Some of God’s People were known as Donatists – Revelation 2:8-11

audio version

I know that it has been several weeks, but I’d like to take you back to our first lessons in this series. I pointed out that God originally created an homogenous society – where every aspect of life was firmly knitted with every other aspect of life. And of course at the center of all things was Jehovah. But then along came sin, with its thoroughly disruptive tendencies. Satan drove a wedge between Adam, Eve and the Lord, when he convinced the woman to disobey God, and Adam willingly followed her. After their expulsion from the garden, despite the simplicity of the original family society, sin continued to create disunity – to the point of murder – fratricide. Ever since Eden, man has been trying to recreate a monolithic, homogenous society, uniting religion, politics, education, economics, and even recreation, but at its root was sin. And the leaders involved often resorted to force and violence to accomplish their goals.

In our second or third lesson, I tried to show that Bible Christianity acknowledged the heterogenous nature of life on earth. Christ taught His disciples that they should render unto Caesar the things that belonged to Caesar while still rendering unto God the things that belong to Him. Christ teaches us to realize that while we live in a godless world we are not citizens of this world. Christ is certainly a King – our King – but He forbids us to pick up swords or rifles to defend Him or to extend His kingdom. There will be a day – coming relatively soon – when He will establish His own thousand-year, homogenous society, but it is not our job to do it for him. Zionistic Jews are wrong, and so are Zionistic Christians.

Christian evangelism is not designed to be culture-creating; it is culture-influencing. Evangelism will not unite the disunited United States; it will divide people as it has done for two millennia. The New Testament doesn’t prophesy a Christian-world overthrowing the Satanic-world. Wherever the gospel is preached, some people walk away redeemed and looking for the return of our King, but far more often people will walk away lost and rebellious. Those two people may live as next-door-neighbors, but they are very different people. Jesus said, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” This is exactly what we see in looking at the history of early Christianity.

Following the New Testament – during the first three centuries of the Christian era, we see the on-going struggle between Christ and Satan – Bible Christianity and paganism and fallen Christendom. We see the disrupting influence of sin within the churches and schools of Christianity. And we see the hatred of the world against the true saints of God.

At the beginning of the 4th century, the world was drastically changed.

A cataclysmic event took place in the Roman Empire’s union with professing Christendom. As early as the year 250, Origin, leader of the school in Alexandria, was saying – “If now the entire Roman Empire should unite in the adoration of the true God, then the Lord would fight for her, and she would slay more enemies than Moses did in his day.” He was hinting that making Rome a homogenous “Christian” society would be a good thing. He was advocating a “holy” Roman Empire.

But then Emperor Diocletian unleashed the worst persecution against the Christians history had ever seen. Thousands of genuine Christians, refusing to recognize that he was god, and wishing to worship Christ died under his wrath. Thousands of others recanted their declarations of faith in Christ, returning to the heathen fold. Eventually, when Diocletian decided to retire as Emperor, there was a struggle for Empirical control. To make a long story short, one of the participants in that struggle, Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus – “Constantine” for short – made a play for the throne. In the year 303, he looked up into the sky and saw clouds forming a cross, and he thought he heard the words “in hoc signo vinces” “in this sign conquer.” On that day, he chose to make the religion of Jesus his own religion and to kill others in the name of Christ. When he eventually became Emperor, Christendom became the only recognized religion of the Empire.

You might be able to imagine the joy that filled the hearts of the suffering Christians. Now beyond the periodic official tolerance, there was a guarantee that persecution had come to an end. Not only that, but the sword was turned against the pagan worshipers. Over the next few decades, it became a capital crime to burn candles or incense to the old idols. Gathering and teaching in the name of the old religions was forbidden. Those who had not already been baptized, were commanded to attend catechism classes, so they could know what it was they had to believe. And those who refused to be baptized at the conclusion of those classes were put to death. Constantine was trying to create a homogenous Christian society, at the top of which was himself. You can easily imagine that the so-called Christian churches were instantly filling with people who were no more Christians than the man in the moon.

Less than ten years after the rise of Constantine began the Donatist rebellion or Donatist agitation.

At this point, I need to warn you against believing everything you read about the Donatists. I didn’t check this out, because I have a dozen histories in my library, but if you google the word “Donatist” I wouldn’t be surprised if the first references all castigate these people. The reason would be because their histories were written primarily by biased Catholic historians. And among the Protestants, many continued to be particularly virulent against them. David Benedict, the American Baptist historian from the early 19th century refused to call the Donatists “Baptists,” because of what he had read of them. But then he began is own independent study of history, and eventually he wrote and published a book called “A History of the Donatists” in which he completely reversed his earlier statements.

The Donatists could be seen in North Africa by the year 311. But the use of that name came a generation after their historical appearance. The title arose from their connection to the bishop of Carthage in 347. There were two good men, both with the name Donatus. While Diocletian was wrecking havoc against the Lord’s churches, many Christians were choosing to die than to give up their scriptures to be burned. Mensuruis, then bishop in Carthage, began describing some Christians as “suicides” rather than “martyrs” and denouncing those suffered death while taking a stand for the truth. And when the persecution ended, he welcomed home, those who “traditors” who had saved their lives by sacrificing their Bibles and their testimonies. One such man was Caecilianus, who eventually replaced Mensurius as pastor of the Carthage church.

