this was the view that St Augustine fought for, and he developed the theology to explain why. In sum, the validity of our sacraments – of baptism and holy communion – do not depend upon the moral state of the priest who is in charge of them. The president at communion is not expected to be an example of moral perfection; he or she is assumed to be a sinner, along with every other baptised member of the church. If the sacraments are celebrated properly, in accordance with the right teaching of the church, then they achieve what Jesus intended them to achieve. In other words the holiness at issue is the holiness of Jesus, not the holiness of the priest.

However, there was a distinct minority view which ended up being called Donatism, named after Donatus, who was consecrated as an alternative Bishop of Carthage. This group did not forgive the traditores for what they had done, and so they established an alternative church which explicitly advocated the holiness of ministers, the need to have a pure church; in other words, if a sinner presided at communion, the communion was not valid – Jesus was not present, no spiritual medicine was distributed. There followed a very unedifying struggle for power, especially in North Africa, between these two groups. It took some two centuries for the Donatist church to die out completely, and St Augustine was heavily involved, not just in establishing the theology, but practically as the legitimate Bishop of Carthage in his own day.

Now the Donatists were condemned as heretics. The word 'heresy' simply means choice, that is, the Donatists had chosen a course separate to that accepted by the wider body of the church. Although Donatism is the technical name for the heresy, it is more commonly known as the 'pure church' heresy.

In our highly individualist age, the notion of heresy is problematic. What is wrong with a group of people coming to a decision about how they wanted to function together? Why shouldn't they have their own denomination, and be left to get on with their own business? What this misses is the connection between getting our doctrine right and the state of our souls. 1 Timothy instructs pastors that we are to “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” In other words, in Christianity, there is a link between what we believe and our eventual salvation, and the most important quality for pastors is the ability to teach the truth. That is how a priest exercises their cure of souls; not through being popular and well liked, but by holding fast to the truth of the faith. Right doctrine enables right behaviour; conversely, wrong doctrine leads to spiritual destruction. Let me spell out what this means in the case of the pure church heresy.

At the core of the controversy was a refusal on the part of the Donatists to forgive those traditores who had collaborated with the Empire, and handed over the Scriptures. In other words, the Donatists had embraced a path of judgement, contrary to Jesus' explicit teaching. This is the spiritual root from which Donatism emerged like a flower. The trouble with this path is that the divide between the sinners and the righteous does not run between different people, or between different groups; rather it runs within people.

This leads to a problem. For if a community is constituted by the notion that only the pure can share in communion, then there is tremendous psychological pressure to preserve oneself in a state of innocence, in order to continue to share the sacrament. This means that all the elements of our own nature that don't fit neatly into that ideal of innocence become repressed and denied. What this leads to, St John describes eloquently in his first Epistle: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” In practice, the tension generated by this pursuit of innocence and denial of sin is resolved through scapegoating. One person, or one group of people, becomes identified as the source of all pain and bitterness – they are no longer traditores, but traitors, the great betrayers, the ones who have become a scandal and a stumbling block to the wider community. The scapegoats are then persecuted and destroyed, and the pure church community is able to find unity in that process, with reassurance for their own identity.

This is the way of the world, and we don't have to go very far to find examples of it. The most obvious is what happened in Germany in the 1930s, but it has happened in this country very recently, eg when considering the fate of one of the boys who killed Jamie Bulger. Generally speaking, the tabloid newspapers are driven by this process, of finding scapegoats on whom to place all the burdens of our existence. Remember: this is the realm of Satan. Satan means the accuser, the one who points the finger, the one who apportions blame, the prosecuting counsel in a trial. It is because Satan is the presiding spirit of this process that Jesus calls him the Prince of this world.

In other words, just to make things absolutely clear, the end point spiritually for anyone who embarks upon this path is to be cut off from the living God. It is to be in Hell, now and for eternity. Hell is not a metaphor, it is a state of life filled with finger-pointing and bitterness, where anger is nursed until it becomes the defining feature of the personality. This is why St Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians that we are to “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” The only possible way out from Satan's realm is forgiveness – as Jesus taught, and as he lived. As St Paul writes, we are to “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” To live by forgiveness – to give and to receive forgiveness – this is what it means to be a Christian, to pass on forgiveness just as we have received forgiveness. This is lost by the pure church. That is why it is a heresy.

In Part Two – what do we do when the priest isn't pure?


  1. Thanks for this, and for giving such clear explanation of why Donatism is wrong. But I couldn't help thinking that you are in fact arguing for a variant of Donatism in which the pastor is perfect not morally but doctrinally. I look forward to your part two, but I hope you will also consider what happens when the priest is not "holding fast to the truth of the faith".

  2. Thanks Sam. This is a good explanation of the ongoing relevance of Donatism. Much appreciated.

  3. Very timely and interesting article for me. Thankyou.

    I've been noticing this a lot in some reformed evangelical churches where God's undeserved Grace is preached initially but then once you're 'in' you become subject to a church-driven push for purity that often re-condemns that which God has forgiven.

    I understand the internal drive for sanctity in response to Jesus Christ, but I'm not sure it's the place of church leaders to go after the motes in people's eyes, even if they honestly believe they've purged the plank from their own.

    It's difficult because I really admire the level of holiness and wholesomeness that some of these churches seem to achieve, but as for myself I'd feel a lot more loved and able to love in a church full of broken & humble people constantly needing forgiveness and aware of it.

  4. Peter - I've been pondering your comment, and I think I will write on it at more length, but briefly I think I would make some link between the effectiveness of a minister and their orthodoxy, or ability to teach right belief (this is why the Virgin Birth is a thorn in my flesh). Which ties in to the questions of obedience, and thence to the authority of the church as a whole.
    Tess: well put.

  5. Article XXVI: Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament

    Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ's, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in the receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

    Nevertheless it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed.

    I'd forgotten about this one until I came across it by chance today. Very relevant.


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