What Is Donatism?

Donatism is the belief that the sacraments given by clergy who had abandoned the faith under persecution and then came back are invalid. During the persecution of Diocletian, many priests renounced the faith to save their lives. After they returned to the church, the party of the Donatists, named after Donatus Magnus who served as Bishop of Carthage, argued that they could no longer serve as priests and that the baptisms they administered were invalid. Those who had been baptized by them needed to be rebaptized since only a true minister of Christ can perform valid baptisms. Because they had renounced the faith, the Donatists argued that they were unqualified for office and therefore their sacraments were invalid as well.

The Donatists also argued that those who abandoned the faith needed to be rebaptized in order for them to be readmitted to the church. This distinguished them from the Novatians who had previously taught that no apostate can ever be restored to the church. Whether or not a person’s baptism was valid was seen as a matter of salvation or damnation because the church at that time generally believed that the act of baptism brought about regeneration. That means if your baptism was invalid, then you still needed to be baptized in order to be born again. Therefore, according to the Donatists, those who were baptized by priests who previously abandoned their profession of the faith still needed to be baptized by a valid priest in order to be born again.

On the other hand, the Roman church believed that a person’s baptism was valid regardless of the character of the priest who performed it. Baptism is valid ex opere operato “from the work worked” or by the action of the thing performed meaning that baptism is valid by the action itself regardless of who performs it. In contrast, the Donatists believed baptism was only valid ex opere operantis “from the work of the worker” meaning that only certain people can perform valid baptisms. Serious sin excludes a person from giving valid baptism. The Donatist view of ex opere operantis appears to have been the belief of Cyprian before he was beheaded for his faith. This disagreement created a schism in the church that lasted until the Muslims wiped out Christianity in North Africa in the eighth century. The Council of Arles in 314 declared that the ordinations made by priests who had previously renounced their faith were still valid contrary to Donatist belief.

Today, Baptists are accused of being Donatists because they rebaptize those who were already baptized as infants. But the reason why Baptists view infant baptism as invalid is very different from why the Donatists viewed the baptisms done by priests who had apostatized as being invalid. Baptists actually disagree with both sides in this debate. The Donatists were wrong to say that a baptism is invalid because the person giving it had been immoral in the past while the proto-Catholics were wrong to believe that the act of baptism itself brings about regeneration. Both sides were wrong to view baptism as regenerative.

If your pastor is a hypocrite and later abandons his profession of the faith after you were baptized by him, you do not need to be rebaptized. Your baptism is valid by virtue of the fact that it is true Christian baptism: the baptism of a believer by immersion in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in the context of the true church. A person does not have to be morally perfect or even a pastor to give valid baptism (Acts 6:5; 8:38). The New Testament does not explicitly indicate who is allowed to baptize and who is not. So how do we determine whether or not a baptism is valid? A baptism is invalid if:

  1. It is not done by immersion in water since baptisma means immersion (the correct mode).
  1. It is not done to a true Christian who has placed his or her faith in Christ since Christian baptism is a baptism of disciples alone (the correct subject).
  1. It is done by an apostate church that teaches heresy since only the true church can give true sacraments (the correct church).
  1. It is done without the name of the Triune God since there is no other God (the correct God).
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