One who objected to this election was Donatus, and he was able to bring the church to its senses and Caecilianus and the Catholics were put out of the church. Pastor Donatus then became known as an enemy by Augustine and the Roman party. Donatus denied that the emperor or the bishop of Rome had any authority over his church or her doctrines. When Rome retaliated and began persecuting Donatus, other true churches in Africa rallied around him. Bishop Petilian, another target of Augustine, wrote, “Think you to serve God by killing us? Ye err, if ye, poor portals think this; God has not hangmen for priests.” Another Donatist pastor, Gaudentius wrote: “God appointed prophets and fishermen, not princes and soldiers, to spread the faith.” Donatist pastor Petilian instantly saw that there was no difference between the persecutions which the pagans had poured upon God’s people and those which the Catholics were hurling at them. For those who aren’t aware, Augustine of the Algerian city of Hippo, is considered to be one of the key leaders in the development of Roman Catholicism by the Roman Catholics.

Just as it was with the Novatians, the enemies of the Donatists have claimed that they arose out of jealousy and spite.

What did those persecuted Donatists believe?

Their enemies claimed that the Donatists held to infant baptism. How is that possible when they tenaciously clung to a converted church membership? How is that possible when they demanded that only believers could be immersed. Even the Protestant historians like the Episcopalian Long, says that they refused infant baptism. Baptizing babies and believer’s baptism with a regenerated membership are mutually exclusive. D’Anvers, wrote a book on baptism in which he said that Augustine’s third and fourth books against the Donatists proved that they denied infant baptism, which he maintained against with great zeal.

Crespin, a French historian summarized them as believing – “First, for purity of church members, by asserting that none ought to be admitted into the church but such as are visibly true believers and true saints. Secondly, for purity of church discipline. Thirdly, for the independency of each church. Fourthly, they baptized again those whose first baptism they had reason to doubt. They were consequently termed rebaptizers and Anabaptists.”

David Benedict, rather than reading the Protestant historians went back to Augustine and Optatus, who both hated the Donatists, quoted them to say that the Donatists rejected the growing acceptance of infant baptism. One explanation for their successful stand, was their congregational church government, rejecting the Roman hierarchy of bishops, arch-bishops and the Potifex Maximus – the Pope. They received their doctrine straight from the Bible, not from headquarters.

Heman Lincoln, was a Baptist historian who often disagreed with Benedict, but in this case he wrote: “It is evident that the Donatists held, at some period of their history, many of the principles which are regarded as axioms by modern Baptists. In their later history, after a stern discipline of persecution, they maintained, as cardinal truths, absolute freedom of conscience, the divorce of church and state, and a regenerate church membership. These principles, in whose defense they endured martyrdom coupled with their uniform practice of immersion bring them into close affinity with Baptists.”

Dupin, a Roman Catholic, wrote: “The Donatists maintained that the true church ought to consist of none but holy and just men. They confessed that bad might be mixed with the good in the church, but only as secret sinners, not as open offenders.”

Edward Gibbon, one of the greatest historians who ever lived – a secular historian – tied the Donatists to the Novatians and to the earlier Monanists. He said that the Donatists refused the fellowship of those who had delivered “the Holy Scriptures to the officers of Diocletian” – the traditors. The Protestant historian Mosheim agreed with Gibbon. Neander agreed with both those men and added that they were contending for “unalienable human rights – liberty of conscience and the rights of free religious conviction.” He also tied them to the Novatian moment. They claimed not to be starting a new kind of church but continuing one origination in the time of Christ. He said that they opposed the Catholic church with its state support. When Rome tried to assimilate their churches Donatus replied, “What has the emperor to do with the church?” And rather surprisingly, Protestant Neander editorialized, “The principle expressed in those words of Donatus, that the church and state should be kept whole separate from each other,” identified the principle upon which their opposition was founded.

Robinson wrote, “At the beginning of the fifth century… there were in Africa at least four hundred congregations of Anabaptists, called from Donatus, the name of two of the most eminent of their teachers.” They had dissented from the Roman church two hundred years before this time. The Donatists baptized by dipping on a profession of a particular faith. They thought the Romans had ceased to be Christian churches on account of their immorality, they did not hold their baptism valid, and they rebaptized every one that quitted the Roman communion to join theirs. Their notion was that churches ought to consist only of good men. They were truly and literally Anabaptists, or re-dippers. It is a violation of all history to say that the first Anabaptists came out of the 16th century reformation. As we have seen, from the second century, those who baptized again those who came to them from the corrupted churches were called anabaptists.

I.K. Cross summarizes his chapter on the Donatists saying: “The Montanists, Novatians and Donatists worked together without a breach of fellowship. Let us now list some of the things they held in common that distinguished them. 1. They were not charged with being unorthodox as far as the basic doctrines were concerned. 2. Their churches were independent and self-governing. 3. They practiced strict church discipline, holding that church members should be pure, and were, as a result, called cathari. 4. They rebaptized those who came to them from other communions, in their case the Catholics, and were called anabaptists. 5. They practiced adult baptism, receiving into their churches only those who were old enough to receive Jesus Christ as their Savior, referred to commonly as believer’s baptism. 6. They totally rejected the union of church and state. 7. A simple form of church government. 8. Free speech in their congregations. 9. They accepted the Scriptures as absolute authority. “ These are certainly Baptist distinctives, as distinct from the badly corrupted Catholic church of those days.

In one of the chapters of Leonard Verduin’s book “The Reformers and their Stepchildren,” he states that one of the slanderous names applied to God’s people during the Reformation was “Donatist.” It means that those people stood against the ruling state church, demanding a membership of true believers. The Donatists were one of the early Anabaptist groups. God’s people have been called “Donatist” and it was a name of which they were not ashamed to wear.