The Trap of Donatism Lite

Sharing Options
Show Outline with Links

Introduction

As the aftermath of the great evangelical leadership meltdown continues apace, we find ourselves in the midst of a very interesting discussion. What do we do about evangelical leaders who flaked, evangelical leaders who wobbled, and evangelical leaders who stood firm—now that some of the smoke has cleared, and some who wobbled are starting to see things more clearly? Or at least they are speaking and writing as though they see things more clearly, but maybe they don’t. Now what?

What I am going to write here includes a number of conservative players, and ostensibly conservative players, and I am going to throw them all into one great big pot. I am including some who were revealed in the event to not have actually been conservative at all. But with everyone included, I am talking about the world that includes Scott Aniol, Tom Ascol, Tim Bayly, Alistair Begg, Josh Buice, Josh Daws, Kevin DeYoung, Jeff Durbin, Michael Foster, David French, Jon Harris, Josh Howerton, Andrew Isker, Jared Longshore, John MacArthur, Al Mohler, Russell Moore, John Piper, Erik Reed, Joe Rigney, A.D. Robles, Colin Smothers, Toby Sumpter, Carl Trueman, Andrew Walker, James White, Stephen Wolfe, William Wolfe, James Wood, and Jeff Wright. And me. And I am sure I left some worthy folks out, and my apologies. If you were to mention them to me, I would say oh, yeah, and put them in.

The stress test that we all went through over the last few years included, but was not limited to the issues of lock downs, church closures, masks, pronoun hospitality, vaccines, drag queen story hours, homosexual wedding receptions, failure to include any women in a long list of men (gotcha), and so on.

What the stress test accomplished is that it sorted out the aforementioned men into three distinct groups. There were the stalwart bros, who withstood all the nonsense—and who took a beating for it. And that beating was often administered by men in the other two groups. At the other end were the men who were far more progressive in their thinking than anyone had ever believed them to be, and they took the opportunity presented by the crisis to reveal that what they were was basically pro-life Democrats. While they could sign conservative commitments on paper, their reflex move was always to blame the right and steer left. And there in the middle were the men who went along with this second group, at least for a time. But now that the follies of those most sciency of times are becoming more and more manifest by the day, this third group is coming back around to a more genuinely conservative position, and that’s all to the good. But how are they to be received? Ah. That’s why we have these little blog post meetings, you and I.

A Brief History of the Donatist Controversy

In the later persecutions of the church by Rome (e.g. the time of Diocletian), some church leaders capitulated, and handed over copies of the Scriptures to the persecutors. This is where we get the word traitor, incidentally. The Latin word tradere means to deliver, or hand over. When the persecutions had passed, some Christians in North Africa believed that men who had disgraced their office by capitulating instead of accepting martyrdom were no longer qualified to hold church office. One of these men, a man named Felix, appointed a new bishop of Carthage, a man named Caecilian. But there were those who believed that Felix no longer had any authority, moral or otherwise, to appoint anyone to an office like that, and so they elected their very own bishop, a man named Donatus. You can see where this was going.

The Donatists were more sectarian than they were heretical, and it has to be remembered that there were lots of issues in play. And there were reasonable Donatists, and there were crazy hard line Donatists. So does the validity of an ordination (or baptism) depend on the moral qualifications of the one administering it? What distinctions do we make between receiving back a member who buckled under persecution and a pastor who did? What do we allow, and what should we insist on?

And we do all this remembering that our current situation is just a little baby version of the Donatist controversy. But there is enough of a resemblance that there are likely some lessons for us there.

My Potpourri Bowl of Observations, and Every Bit as Aromatic

My observations below are not disjointed. It only seems that way. Think of them as different leaves in a potpourri bowl, each one distinct from the others, but each one contributing its own unique scent. Yeah, almost exactly like that.

