Every time General Assembly happens in the PCUSA I spend the summer calming down irate church members. A lot of members think all General Assembly talks about is sex (and homosexual sex at that) as that is what is usually reported in the secular media. But every once in a while the General Assembly makes some proclamation or another that really gets people steamed, like the decision in 2004 about divestment and Israel. That got church members so upset they forgot about homosexuals! Well, not really. So part of me is kind of grateful that we have General Assembly every other year now.
And after most General Assembly meetings these days some person who calls him or herself an Evangelical get’s all upset and says they’ve had it, they are leaving the denomination. Sometime in the next couple of years a few more congregations will leave the PCUSA either through making a quiet deal with their presbyteries or through loud newspaper stories and civil court actions. Every time this happens I think “Donatist.”
I was almost a Church Historian but through the grace of God became a pastor instead. But I love and find much instruction in Church history. There is very little that happens in the Church that hasn’t happened before.
Anyway, remember the Donatists? During the last terrible persecution before Constantine came along and made Christianity the religion of the empire the Roman government got really smart and decided not to go after the little fish this time. The soldiers went out and rounded up the priests and the bishops, figuring if they killed off the leadership the Church would fall apart. They also tried to gather up all the Christian books and sacred vessels used in churches. (If there were leaders there could be no teachers. If there were no books there would be no way to recover the Good News.) They didn’t catch all the leadership. Some of the leaders that were caught went ahead and died, refusing to deny Jesus or to give up books or vessels or the names of other Christian leaders. Some specifically refused to say that Caesar was Lord and not Jesus and offer incense to Caesar. And some didn’t die because they did deny Jesus or gave up books or sacred vessels.
After the Church became legal in the midst of all the battles about Jesus’ divinity and humanity and the Trinity and Gnosticism there was an often forgotten heresy called Donatism. It’s named after its one of its leading proponents Donatus (who may have been one Donatus or another depending on which history you read). The Donatists looked at those who had been in prison and had denied Christ and lived or gave up books or sacred vessels and refused to accept their supervision or to receive the sacraments from them. They said that those who had held onto life or gave up books or sacred vessels weren’t really Christians anymore. So when those who had survived the persecution through giving up books, etc. anointed someone and ordained them the Donatists would say that person wasn’t really a bishop. And when that person who had denied Jesus in jail presided over the Eucharist the Donatists would say that it really wasn’t the Lord’s Supper, that the bread and wine hadn’t become the Body and Blood of Jesus. They also rebaptized people because they believed that the baptisms performed by those who had denied Jesus were invalid.
The Church back then (including many who were tortured and did not give up their faith) surprised the Donatists by saying that they were the heretics! There is a terrible irony here. Those defending the honor of Jesus were heretics? The Donatists must have been shocked. They got kicked out (and I suspect some of them left in a huff too) because they wouldn’t take communion from a sinner who had denied Jesus or gave the soldiers a copy of the Bible. Of course it took over 100 years for the heresy to die down. It was a big mess. And we are much more polite these days than they were back then. The Donatists and the Catholics killed each other while consecrating separate bishops for the same towns.
The Donatists forgot something very important. Peter, the first Pope (the Donatists were in Western Africa) had denied Jesus. He did it three times and he wasn’t even under arrest or being tortured. He was looking for a way to avoid being arrested and tortured. This is one of the most important stories in the Gospels. Every time a leader in the Church gets to feeling all high and mighty he or she ought to be required to read the story about Peter denying Jesus. After all, we are all like Peter.
One of my favorite stories of St. Francis tells of a time when a great and angry crowd met him on a road in the country. They demanded to know if he was the one who had killed a certain person. Francis replied that he didn’t remember killing that person but that he was a sinner and had done equally evil things and sometimes worse. The crowd was preparing to hang Francis when a local dignitary rode by on his horse and asked what was going on. The crowd said that Francis had said he had killed someone. The dignitary said, “Oh that’s just Francis. He didn’t kill anyone. He’s crazy.”
I suspect that Francis was the only sane person that day. Who indeed has not committed sin, equally evil or worse? We enter and stay in the Church through the grace of God in Jesus not through our own holiness.
The core points here are:
- All are sinners both before and after we become Christians. Who among us knows what they would do if threatened with death for not handing over a Bible or refusing to deny Christ? We all hope we would stand strong but who knows until s/he is in such a position? If Peter could be forgiven by Jesus should not all who fall be forgiven and received again with grace? Those who pronounce the words of institution at the Lord’s Supper are sinners. Those who lay on hands at ordinations are sinners. Those who baptize are sinners. Those who preach are sinners. The sins of the one who baptizes do not make the baptism invalid. If it did no baptism would be valid.
- This is not to encourage sin but rather to proclaim the grace of Christ. Christians seek to be made more holy through the Holy Spirit. We struggle and fail or sometimes struggle and are victorious. But we can never claim the victory ourselves but only give glory to Christ.
- The Church is one. There is only one Body of Christ. While we Protestants have gone out of our way to split into smaller and smaller factions over issues from infant and/or believers baptism to whether bishops should be allowed (we Presbyterians get really incensed at the idea of bishops) the Church of Christ is still one.
- The examples of Luther and Calvin provide great instruction. They never sought to leave the Church (that is what we today might call the Roman Catholic Church). They sought to teach the Truth. They knew that the Church down throughout history had fallen again and again into sin and heresy but the Church was still the Church. They didn’t leave the Church they were kicked out, excommunicated.
- There is no holier Church outside the one Church. There is only the one Church. We together are sometimes more holy or less and more heretical or less. But leaving and seeking a more holy Church will never produce the result sought. When one goes seeking a more holy denomination they only find new fights about new issues.
So as General Assembly begins we already know from reading the overtures and the business brought before the assembly that there will again be controversies over sexuality, over Israel and Palestine and over a proposed new Form of Government. It is more than likely, given our inability to see the future that there will be some issue unknown to us at this time that will create even greater controversy. But leaving the denomination to find a more holy denomination or even to establish a more holy independent congregation will never succeed. Every assembly that I enter receives sinners if it receives me.