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Caecilian & the Donatists: What Happens When a Christian Becomes a Traitor?

The persecution of the early church by Romans took different forms. Often Christians were martyred, yet sometimes the Romans spared the lives of Christians if they turned over their sacred writings and worshipped the emperor. This was intended to limit the spread of the faith long term: take away the "instruction manuals," in other words, the sacred writings and eventually the movement will die. This alternate choice, though, had a consequence: these people were considered traitors. While this would seem to be a personal choice, it had widespread repercussions which almost cost a bishop his job and eventually split the churches in North Africa.

The bishop in question, Caecilian, lived during a persecution which occurred when Diocletian (ruled from 284-305) was the Roman emperor. While Diocletian would kill Christians, he also allowed some to remain alive if they relinquished their sacred writings. Eusebius (260-340), a church historian of the early church period, wrote "It was the nineteenth year of Diocletianís reign [AD 303] . . . an imperial decree was published everywhere, ordering the churches to be razed to the ground and the Scriptures destroyed by fire." (History of the Church, VIII.2)

Because of this edict, some Christians did turn over their sacred writings. And this is where the problem began in North Africa. When Caecilian was ordained a bishop, a clergy member named Felix of Aptunga took part. Felix had given up his copies of Scripture during the Diocletian persecution. Some believed that Caecilianís ordination was invalid because a traitor (Felix) had participated. For these Christians, any official action done by Caecilian was invalid, including communion and baptism. They appointed a rival bishop, Majorinus, who died soon afterward and was succeeded by Donatus. This new rival bishop was, apparently, a great leader, and so this controversy is named after him, the Donatist schism.

The Donatists appealed to the Christian Roman Emperor Constantine for a decision. Constantine referred the question to a Council he called at Arles (AD 314). The decision of Arles was twofold, as stated in records from that Council: "Concerning those who are said to have surrendered the Holy Scriptures or communion vessels, or the names of their brethren, we decree that whoever of them has been proved from public documents to have done these things shall be removed from the clergy. For if the same persons are found to have carried out ordinations, and a question has arisen about those whom they have ordained, such ordination should not be prejudicial to them." A person who was a traitor could not remain clergy, but a clergy member who was ordained by a traitor remained clergy, and all his official actions were valid. Another way of saying this is that the actions of a clergy member are valid not because of the person who is the clergy, but because of the God who stands behind the clergy and for whose glory it is done. This rejected the position of the Donatists, that the validity of the actions of clergy are dependant on the spiritual state of that person; Caecilian subsequently remained a bishop.

The Donatist Christians would continue in large numbers for one hundred years, after which they dwindled in numbers. They ceased to exist by the early 700s as Islam spread throughout northern Africa.

©2004 Mark Nickens

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