As we discuss and debate who should be allowed to be recognized as a leader in the conservative Reformed resistance now, we need to remember that the desire to be seen as greatest in the kingdom is a perennial temptation. This does not dictate what we must do, and it is not something that alters another man’s qualifications, but it certainly means that we must double check our own motives before we denounce anybody. My motives may have nothing to do with his qualifications for ministry, but they most certainly have something to do with my qualifications for ministry. And that is where Christ requires us to start our internal discussion. Imagine a Christian leader who appeared to have flaked real bad during this time of upheaval, and his failure opened up a space for you and your ministry. And then imagine that as all the stories were coming out, and the truth about that time was being revealed, it turns out that the whole time he was actually hiding fifty prophets from Jezebel in a cave. And so now he is a hero, not a chump. If you receive this news with real joy, and no internal heart dismay, then good on you. You have cleared the first hurdle.

Remember the apostle Peter. Out of the twelve, the only one who didn’t scatter when the shepherd was struck was the apostle John. John stayed with Him to the end (John 19:26). Judas betrayed the Lord (Matt. 26:15), and Peter denied Him three times (Matt. 26:74). It is not often remembered that the other disciples had loudly echoed Peter’s boast that they would die with Him (Matt. 26:35), but 11 out of 12 disgraced themselves at various levels and in varying degrees (Matt. 26:31). And this was the band of losers that just a few weeks later was God’s chosen instrument to oversee the greatest outpouring of the Spirit in the history of the world. God is perfect, which means He is not a perfectionist. If God can restore one to ministry who had, with curses, claimed not to have known Christ, He can certainly restore someone who made his congregation wear a stupid mask.

But with that said, Peter acknowledged his fault. He went out and wept bitterly (Matt. 26:75). In other words, Peter knew that he did not deserve to remain in the leadership of the Lord”s disciples, and this is why it was such a marvelous display of the Lord’s grace when Peter was reinstated (John 21:17). He had discredited himself, but was forgiven. But even then, remembering our first point, there was still an element of crackle between Peter and John (John 21: 20-22).

There is a difference between wanting to see an acknowledgement of error and wanting to make someone crawl. Acknowledgement of error is all about restoration of relationship, making things right, and making someone crawl is all about domineering and trying to become great in the kingdom by carnal means. Wanting to see such an acknowledgement is not too much to ask, and it is spiritually healthy to look for such an acknowledgement. We should be eager for that. But neither should we want right wing North Vietnamese struggle sessions.

Always remember that someone can acknowledge error in various ways, and can do so publicly, but that his acknowledgment might not get the same airplay that the original error did. There are exceptions—an example of that would be James Wood’s piece on Tim Keller. But often our failures make a bigger splash than our corrections and retractions do. So don’t assume that someone has not put things right simply because you hadn’t heard about him putting things right.

Time matters in these things. Saying something nice about Russell Moore ten years ago is not the same thing as saying something nice about him ten weeks ago. The way the whole narrative unfolded matters. And having written for TGC once does not indicate undying commitment to all things Big Eva. And having been snowed by Aimee Byrd does not prevent one from writing a world-class book that explains how the whole evangelical world was snowed by assorted and sundry Aimee Byrds. The world is a weird place. Get used to it.

Institutions matter in these things, and turning an institution around can be like trying to turn an aircraft carrier around. The turning radius of a seminary or denomination is not comparable to the turning radius of some Internet rando with a Swift Boat blog. I could publish something erroneous, be set straight, and have a retraction up by that evening. But large institutions have different power centers, and complicated decision making processes, and contracts, and procedures manuals, and complicated board politics, and it turns out that David might not be able to do anything about Joab.

