Heresies all Around us – Donatism

Heresies all Around us – Donatism

Part 5 – Donatism

Is your baptism invalid if your baptiser was adulterer?

Picture this: You decided to become a real follower of Christ. You realised that you needed to be baptist. That is your first step of obedience to Jesus. Your pastor was more than willing to baptise you. But, two weeks later you found out that he actually lived in sin. He had a secret relationship with another woman! What would that mean to your baptism?


Donatism is the teaching which says that the effectiveness of the sacraments depends on the moral character of the one who ministering them. This means that if you have been baptised by the aforementioned pastor, your baptism is invalid.

This teaching, or rather heresy, is called Donatism.


It might sound a bit weird, but this teaching came forth out of persecution. Somewhere in 303AD the Roman emperor Diocletian ordered the persecution of Christians. He commanded that the sacred writings and the churches had to be destroyed. A year later he also commanded that everybody had to bring honour the gods of the empire. Many Christians refused this. However, there were also Christians who freely handed over the sacred writings and even betrayed other Christians to the persecutors. These traitors became known under the name ‘traditors,’ which means ‘the one(s) who had handed over.’ The word ‘traditor’ comes from the Latin transditio from trans (across) + dare (to hand, to give), and it is the source of the modern words traitor and treason.

One of these traditors, Felix, bishop of Aptunga, was in 311AD involved by the consecration of bishop Caecilian of Carthage. Felix was thought to be guilty of giving away copies of the Bible to the Roman persecutors.

This episode stirred up a huge debate about the validity of the consecration of the bishop. Around 70 bishops organised a synod and declared that the consecration wasn’t done by a sincere Christian and thus invalid.

But, this raised more questions: What does this mean to the other sacraments? What about communion, marriage, baptism etc. Yes, how about being blessed into marriage by a Christian who sinned big time against other Christians?

Later Aelius Donatus the Great became bishop of Carthage, and you might have guessed it, but this teaching is named after him. The Donatists were becoming more popular which caused a division in the church. One of the big issues was baptism. They actually went as far as to re-baptise people of whom they believed were baptised by those who sinned greatly. In so doing, they separated themselves from all other churches and basically upheld themselves as the only authoritative church body.


The teaching of Donatists was finally condemned as a heresy at the Synod of Arles in 314AD. The matter of the Donatist controversy was also brought up during multiple ecumenical councils and eventually presented to Emperor Constantine in 316AD. On each occasion, the appointment, or consecration of aforementioned Bishop Caecilian was affirmed. Nevertheless, despite the persecution, by 350AD, the Donatists had amassed many followers, surpassing the Orthodox population in Africa. However, it was Augustine’s apologetic argument—in which he argued that the effect of a sacrament is independent of the moral character of the minister—that shifted the balance in favour of the Orthodox and ultimately led to the decline of the Donatist movement in the following century.

What is the Problem?

Donatism poses a problem because no one is morally flawless. I am going to throw in Romans 3:23 again, just as a reminder.

for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God

If absolute holiness is required to serve God, then we are all unfit. Even if the minister’s moral character is questionable or proven to be flawed, the effectiveness of baptism or the Lord’s supper, or whatever remains intact. The sacraments hold power because they symbolise spiritual truths. It is God who works through them, and His ability is not limited by the moral condition of the person administering them.

Modern-day Donatists

Depending on how strictly you define Donatism, I would like to argue that many historical movements have been (and are) in a sense Donatist. Whenever they create a class of Christians who are ‘superior’ to others and denounce others as non-believers because they are not as devoted as they are.

Donatism seems to be still all around us. Just see how we look at each-other and talk about each-other. You know, those crazy progressive Christians. Those traditional Evangelicals. Those indecisive Episcopalians.

Unfortunately, the manner in which these labels are employed goes beyond mere description. They are used to creating divisions between those who are considered pure and impure, righteous and unrighteous, holy and godless. Pick any controversial topic, and you’ll come across a bunch of folks who firmly believe that if you don’t share their views, you’re tarnishing the very essence of faith and the church. You unrepentant sinner!

