Dealing with Traitors: Lessons from the Donatist Controversy
This is a shortened version of a paper I prepared for a conference in Wisconsin in June. – Pastor
The Donatist heresy about which St. Augustine famously wrote had to do with several controversial matters, chief among them the question of the validity of sacraments administered by bishops who were found to be schismatics (heretics). What occasioned the controversy, which raged throughout the fourth century, was the matter of the traditores, or traitors. These were Christians who because of the threat of persecution had responded in ways perceived to be cowardly. Toward the end of the reign of the Emperor Diocletian, during the years a.d. 303-305, the “Great Persecution” began, during which many Christians were imprisoned and martyred. Christian leaders had been ordered to hand over their Scriptures and Sacred Books under the threat of this severe persecution. Some complied with the order and some refused. Those who complied became known as the traditores, because, as traitors, they had handed over the books the government demanded (trado, to hand over).
When the persecution ended with the ascendency of Constantine to the throne, this controversy emerged. One bishop in particular, Mensurius of Carthage, had been accused of being a traditor, but his defense was that he had actually handed over no sacred books at all, merely some heretical ones he didn’t want in his library anyhow, and evidently the ruse had worked; so, it would seem, no harm, no foul. But this failed to placate the Donatist party who insisted that anything short of an utter refusal to comply was an offense against Christ. When Mensurius died, his supportive archdeacon Caecilian was to become his successor, which further enraged his enemies.
According to Augustine’s biographer J. R. King, the primary concern of Mensurius and Caecilian against the stricter party was “the fanatical spirit in which many of the Christians courted martyrdom.” That, it would seem, was the other side of the coin.
But the Donatists insisted that any such person was not considered eligible to administer valid sacraments. Hence, the acts of Mensurius, whom they considered a traditor, were to be counted as illegitimate, and so, by extension, those of Caecilian. This included Baptisms, which, according to the Donatists, were therefore no Baptisms at all.
At length the Catholic Church declared in opposition that the validity of Baptism was seen to be independent of the worthiness of the administrator of it. This point of view was reaffirmed in our Lutheran Confessions.
But the pesky Donatists continued on their course, eventually attracting bands of Circumcelliones, violent and profane radicals, who would jump out at random before travelers on the road, shouting “Laus Deo (Praise the Lord!),” swinging large clubs called “Israels,” hoping to evoke a violent response that might even result in their own deaths, or rather, to
their own way of thinking, their own martyrdoms. This was problematic for them because the persecution of the church had already come to an end. Instead of finding ways to be martyrs, they found themselves considered clowns. People who encountered them, instead of acceding to their demands to be martyred, began to laugh at them. This drove them to change their tactics, and they began to commit acts of mass suicide instead. They would throw themselves off cliffs or into the river, or even, in some cases, they would set themselves afire.
After some years St. Augustine engaged a Donatist named Petilianus, who had charged him with malice and madness, to which the he replied, “Address that rather to your own Circumcelliones. . . . [You Donatists insist that] innocence is on your side? Look back for a moment on your troops . . . with [their] cudgels . . . axes and lances and swords.”
The Donatists managed to survive into the 7th century, though they didn’t die out entirely until the rise of Islam.
What can we lean?
First, in spite of the acrimony and notoriously violent character of the Donatist controversy, there were some matters both sides consistently agreed upon. No one on either side ever believed that the true traditores had been in the right. No one argued that compliance with Diocletian’s wicked order had been the moral thing to do. No one invoked Romans 13, as far as I can tell. Neither the Donatists nor the Catholics would have thought such an argument anything less than laughable, even though it was no secret that the murderous Nero had been the emperor when Paul wrote Romans. The limitations of the meaning of Paul’s words were evident to all:
For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God . . . [and] therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.
No one thought these words would apply to the emperor’s order to hand over the sacred books, even though one could argue (and nowadays someone probably would argue) that such an order was not in itself a command to sin. The emperor’s power was never assumed to be so great that “except when commanded to sin” was the only exception to it. The question, for all who called themselves Christians, was not whether a perceived traditor had a legitimate excuse for his actions, but rather what was to be done with him after the persecution had passed.