It is important to distinguish between guys you wouldn’t hire to run the strategy of your ministry, and someone who has apparently turned around, and has done so while continuing to hold onto his base of followers and supporters. You might wonder how he has managed to hold on to them, but let’s suppose that he has. That means he is still a player, whether you like it or not. When the conflict comes, and he shows up for the fight with his divisions, are you going to act like the Philistine captains who told Achish that there was no way they were going to let David go into battle alongside them (1 Sam. 29:6)? Okay, let’s leave out of my illustration the fact that they were certainly being wise in ways that Achish was not being. Let’s pretend for a moment that Achish was the one being wise. You don’t want to be like the Philistine captains, do you? Okay, seriously, forget that illustration. Scratch that. If you don’t trust someone yet, then don’t rely on him. But at the same time, if he is having an impact that you can use . . . then use it. The fact that there were some really bad personnel decisions made at Southern, and there were, does not mean that Al Mohler can’t be really helping a number of people through The Briefing. You don’t have to explain it.

There are ministry leaders out there (that I know of) who used to be ministering in squish-world, but have red-pilled hard, and are situated in the middle of a large network of men who have not yet had that radicalization happen to them, but who could be brought along. And perhaps they could be brought along for two cents. These situated men are biding their time, waiting for the right moment to hoist the Jolly Roger. Give them a minute.

Not everyone who takes a hard line against compromise is free of compromise himself. It is true that participation in MLK50 was terrible compromise, but I can find men on the right today who would condemn that as horrendous compromise while they themselves are compromising hard with Rashida Tlaib’s take on the Jews. I am equally wary of both, and can be grateful for the contributions of either. John Piper and E. Michael Jones have both written marvelous books, and both of them have some really pronounced blind spots.

It is important to distinguish between things that might look the same from a distance. One person actually wrote and promulgated woke stuff, and that needs to be addressed and corrected. Someone else participated in some things, going along, and doing so because of friendships and ministry partnerships. Critics from a distance need to recognize that friendships and ministry partnerships cannot exist without trust, and when that trust is being betrayed, it takes some people longer to see that. And yet another kind of person saw the errors, and saw the play that was being run, but simply had a more courteous and cautious approach to fellow Christians in error. And, as I said above, there is a real failure to recognize how much men like Russell Moore and David French have shifted. Listening to them now puts you in a different category than listening to them years ago.

In sum, if you were among those who wobbled, it is not enough to show back up with a cheery “Hey, guys!” Nothing would be hurt if you simply said, “you all were right, and I was wrong. Please accept my apology.” And the stalwart bros would stay out of the Donatist trap by saying, “Thank you. Apology accepted.” If you were among those who stood firm, then continue to hold fast to your convictions because that is one of the reasons why you were able to stand firm in the first place. But recognize that holding fast to your convictions does not require you to view every course correction that others make with suspicion and a jaundiced eye.

And if you were among those who wobbled, do not resent the fact that it will take awhile for you to regain any kind of moral authority with the troops. Things can be put right formally, but it still might take some time before full trust is regained. That’s just the way the world is. Ligon Duncan’s foreword to Eric Mason’s Woke Church did not age well, and there is no retroactive way to make it age well.

Thomas Cranmer was a great hero of the faith, and a martyr. He was also a man who buckled under pressure at the end of life, and signed a paper recanting his biblical position. But he was also a man who courageously recanted his recantation, and was immediately hustled off to be burned. He then put his offending hand, the one that had signed his earlier denial of the truth, into the fire so that it might be the first to burn. So do not despise the coward/heroes. God uses them.

Gideon was a great hero of the faith (Heb. 11:32). But let us also remember that he had to be coaxed into his heroics by a sarcastic angel who found his “mighty man of valor” threshing grain in a wine vat, hiding from the Midianites (Judg. 6:12). He also had to be brought along by various signs and portents (Judg. 6:36-40), and by a bad dream that some Midianite had (Judg. 7:13ff). But he nevertheless rose to a great triumph by faith, doing better than any of us. And also remember that after Gideon had been used to accomplish this great victory with just 300 men, and the men of Ephraim showed up late to help out and were chafed about that, Gideon answered them quite diplomatically, praising their contribution (Judg. 8:1-3). So we are still dealing with a lot of Midianites yet, and we have better things to do than to get into a chiding-fest with late-arriving Ephraimites.

