The persecution that took place under Diocletian (303-313) was especially severe in North Africa. As a result, the question of how or whether to re-admit Christians to worship who had recanted their faith, was a very difficult pastoral question, especially when they were priests or even bishops.
Some insisted that lapsed believers could not return, or if they could, only after a protracted and public period of repentance. Priests and Bishops, if readmitted to the community, could never return to their former roles. Others were more lenient. After a period of repentance, mercy and forgiveness should determine the course. Priests and Bishops could also return to their ministries.
By the time of the fifth century, the positions had become so polarized that the North African Church split into two competing churches. On the one side, the Donatists insisted that the Church, and especially its leaders, must be pure. On the other, the Catholics held that before the kingdom of God came in its fullness, a certain amount of messiness was unavoidable.
St. Augustine was convinced by his reading of the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30), that the Church would never be pure until the Final Judgment. Until then she would be a mixture of sinners and saints, people resisting grace and resting in it. Communities should not be too quick to judge who’s in or not, even among the leadership.
I wonder whether some of my friends on the religious right and the red-letter left could learn from Augustine’s reluctance to rush to judgment. On just about every hot-button issue today, we find Christians divided amongst ourselves. To our collective shame, we far too easily call down the judgment of God on those who disagree with us. We do so with particular verve in social media, where one’s enemies are anonymous and therefore demonized—that word is used deliberately–much more easily.
We act in this way because we want a pure church. We want to presume upon the judgment of God; we want to short-circuit the path to the Day of Judgment. We want, if I may put it more provocatively, to present God with a holy Church of our own making all the while refusing to receive the holiness that is God’s gift in Christ to his Church. We act this way because we are sinners as much as our opponents are.
Already I can hear my neo-Donatist critics sharpening their rhetorical swords. “Christians should not tolerate [insert preferred ideological opponent here]! We need to exercise discipline! We need to call them to repentance!” I have no answer to that, because I largely agree. When the behaviour of believers become a scandal to their unbelieving neighbors, the Church needs to discern the source of the scandal. If the scandal is rooted in fidelity to the Gospel (as with Stephen in Acts), then the Church celebrates this believer as a prophet, or a saint, or possibly a martyr. If the scandal is rooted in persistent sinfulness (as with the immoral brother in 1 Corinthians), then the Church disciplines even to the point of exclusion from the community.
Here’s my point: what is lost in so much debate today is precisely the wisdom and time needed to discern. We want to identify who’s right, and who’s not and pass sentence right away. But that is not how the Church should work. Discipline working rightly recognizes that every situation is different, and even someone caught in serious sin (like those who lapse under persecution) may need restoration with a gentle hand rather than condemnation.
So before you share that next meme that so skewers Focus on the Family or Sojourners, ChristianWeek or Geez, for their latest failure, remember Augustine and the Donatists. Leave room for the Church to be messy. Leave room for the Church to discern. Leave room for the judgment of God.