An old proverb informs us “History repeats itself”—or, as one wag paraphrased it, “If there is one thing we learn from history is that no one learns anything from history.” Sadly, this is especially true in religious matters.
The bit of history to which I now refer is that of the Donatist movement which affected (or rather “afflicted”) North Africa beginning in the early fourth century. North African Christianity, rooted in the Berber culture, always did have a somewhat uncompromising approach to the Faith. Tertullian (d. about 220) was a rigorist who brooked no compromise and saw the universe in stark black and white terms. His rigorism led him out of the mainline church into the more rigorist Montanist confession (the so-called “New Prophecy”) and eventually out of Montanism also. He died surrounded by a few like-minded disciples.
Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (d. 258) was also a formidable figure who saw the world in stark terms. As far as he was concerned, schismatics had no grace at all, and their sacraments were null and void and blasphemous. Converts coming from their numbers must all be baptized again (Pope Stephen of Rome disagreed with this rebaptism policy, since he was heir to a different liturgical tradition). And by “schismatic” Cyprian did not merely mean groups as different from his church as Orthodox are from (say) the Presbyterians or the Baptists. He meant any outside group, even if they agreed entirely with his church about doctrine and worshipped in identical ways. A stark view indeed—and one which the Orthodox Church eventually rejected.
Anyway, that was North African Christianity. In Diocletian’s Great Persecution (which lasted from 303 to 313) a number of Christians lapsed, making the required sacrifice to the gods to save their lives. Bishops who either sacrificed or handed over the Scriptures to destruction (as instructed by government) thereby forfeited their Orders and could no longer function as bishops. In Carthage a certain (and rather unpleasant) Caecilian was elected bishop by the citizen body there, though he was disliked by the people. One of the three bishops consecrating him bishop was Felix of Aptunga, who it was alleged had once handed over the Scriptures during the recent persecution (i.e. he was a “traditor”) and who thus could not function as a bishop. If this was true, then Caecilian’s episcopal consecration was null and he was not really a bishop. That in turn meant that all his sacramental acts (such as baptism) were also null and that those baptized by him had not really been baptized.
The stage was set for a long and bitter battle. The new Emperor Constantine was appealed to and he ordered the matter investigated a number of times—each time finding in favour of Caecilian. But his opponents would have none of it, for by that time sides had been taken, lines in the sand drawn, labels placed on those from the opposing side. Those from the opposing sides were now no longer brothers in Christ, but The Enemy, the Church not of Peter but of Judas. Those siding with Caecilian were branded as worldly, apostate, tainted, of the devil.
The schism therefore began between those favouring Caecilian and those favouring the one ordained by his opponents in place of Caecilian, a man named Majorinus. When Majorinus died, a man named Donatus was consecrated in his place. He had a long and effective career and he gave his name to the schism which now bears his name (i.e. “Donatism”). This schism was to last in Africa until the Vandals swept down upon them all beginning in 429. Today North Africa is of course in Muslim hands; all the Christian candlesticks there have been removed (Revelation 2:5).
What is significant is that the Donatists themselves suffered an internal schism. One of their number was their primate, a man by the name of Primian. Primian was not a nice man; he was hungry for power and money, and bribed and persecuted relentlessly to get them. He has been described as “a man of extreme views and ruthless violence” (W.H.C. Frend in his The Donatist Church). For example, he forced one of his priests to disinherit his son in his favour and threw another priest down the sewer for administering the sacraments to the sick without his permission. Like I said: not a nice man.
A number of Donatist bishops realized that he had to go and they summoned a council. This council of 43 bishops found Primian guilty and deposed him, elected Maximian as primate in his place.
Primian did not go quietly. At length he gathered enough support to overturn the verdict and be restored. Then began a long and concerted persecution of violence against the “Maximianists”, who were denounced as “adulterers of truth”, “sacrilegious” and “vipers”. A Donatist subgroup called the “Circumcellions”—a mob of men a bit like the Storm Troopers of Nazi Germany—were called in. They went about terrorizing their opponents with violence and cudgels to beat them up. (They called their cudgels “Israels”—really, you can’t make this stuff up). Maximianist bishops were turned out of their houses, and their churches were torn down. One of them had dead dogs hung around his neck while he was paraded through town by his foes in triumph.
Note that this was all done by Donatists against fellow Donatists. The Maximianists, as Donatists, considered themselves purer than the Catholics like Caecilian and St. Augustine—but to Primian and his lot, they were not pure enough.
Here we see what happens when a schismatic heart is allowed to rule the head and direct the life. The Donatists were of course motivated by economic and nationalistic concerns; life is rarely so simple that actions have single motivations. Centered in southern Numidia they felt themselves estranged from the wider Roman empire and taxed to the point of desperation (hence the Circumcellion retaliations). But this quarrel was given a religious colouring as the Donatists viewed their struggle as the struggle of the pure church of the Holy Spirit and of the uncompromising martyrs against the worldly church of emperor and the empire. Those killed in the Donatist cause were automatically martyrs. Like most good North Africans, to them “compromise and nuance” were dirty words.
This temptation to indulge a schismatic heart is timeless and did not die out with the Donatists. In persists in Orthodoxy in (for example) the Old Calendarist movements and in certain online teachers who are keen to denounce all bishops as tainted and apostate who do not take their own hard line. They of course have their own heroes and personalities. In the old days the heroes were Donatus and his successor Parmenian. Now it is likely to be some elder or online teacher. What all the schismatic hearts (whether inside or outside of Orthodoxy) have in common is an abiding obsession with purity of doctrine and a bloodhound nose to sniff out any whiff of compromise or nuance. Impassioned denunciation quickly takes the place of calm dialogue.
Those who disagree with them are regarded not as brothers to be embraced and perhaps debated with, but as enemies to be denounced. When they meet another Christian, they inspect him to see if he measures up to all the required standards of purity. Where do you stand on versions of the Bible? On corrective baptism? On the church calendar? On liturgical reform? You might be pure in some ways, but you are not pure enough.
Obviously (please note—especially if you are tempted to comment) that I am not saying that truth and doctrine are not important. A true confession of Orthodox doctrine is required of everyone embracing the Orthodox faith. But so is love. The problem with the Donatists was not their doctrine so much as their heart. In their doctrine they didn’t differ that much from St. Cyprian; it was in their schismatic hearts, their love of disputation and denunciation, and their lack of love that they differed from the saint. They might have shared Cyprian’s view of rebaptism, but they had none of his balance.
In the end, that was why Donatism was considered to be harmful and heretical. The problem was not just that their understanding of the sacraments was overly rigorous; it was that their hearts did not beat with love for their neighbour. The cost of choosing to exclude love in favour of zeal is very high. The Lord has said that some will find the door to life closed them on the Last Day despite their zeal, their prophesying, their exorcisms, and their miracles. Those who choose lawlessness over love will discover that the Lord never knew them (Matthew 7:21-23). Now is the time to drop our Circumcellion cudgels. Now is the time for calm conversation and for love.