Edmund was a poisonous little beast, and so one of the things Aslan did was die for him in order to make him a king.

This is something that needs to be discussed, and so comments are open. As always, behave.

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
28 Comments
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Joel E.
5 months ago

Amen. Distinctions also need to be made between those that wobbled and those that were genuinely deceived or confused for a time (e.g. severity of COVID or necessity of certain protocols) and also between those whose personal convictions might have been modified by the fact that they were one member of a larger leadership team (e.g. Session of elders or institutional board). Some men not only wobbled, they completely capitulated and made deals with the Devil faster than Saruman signing mergers with Sauron. But the last few years have been confusing, and we don’t want to be too quick to… Read more »

TLA
TLA
5 months ago

Well, I agree with what you are saying in this article. But I would like to see far more resolution than a bunch of Evangelical leaders coming together and shaking hands and making nice. I would love to see the leaders of churches across America apologize to people like me, but I doubt I will ever see that. I stood firm and, because I refused to get the C19 shot, I lost my job. My church shut its doors for a couple months, and most of the people complied with “recommendations” to get the C19 shot and mask up. I… Read more »

De Bok
De Bok
5 months ago
Reply to  TLA

This is pretty-much the line of argument that the Donatists carried. You are allowing the pain of your (very real) suffering to embitter you. You need to, in the first place, deal with the fact that your suffering was in the hand of God, and not really in the hands of the evangelical leadership.
When some evangelical leaders acknowledge their mistakes and turn around, you should forgive them for letting you down when times were tough. Do not allow your suffering to make you bitter.

Tim
Tim
5 months ago
Reply to  De Bok

The ones we are calling leaders and failed should simply step down or get fired and find another job.
This happens in every other job.
Well, minus the professional politicians.

Zeph
5 months ago
Reply to  De Bok

Though bitterness is possible, it is important to remember that people will use the allegation of bitterness to try and shut down people who have been wronged.

TLA
TLA
5 months ago
Reply to  De Bok

De Bok, I wrote as bare-bones as I could, but I assure you the whole story is better than it sounds in a comment section.  First, I do acknowledge that all things, even this, is ordained by the Sovereign God.  Though I recognize that God does, in fact, mean this for good, I also affirm that all of it is “real.”  The suffering is real, the financial ruin is real, the upheaval in my family is real.  But so is the guilt and arrogance and hypocrisy of the leaders who would use their influence and power recklessly.  When they feel a pang of regret and say… Read more »

DH
DH
4 months ago
Reply to  TLA

“… the forgiveness is genuinely extended. But these leaders are not qualified at all to continue in their work …”

💯

For my own sake and to the glory of God, I’ve forgiven the “church business CEOs” that turned on their flocks to save their own necks. But I’m not going to trust them with any sort of church authority until they’ve shown considerably changed behavior in the face of the oppression that will certainly be coming our way again soon.

Melody
Melody
5 months ago

Thank you. I like everything to be black or white – always (except I always want grace for myself)! What you have written here is confirmation of this.

Jennifer
Jennifer
5 months ago

How do you suggest we respond charitably to a brother or sister who aggressively advocated the covid and racial narratives of 2020 – at harm to the church – but now acts as if it never happened? I.e. no visible repentance or even acknowledgement of what he did?

Jennifer
Jennifer
5 months ago
Reply to  Douglas Wilson

Thank you!

Jennifer
Jennifer
5 months ago

Also, while I think there is much of great value in this piece, I think it fails to emphasize that misled shepherds need to apologize to their congregations. If a pastor told his congregation that they must wear masks, or distance themselves from eachother (!), or get vaccinated, or repent of white guilt, it’s no just an acknowledgement on twitter that is needed. An apology from the pulpit is owed.

Jeff
Jeff
5 months ago

It seems that the lines essentially were drawn over Romans 13. I haven’t seen any softening on that position by anyone.