A second thing we can learn from the controversy, which lasted well over a hundred years, was that the Donatists were intellectually and spiritually bankrupt from the start. These Circumcelliones were essentially wild and foolish. In confessing the faith against them, the church had to contend with opponents that were without sense. Augustine had no trouble making cogent and persuasive arguments against them not only because of his deft capacity as a rhetorician and brilliant theologian, but because they were easy opponents to oppose. The Donatist party was not intellectual at all, and certainly had no conception of the history of the Christian faith nor of the Sacred Scriptures.
It's always a good thing to know one’s opponent. And today, similarly to these fools, we have many versions of folly as well. It seems a good thing to remember the greater likelihood that they are deceivers than that they are serious in their assertions, and never to assume too much about them or their specious arguments. For a prime example, consider the Critical Race Theory (“woke”) madness that has infected virtually every corner of society. When the church responds to their folly in a way that assumes their concerns are genuine, nothing is gained, and indeed much can be lost. Yet that is exactly what the Northwestern District of the Missouri Synod did at their 2018 District Convention, in resolving to condemn the sin of racism and calling for the establishment of a task force on the issue of racism. Wisdom cries out, “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him” (Proverbs 26:4). But it seems that advice has not been heeded.
At length Augustine did see the need to respond, because of their rebaptisms, which he regarded as a monstrous crime. For while sacraments administered by unworthy ministers in the church are nevertheless valid, a sacrament wrongly administered, or administered outside the church, was no sacrament at all. Not all baptisms were valid; but the worthiness of the priest was not a criterion; only whether his church was legitimately church. Though this may seem a distinction without a difference, the difference is that what the Donatists had done was determine that when a priest or a bishop was found to be a traditor, his own worthiness was called into question, and therefore the validity of his acts; but what the Catholic church did, by contrast, was in some cases determine the church in which a ‘baptism’ occurred was in fact no church at all.
This difference could also be applied today. When we consider, for instance, the phenomenon of supposedly administering the Sacrament of the Altar over the internet, we are not calling into question the worthiness of the administrator, but whether there’s any administration going on at all. There is no church there, but only cyberspace. It isn’t the worthiness of the administrator we call into question, but the legitimacy of his administration. Just as the proverbial pastor baptizing passers-by with a water hose is not truly baptizing anyone, so also the one who thinks he has the capacity to consecrate the elements in some place other than where he is standing has no such capacity at all, and these are no sacraments either. They are, to use Augustine’s term, monstrous crimes, perhaps even more so than the Donatist rebaptisms. They have no standing, no power, and no validity.
There are some other comparisons that can be made to our day. There are all kinds of crazy people about these days, as we all know. Gone are the simple, halcyon days of same-sex marriages or of mere homosexuals roaming the streets. Now there are more radical concerns: transgender madness, multi-gender madness, and the madness of thinking you can switch genders just because they figured out how remove some things from your body and paste some other things on. You might well say that today’s Circumcelliones aren’t wielding cudgels; they’re wielding scalpels. But they’re violent too: rioting in our cities and bringing civility to nothing wherever they can. And of course they’re claiming to be pious and holy in doing so. They think you are the wicked ones because you won’t support their madness. They won’t even debate you; they’ll silence you, cancel you. In their madness they have infected every corner of society, including the business world, and the schools, even down to kindergartens.
So a third lesson we might draw from the fourth century could be gleaned from a look at how Augustine finally did deal with the Circumcelliones. These bands of marauders essentially claimed that they fought as soldiers of Christ. This is quite evidently a tactic of those who do evil. They mask their evil under the guise of goodness and faithfulness. Augustine exposed the thin veneer under which their own hypocrisy lay, and the utter duplicity of their claims. “How neatly it is said under covering of the sheep’s clothing, ‘Charity beareth all things, endureth all things!’ but when you come to the test, the wolf’s teeth cannot be concealed.”
