I’ve been reading Roger Olson’s new book Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, a book about Christian heresies that is vastly superior to my own writing on them. Nonetheless, I thought this would be the perfect time to pull my ‘Top Ten Heresies‘ posts from 4 years ago out of the vault.
Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church
If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’
*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal
If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.
Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.
By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.
Heresy #6: Donatism
What Is It?
The rigorist belief that the Church must be a Church of ‘saints not sinners;’ therefore, Christian clerics must have a pure of character and an unwavering fidelity in order to effectively discharge their priestly duties.
Who Screwed Up First
Donatus, a Berber Bishop in the 4th century.
‘Donatism’ arose as a direct result of the persecutions Christians suffered under the Roman Emperor, Diocletian.
In a nutshell, there were a number of Christians, including clergy, who recanted their faith or who handed over ‘holy things’ to the empire rather than face a punishment that could prove fatal.
Once the persecution ended, the Church faced the tricky dilemma: What to do with those priests who hadn’t stood strong in the face of persecution?
Should not clergy be the outstanding example of which laity are the norm?
In particular, does their character (or lack thereof) now call into question how effective they are in presiding over the sacraments?
Is the Eucharist no longer a sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ because one of these cowardly, wimpy priests said Mass?
Donatus labeled those priests who had caved under persecution ‘traditores’ and claimed that their infidelity render their priesthood, especially their administration of the sacraments, invalid.
Laying his rhetorical smack down and judging it a heresy, St Augustine, who was in his former life no stranger to matters of impure moral character, concluded that Donatism underestimated the extent to which sin afflicts every person (and so misunderstood grace) but also reduced the sacraments to objects of human administration rather than means of God’s grace at which the priest is merely a servant.
In sum, ministers need not be perfect for God to use ministers for grace’s sake.
How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?
If you- subconsciously even- need your pastor to be a perfect Christian because you are lackadaisical about practicing your own faith then you might just be a modern day Donatist.
If you avoid the complexity in your own marriage or family by projecting on to your pastor the Platonic ideal of what it means to be a spouse or parent and needing him/her to be the perfect parent and the perfect husband or wife then you’re verging on heresy.
If you put your pastor on a pedestal and feel disappointed when your pastor turns out to be an actual, real, living-breathing human being then Augustine would lay the smack down on you too- though, chances are, you’d be disappointed in him too.
If ‘decorum’ is a more urgent standard by which you judge your pastor than ‘disciples made’ then you’re just a Donatist with a Flannery O’Connor twist.
If you expect your pastor to do Christianity for you and your congregation (visiting all the sick, praying at every meeting, leading every ministry, welcoming every newcomer…) then, like a certain Berber before you, you’ve got it all backwards.
If you really don’t trust in your heart the Gospel of grace and thus do not trust that the Church is a place for sinners and thus need your pastor to be a saint (your hagiographic version of) then the good news is you’re a heretic. The bad news is you might not have ever truly converted in the first place.
If you’re more upset by what your pastor wears or whether your pastor swears than you are by the number of people in your community who know not Christ then not only are you why the ‘Nones’ want to have nothing to do with the Church you’re why Augustine wanted the Donatists to have nothing do with the Church.
If you would disqualify entire groups of ‘others’ from ministry by implying that only the sinless qualify for ordination, then 1) shame on you and 2) heretic.
If you’re a pastor who encourages any of the above presumptions, then more so than any others you’re a Donatist in 21st century guise.
Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today
Adherents of Civil Religion
The Religious Right (well, until they sold out to support The Donald)
Take the log out of your own eye.
Read St Augustine’s Confessions and breath a sigh of relief that he’s not your pastor.
Get to know your pastor.
Repeat until memorized: ‘While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the
morally pure, well-spoken, ideal spouse, perfect parent, flawless leader, doubtless, ungodly.’