In North Africa in the early 4th century, a presumably theological point of contention morphed into a ecclesiological debate that ultimately split the church in that area.
The issue behind it all related to Christians who had crumbled during one of the more recent rounds of persecution; specifically, church leaders who turned over copies of the Scriptures to the authorities for burning. Once the persecution ceased, the church had to decide what to do with these traditores of the faith. One group (the laxists) encouraged the church to respond gracefully, forgiving these lapsed Christians and restoring them to the body in some fashion. The other side of the debate included those who believed the lapsed no longer had a place in the kingdom.
As the debate raged, the office of bishop in the important city of Carthage suddenly had a vacancy. The laxist group won the election and placed their own bishop, Caecilian, in office. The rival group eventually named their own bishop, a man named Donatus; one city, one church, two bishops.
The Donatists, as they came to be called, declared Caecilian’s consecration invalid. One of the bishops involved in Caecilian’s consecration ceremony was reputed to be a traditor and as such lacked the proper spiritual authority to ordain. In fact, the Donatists maintained, any spiritual act performed by the supposedly lapsed bishop was invalid: baptism, wedding, communion, ordination, etc. Anyone subsequently consecrated by the false bishop was not actually consecrated and therefore, all of his spiritual acts were lacking in validity as well.
In the end, the theological side of the discussion boiled down to this: the Donatists posited that the validity of the sacraments depended on the character and purity of the one performing them. Therefore, baptism was only as good as the one doing the dunking. Ordination was only as pure as the one doing the ordaining. The Lord’s Supper was only as special as the one serving the bread. Anyone on the receiving end of a sacrament performed by a lapsed bishop or someone he had appointed needed to experience that sacrament again.
The supporters of Caecilian countered that the sacraments were valid of themselves, and were in no way reflective of the spiritual state of the person administering them. The sacraments are holy in a sense that was entirely independent of the worth of the distributor. Therefore, no spiritual act performed by a formerly lapsed bishop, nor an act carried out by one of his appointees, needed repeating.
I’m an IMB guy. I believe in this large, unwieldy, flawed, messy, kingdom-oriented organization. It is an inherently mistake-filled organization primarily because it is filled with people, carbon-based (mostly) sentient bipedal humanoids. I believe that while we, as a group, occasionally blow it, our focus on the kingdom of God and His righteousness will ultimately smooth over our low points and turn them into His high points.
One of the more slippery issues that still rankles some folks is baptism of IMB applicants. All those who apply for a missionary job with the IMB must be able to recount a baptismal experience in which both the church and the minister believed in the non-regenerational aspect of baptism. In other words, the IMB places a higher priority on the church leader’s attitude towards baptism than on the candidate’s understanding of his own baptism. Any applicant who was not baptized in a church with the proper understanding of baptism by immersion must be baptized properly in a church with better theology.
Sound familiar? Maybe…maybe not.
Let’s clear up a few things:
1. The IMB is not claiming that a bad baptism results in a lack or loss of salvation. Their rule applies to job applicants, not members of the Kingdom.
2. The IMB makes no claim of being the one true church, holding fast to the spiritual high ground while all the other Christians out there get it wrong.
3. The IMB is not encouraging re-baptisms; instead, I think, they are saying the original dousing was not a true baptism because it was applied under incorrect theological understandings.
4. The IMB is striving to place their workers above reproach in a world where the fundamentals of the Christian faith are twisted and manipulated into meaning just whatever people want them to mean.
More than any other branch of SBC life, the IMB exists in a pluralistic world of cults, sects, animism, shamanism, half-churches, syncretism, and accidentally heretical religions. In other words, the IMB worker enters an international world not too different from the first or third or fifth centuries. Yes, yes, I know: the US has a lot of these things, too. That’s true. However, it is also true that most North American Christians can and will spend months without running into the sorts of things that many IMB workers encounter daily. IMB workers, far from being sheltered from this spiritual mess, actually go looking for it.
The Donatist schism was to scar the church in north Africa until the late seventh century. Their later years were filled with mob violence, class strife, and claims of being the “true church.” New theological writings came along in order just to refute Bishop Donatus’ perception of the the worthiness of leaders administering the sacraments.
The IMB, for all the similarity on the issue of the validity of baptism, isn’t the Donatist movement reincarnated. The IMB doesn’t bring their “troops” to SBC meetings, using missionaries to stuff ballot boxes in order to control the convention. The IMB isn’t challenging anyone’s salvation experience. They are not rewriting evangelical theology to justify their hiring patterns. Instead, the organization is aiming for an admittedly high standard within the relatively cloistered confines of the North American church before sending new missionaries into the world. In this, the IMB has more in common with the early church’s practice of rigorous spiritual discipline for new Christians than with the schismatics of north Africa.
100% of the historical data mentioned here came from Justo L. Gonzalez’s “The Story of Christianity: Volume One” chapter 16. It is a fascinating book, well-written and accessible to most anyone. I highly recommend it.