So also in our day comes the claim that we who refuse to go along, when we do not fall for the various complaints against us that we lack understanding or compassion, whether it’s because we don’t want to “understand” the plight of certain minority populations, or because we fail to show pity for someone “afflicted” with gender dysphoria, or because we “carelessly” refuse to comply with the government’s covid orders. Somehow we have supposedly become guilty of lovelessness and the charge that we don’t care, or are insensitive, because we don’t concern ourselves with the conditions or well-being of people. But how, we might well reply in good Augustinian fashion, is it not loveless to assume that racism abounds in our actions, when you have ignored the Eighth Commandment’s warning to explain everything in the kindest way? Tell us how it is uncaring to reject our society’s Circumcelliones’ eagerness to emasculate themselves or their unsuspecting and confused children. Or how is it not loveless, under the veneer of caring for the physical well-being of the sheep, to withhold from them their food, or to spew your vomited canard that the sheep’s green pastures may just as easily be found in front of a computer screen, while they sit alone at home in their pajamas? And we are somehow the loveless? Physician, heal thyself. The enemy always accuses, in one way or another; and usually when he does, he’s projecting, and guilty of the very things he charges.
There are doubtless other lessons to be gleaned from the fourth-century church’s contentions against the Donatists. These are some, tentatively offered here, with an eye toward learning either from the church’s earlier successes, that perhaps they may be of assistance today, or from her earlier errors, that we may not be doomed to repeat them.
+ Pastor Eckardt
Wednesday Evening Masses
There is no mass scheduled on Wednesday, July 13th. Pastor and Carol will be on family vacation.
On Wednesday, July 27th, mass is tentative, depending on when Pastor is able to return from a conference in Racine. To be announced.
Tentatively Wednesday masses are scheduled at 7 pm on all the other Wednesdays.
July, August Anniversaries
7/1/1951 John and Emilie Ricknell
8/1/2009 Chris and Trista Dooley
8/1/1981 Larry and Michele Campbell
Altar Guild Notes
Catechism Resumes in August
Junior Catechism will resume on Tuesday, August 16th, at 5:00 in the afternoon.
The council will be meeting on Saturday, July 2nd, a Saturday, at 10 a.m. In August, the scheduled meeting is for Wednesday, August 17th, the usual time.
July and August Birthdays
7/2 Dana McReynolds
7/4 Sarah Kraklow
7/5 Sandra Verplaetse
7/7 Stephen Harris
7/9 Michelle Armstrong
7/10 Otis Anderson
7/10 Dale Baker
7/13 Gayle Beauprez
7/14 Father Eckardt
7/14 Elizabeth Dooley
8/11 Sam Fisher
8/11 Judy Thompson
8/13 Donald Murphy
8/16 Trista Dooley
8/21 John Sovanski
The nearby July calendar shows that I will be away for vacation from July 9th to the 16th. Matins will be held on Sunday the 10th, a service without communion. The subdeacons will lead the service which consists of psalms, hymns, canticles, readings, and the reading of a sermon by pastor. There is no mass on Wednesday the 13th. I return on Saturday the 16th, and normal activities resume.
This matins service will again be offered on Sunday, August 7th, when Pastor and Carol plan to attend Pastor Fabrizius’s retirement service in the Milwaukee area.
+ Pastor Eckardt
Church Picnic Postponed
Our picnic has usually been scheduled for the last Sunday in June, but the council decided it best to postpone it for some time later in the summer. Date and place to be announced.
In Our Prayers
Our list of prayer intentions at mass includes the names on the lists below. To update the lists please inform pastor.in our parish:
Emilie Ricknell, John Ricknell, Linda Rowe, Emmy Wear, Don Murphy, Dick Melchin, Bea Harris, Allan Kraklow, Sandra VerPlaetse, John Sovanski, Tara Wagenknecht, Grant Andreson, Dale Baker, and Jewneel Walker
and beyond our parish:
Anna, Katy, and Jody Rutowicz [Harris relations]
Julie Ross [Svetlana Meaker’s daughter]
Elizabeth Godke [Sharon Field’s mother]
Oneida Hendrickson [Ricknell relative]
Janice Hart [Judy Thompson’s sister]
Caleb Cleaver [Ricknells’ grandson]
Tim Newman [Shreck relation]
Matthew and Yvette Baker [Dale’s son and wife]
Theresa Moore [Ricknells’ niece]
Kathy Boeger [re Harrises]
Allison Leezer [relative of the Kraklows]
Shannon Watson [Jim’s daughter]
Trevor Lindsey [Otis Anderson’s relative]
Lauren Lindstrom [Alissa’s Grandfather]
Everly Stoner, Dieter Michaelsen, Marvin Brown
in the military:
Donny Appleman [at request of the Ricknells]
Richard Heiden [at request of the Eckardts]
Luke Van Landigan [grandson of Dick Melchin]
Jaclyn Alvarez [daughter of Kris Harden]
Eli Wetzel, Traven Wetzel, Shawn Wetzel
Eric Verplaetse [Sandra’s grandson]
Jake Mahaffey, Trevor Shimmin, Shad Draminski
James and Ann Lee Armstrong
unborn children in danger of abortion; Debra Reeves and her children Rae Beth and Drew Wayne, that they may be reunited; those suffering from unrest, persecution, and imprisonment in Nigeria, India, China, North Korea, and elsewhere.
