The Donatists were a schismatic group in the early church, mainly in North Africa, who, to put things simply, broke away from the mainstream church because they rejected the authority of leaders, such as bishops, who had sinned. The specific problem was with Christian leaders who had compromised during a period of persecution:
The Donatists refused to accept the sacraments and spiritual authority of the priests and bishops who had fallen away from the faith during the persecution.
They refused to accept the repentance of these traditors and held that sacraments performed by them were invalid.
This is known as: ex opere operantis — Latin for from the work of the one doing the working, that is, that the validity of the sacrament depends upon the worthiness and holiness of the minister confecting it. The Catholic position was (and is): ex opere operato — from the work having been worked, in other words, that the validity of the sacrament depends upon the holiness of God, the minister being a mere instrument of God’s work, so that any priest or bishop, even one in a state of mortal sin, who speaks the formula of the sacrament with valid matter and the intent of causing the sacrament to occur acts validly.
At the Reformation, although some of the radicals may have taken the Donatist position, the majority continued to hold that it was wrong. Article XXVI of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England condemns Donatism, and extends the ex opere operato principle to preaching as well as sacraments:
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 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.
Doug Chaplin calls this The least believed article, and he may be right. It certainly seems to be the least believed by the GAFCON participants, who in their Final Statement, the same one I reported and commented on here, write:
4. We uphold the Thirty-nine Articles as containing the true doctrine of the Church agreeing with God’s Word and as authoritative for Anglicans today.
How do they reconcile their affirmation of Article XXVI with the following part of their statement?:
13. We reject the authority of those churches and leaders who have denied the orthodox faith in word or deed.
It seems that Donatism is still alive and well in Africa, and the other homes of the GAFCON participants.
Another place where Donatism seems to be alive and well is among the critics of Todd Bentley. The Internet, including comments on this blog, is full of savage statements which imply that because Todd allegedly did something wrong, or which might be understood as wrong, this invalidates his whole ministry. It does not. The accusations brought range from his pre-conversion criminal offence, through his tattoos, some questionable teaching about angels several years ago and his occasional use of violent methods while ministering, to his allegedly wrong fundraising methods at Lakeland. Now to those who reject Donatism these charges are of little relevance. Even if all are true and about genuine wrongdoing, this does not invalidate Todd’s preaching except when explicitly in error, nor his other ministry at least to the extent that it is sacramental. And I would hold that Todd’s ministry of healing and of impartation is genuinely sacramental, an outward sign performed by Todd of an inward work which is of the Holy Spirit.
But then could all these Donatists have it right? The anti-Donatist position clearly opens the dangerous way to the church leadership being taken over by those who compromise their faith. Indeed this happened within a generation or so of the original rejection of the Donatist position, as the anti-Donatists quickly made friends with the secular powers led by the new emperor Constantine, leading to an age in which the secular powers had authority over the church. So, if Donatism is rejected, is there any safeguard against the church lapsing into compromise?
On this point, in my opinion, the safest principle to follow is that of the wise Jewish leader Gamaliel, who advised:
Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.
Acts 5:38-39 (TNIV)
In other words, let the bad churches and ministries grow alongside the good ones, without trying to root them out, and let God provide the vindication of those which are good and the judgment on those which are not.
It should be clear how to apply this to Todd Bentley, but perhaps not to the situation GAFCON is addressing. Here in the Church of England there is room for a variety of local congregations and for the Gamaliel principle to be used to separate the good from the bad – although this is threatened by the way in which successful congregations are in effect taxed, through the Parish Share system, to subsidise those which are failing. The real problem is in North America, where Anglican church authorities are making life very difficult for orthodox congregations. My own solution to that kind of situation would not be to set up a new structure, but instead for each orthodox congregation to branch out on its own – if necessary leaving behind the assets which are now being legally disputed, and which can be a burden rather than a help to a faithful congregation. If the Anglican authorities in a certain area do not allow the faithful preaching of the Word of God, then faithful believers should wash their hands of Anglicanism and minister in other structures.