The Commenter Formerly Known As fp
The Commenter Formerly Known As fp
5 months ago
Reply to  Jeff

Not when it came to Black Lives Matter. The same people wagging their fingers and preaching Romans 13 — replete with spittle — at law-abiding people for resisting the Branch Covidians gave BLM a planet’s worth of latitude when it came to their lawlessness.

Sara F
Sara F
5 months ago

I also think we should consider who was put in what position and by whom. A doctor who was put in charge of his church’s Covid policy was making decisions through his narrow lens of expertise. He never should’ve been put in that position, but should’ve been one voice among many, considering different wisdom issues needing to be balanced. He may not be to blame; the blame could be farther up the food chain.

Jennifer Mugrage
5 months ago

Voddie Baucham
Tim Keller

Aaron
5 months ago

I am encouraged to see the woke shine beginning to matte and rust from exposure, and I think it’s important for all (especially those who subscribe to it) to recognise this fact.

Doug, do you have any advice for someone (i.e., like myself) who is an assistant minister to a senior pastor who continues to take pastoral guidance from single twenty-something females in our church who complain that women haven’t been given equal “stage opportunities” to men–by allowing them to co-lead with men in the leading our worship services?

John Middleton
John Middleton
5 months ago
Reply to  Aaron

Not Doug, but: Maybe the fact that your church is providing a stage, to anyone, is the more fundamental problem.

Aaron
5 months ago
Reply to  John Middleton

Good thoughts

Ariel
Ariel
5 months ago
Reply to  Aaron

I am not Doug, either, but I think if you privately brought this up with your pastor, perhaps reminding him that the Bible says that only men should lead congregations and that we should obey God, not popular opinion.
Nothing kills a church faster than allowing the culture to dictate doctrine.

Aaron
5 months ago
Reply to  Ariel

That’s what I’m afraid of. Unfortunately, private conversations have proved unfruitful, but thankfully not destructive–he and I are still on good (maybe been great) terms.

The trick I need is not so much telling him he is capitulating to worldly culture, but convincing him of it. He seems to think that allowing women to serve in this capacity is allowing them to flex those God-given skills (as if because they exist they require flexing), and its been hard to convince him that it will create more problems than it solves.

David J.
David J.
4 months ago
Reply to  Aaron

Show him Joe Rigney’s article from this week in American Reformer.

Aaron
4 months ago
Reply to  David J.

I attempted to send Rigney’s article to the elders, but my pastor has refused to pass it on because he thinks it will hurt their feelings, grieves me to say, it because it hurt his feelings. What is really unfortunate is that it only proves Rigney’s (and perhaps Doug’s) point.

Allen W
Allen W
5 months ago

Al Mohler

Ken S.
5 months ago

Another “wrinkle”. In all of this there has been catechism of one sort or another. Action and/inaction have taught congregations how we are to act in the face of the world’s Baal worship. Silence from pastors who followed the culture leaves false teaching in place, firmly rooted. Should that be allowed?

Au
Au
4 months ago

Jack Hibbs from California urged CA pastors to defy emperor Gruesome by opening on May 31, 2020, maskless.

KI
KI
4 months ago

Quite alot to chew on here. Yes, like potpourri – it’s always “all the things” – and so it takes viewing the layers from all angles to get perspective and position. Honestly, its the best recap in Christ I’ve heard to try to get our footing back under us. But it still feels like it lacks the admission that I keep crying out to God in my heart. And this is by no means a criticism of your work – it’s a noble piece. Yet it speaks as if it’s among leaders, bro to bro, elder to elder…. “What do… Read more »

Noah
Noah
4 months ago

I’m not sure how Tim Bayly fits into these categories. He had a different stance on Covid, but I don’t know someone more conservative on abortion (meaning a man who talks about chemical abortions when many do not).

I think he has been valiant in the fight. The reason many don’t like him is because he wants judgment to begin in the house of God. And, he is fearless when taking on the left. He’s approaching it differently yet with the same end in mind.