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The Donatist Controversy - What To Do With Lapsed Believers?

Julian Spriggs M.A.

The Donatist Controversy can be seen as an upsurge of the same conflict that had continued to rumble in the church since Cyprian, facing the same issues following the Decian persecution. The final persecution of the church by the Roman Empire was commanded by the Emperor Diocletian. Once that persecution ended with the abdication of the emperor, the church was again left with the problem of what to do with those who had forsaken their faith, and now wanted to return to fellowship. Should the church try to keep itself pure by excluding lapsed believers?

The controversy began when Mensurius, the bishop of Carthage, was accused of being a ‘traditor’, someone who had surrendered sacred books to the authorities during the persecution. He defended himself by saying that he only handed over books written by heretics, which had satisfied the Romans. Following the death of Mensurius, his archdeacon, Caecilian, was chosen to be bishop. He was hastily consecrated before many other bishops had arrived, especially the African bishops from the region of Numidia. His consecration therefore upset many people and sparked off great argument within the church.

The main reason was because the minister who officiated at the consecration of the new bishop, Felix of Aptunga, was himself accused of being a traditor. This brought up another more fundamental issue, if Felix really was a traditor, whether this invalidated Caecilian’s consecration. The wider question arose of whether a sacrament was invalidated if it was performed by an unworthy minister.

Caecilian had upset a wealthy lady named Lucilla because he protested at her great devotion to a bone of a martyr. He also objected to the adoration given to the ‘confessors’, those who had remained faithful even under torture during the persecution. Lucilla led the opposition to Caecilian, supported by around seventy bishops from Numidia. They caused a schism in the church by consecrating Majorinus as a rival bishop of Carthage. The opposition came to be led by Donatus, one of the bishops from Numidia, whose name was given to the schism. The Donatists thought that the church was too lax in its discipline of lapsed believers and demanded a more rigorous approach. They gave themselves the title ‘Communion of Saints’, which the Catholic Church promptly took for itself.

This division was reported to the Emperor Constantine, who recognised Caecilian as the true bishop. In 313, Constantine declared that state protection will be given to the church, but he deliberately excluded Majorinus and his supporters from this. The Donatists protested to the emperor, demanding that their case be given a fair hearing. Several councils were held to investigate this issue. During the first in Rome in 313, Donatus was excommunicated after he could not prove the case against Caecilian. In 314, another council was held in Arles, when it was decided that the validity of the sacraments was not dependent on the holiness of the minister. The Donatists were again condemned, although they continued to exist for several hundred years.

The Donatist Controversy severely weakened the church in North Africa, leaving it without strength to survive after the Muslim invasion a few centuries later. On a wider level, the divisions in the church prevented Constantine from being able to use the church to hold his empire together as it began to fall apart.