To get back to the original Donatists. The started to re-baptise people because they believed their first baptism wasn’t valid. You might think this doesn’t play a role in our time any more. But, think twice! When I wanted to be baptised, I asked the church elders whether my boss, who let me to Christ, could do it. My boss attended a different church. The elders had a very difficult time to allow him to do it. Their reasoning? He wasn’t a member of our church, and he isn’t an elder.

I didn’t know much about the Bible yet, but I fully understood the implications of their reasoning. My baptism had to be done by one of them and else it wasn’t real enough, or something like that. I told them that I was not in the mood of this kind of bickering. I said that I would be just as happy to go the beach and to get baptised there. That was even a bigger shock, so they agreed that one of them would baptise me with the help of my boss.

What About Jesus

Jesus faced a similar situation back in his time. Some Pharisees were unhappy and asked in Matthew 9:11

Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?

In response, Jesus said in the following verses:

They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

The Pharisees believed that Jesus and his followers would be contaminated by eating with sinners and tax collectors. However, Jesus turned their perspective around. It’s not Jesus who gets corrupted by being around sinners, but rather sinners who find healing by being in contact with Jesus.

Be Careful

Let’s read a parable Jesus gave to counter the self-righteousness of people.

Luke 18:9-14

And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

The story takes an unexpected turn when the Pharisee, who impresses everyone with his performance at the temple, leaves empty-handed. He never asked for anything from God, and as a result, he receives nothing. On the other hand, the despised tax collector, despite his flaws, humbly asks for God’s mercy and is justified, finding himself in a right relationship with God.

Likewise, the Donatists return home without receiving anything. They possess such unwavering faith in their own righteousness and purity that they deem themselves self-sufficient, requiring nothing from God. Their sole plea to Him might be to ensure that the impure tax collectors remain far away, so as not to taint their holiness.

I Understand the Possible Problems

Yes, I do understand the possible problems that can arise. How to deal with a baptism conducted by a transgender pastor? Clearly, orthodoxy will not acknowledge this pastor. However, does that make the baptism invalid? Does it mean that the person who got baptised didn’t have proper faith? You see, many young believers have not a real good understanding of what is orthodoxy and what not. Today, people grow up in a time when they are being taught that certain things are perfectly fine. It is only later, after they start to study God’s word, that they start to understand the nitty-gritty of the Christian faith. When they repented, they were like babies, trusting the ‘adults’ around them for proper care and education. I think we cannot just dismiss someone’s baptism merely because it was administered by a sinner. However, when that specific person just wants to be baptised by this cool transgender pastor—and he or she doesn’t care anything about the sacrament itself. And if the only goal was to make it on the front cover of a cool magazine. Yes, that would change the matter.

But can it really be that the Lord ignores someone’s baptism because the baptiser wasn’t right with God? So, how about communion? Do you think the Lord will keep His blessing from the partakers because the person who is handing out the bread has a secret affair? It becomes more complicated when the partakers know this and still allow the person to hand out the bread or the wine. Now, the sacrament isn’t taken serious by the congregation. That is a total different ball-play.

Nevertheless, we still have to be very careful when it comes to God’s work. We need to realise time and again that we are all sinners.

In Jesus, we are saved by his blood, receiving forgiveness for our wrongdoings, because of his abundant grace that he generously gives to everyone. It is not based on our own purity or the purity of the Church. Therefore, we express our gratitude to God.

Let me Hear Your Ideas!

In any case, let me know what you think in the comments. Maybe you disagree on certain things? Just leave a comment. Remember! I am mostly active on my Odysee channel. You’ll find a link to that channel in the description of this video or on my website. Don’t forget to subscribe if you want to receive a notification every time I upload a new video!

I very much appreciate your prayers and support! Please take a look in the description of this video to find out how you can help me. Also, I’ll place a link there to both the Dutch and English transcripts of this video.

God bless you, thank you for watching, and, Lord willing, we’ll see each other in the next video!

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