(from Voice of the Martyrs Canada www.vomcanada.com)
NIGERIA. 9 June 2022. Hundreds of Christians were gathered to celebrate Pentecost Sunday at the St. Francis Catholic Church in Owo, Nigeria, on June 5th when the service was disrupted by gunshots and explosions. As worshippers attempted to flee the building, gunmen shot them down, both inside and outside the building. When the bloodshed was complete, dozens lay dead – including children. Surviving victims were rushed to the hospital with injuries. It is believed that the number of fatalities could reach as high as 100.
Those who were unable to escape the building hid in silence while gunmen searched for remaining worshippers. The attack continued for more than 20 minutes before the assailants fled in a stolen car. The identities and motives of the perpetrators are unclear, as no group has claimed responsibility, though some reports have suggested that Fulani herdsmen may be to blame. Witnesses from outside the church building claim that four men were seen entering and leaving the facility around the time of the attack.
The violence was unexpected, since the town of Owo is in the southwestern state of Ondo – an area of Nigeria generally left free from the carnage typically experienced in other parts of the country. Politicians have widely condemned the attack. The country's vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, termed it "inconceivable wickedness," while the state governor, Rotimi Ageredolu, described it as "vile and satanic."
INDIA. 9 June 2022. Christians in the village of Geltua, which is located in Odisha State, are questioning the sealing of their church building after authorities issued a mandate on May 17th ordering the believers to stop gathering for worship. According to one official named Manoj Patra, complaints had been filed by Bajrang Dal members claiming that the church was involved in illegally converting others of their tribal community to Christianity.
When addressing the allegations, a local tribal Christian named Phulamani Munda stated: "We are just praying peacefully in the church. We believe in Jesus and follow the path of Jesus. I don't understand why the church was sealed." This was the only church within the community where approximately 100 people were gathering each week to pray.
The mandate was imposed under Section 144, which is an emergency provision to maintain order "in urgent cases of nuisance or apprehended danger." Under the order, no more than three people will be allowed to assemble at the church building.
CHINA. 9 June 2022. On May 31st, Elder Hao Ming was finally able to visit with his lawyer, more than six months after his initial arrest. Elder Hao had been arrested on November 17th when police raided the Early Rain Qingcaodi Church. The visit took place at the Deyang City Detention Centre in China's Sichuan province.
According to Elder Hao's wife, Yang Yufeng, the retired pastor is in very poor health and, without needed medical treatment, his life may be at risk. However, because the detention centre has been locked down due to COVID-19, Elder Hao is not allowed to leave the premises to obtain treatment. In a social media post, Yang asked for prayer that God would move the authorities to release him or allow bail in order that he might receive the necessary treatment.
Elder W Jiannan, who was arrested at the same time as Elder Hao, is also awaiting trial from the Deyang City Procuratorate. Elder Wu's wife, Cui Yanqin, posted an update on social media, thanking Christians for their prayers. Cui is able to report that, though her husband has lost a lot of weight, he remains joyful.
Jim Hornback, Tom Wells, Steve Kraklow.
July and August Elders with Tuesday Vespers
First Tuesday events for July are to be held on Tuesday, July 5th, the usual time. Vespers at 6:45 (for anyone who wants to attend); meeting at 7:15.
In August this is scheduled for the 9th (second Tuesdday), since Pastor will be away on the 2nd.
St. Paul’s Ev. Lutheran Church
109 S. Elm Street
Kewanee, IL 61443
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