Donatism and the SBC

07 May

In the fourth century, in North Africa, Christians were the object of intense persecution. The persecution had become so violent that many Christians had publicly renounced the faith. Some bishops followed suit to avoid certain death, but other faithful bishops tried to alleviate the suffering of their flocks through various means. The authorities were demanding the bishops hand over every copy of the Scriptures, so some faithful bishops handed over copies of heretical books, leading the authorities to believe they were the Scriptures, in order to preserve the true Scriptures. Others handed over the true Scriptures claiming that in doing so they were avoiding the bloodshed of the congregation for which they cared. However, some bishops and Christians converted and began to worship pagan gods. Indeed, during this time, the pagan temples were overflowing.

But many Christians remained faithful and paid the price. Those who endured imprisonment, torture, and even death were called “confessors” and were respected for their firmness of faith. Those who yielded their faith were called “traditores

When the persecution came to an end, the question before the church was what to do with those who had lapsed in their faith and now wanted to return to the fold?

To complicate the issue, there was a divide in the leadership of the North African church. Two men claimed to be the rightful bishop of Carthage (North Africa): Caecilian and Donatus. The bishops of Rome and of several other important cities declared that Caecilian was the true bishop of Carthage, and that position was officially recognized by Constantine, the Emperor of Rome. But, according to the Donatists, one of the three bishops who had consecrated Caecilian to his position was a traditor (meaning, he had delivered the Scriptures to the authorities during the times of persecution) and therefore the consecration itself was not valid. The Donatists believed that all those who had yielded the faith during the times of persecution were traditors and not really bishops. Therefore, all they ordained were, in actuality, false ministers, and the sacraments they served (including baptism and the Lord’s Supper) had no validity.

On the other hand, the Caecilians believed that the validity of the sacraments and of other such acts of faith cannot be made to depend on the worthiness of the one administering them, for in that case, all Christians would be in constant doubt as to the validity of their own baptism or of the communion of which they partook. Given their two positions, if a member of Caecilian’s party decided to join the Donatists, a new baptism was required. But, on the other hand, those who left the Donatist party were not re-baptized by Caecilian and his followers for they claimed that baptism was valid regardless of the worth of the one administering it.

(Please note, the conflict between the Donatists and the Caecilians was multifaceted. Beyond the theological understanding of baptism, there were also the political struggles and class warfare that resulted from the different regions of North Africa as they related to the powerful Roman Empire and to the benefits provided by Constantine for the “recognized” church. For a full understanding of this conflict, one has to try to understand all of the issues involved.)

So, over 1700 years ago, in the land of Africa, the church was struggling with a most basic question: what makes baptism valid? Is it the one who performs the baptism or is it the faith of the one being baptized?

Today, 1700 years later, in North America, the church (or at least a small corner of the church) is again wrestling with the same issue.

The official policy of the International Mission Board (IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention is that one’s baptism is only valid if it is performed by a church and by a minister that believes in the security of the believer (“once saved always saved”). That means, that if a person comes to faith in Christ as an adult, and is baptized by immersion as a testimony to his or her conversion, redemption, and new birth in Christ, but is baptized in a church or by a minister that does not believe in the security of the believer, then that person’s baptism is invalid. In fact, if that person were to apply to the IMB as a missionary, the IMB would require them to be re-baptized before they could be appointed as a missionary.

I disagree with the position taken by the IMB for the following two reasons.

First, there are many passages in the Bible that challenge the “security of the believer” teaching.  For instance, Paul writes, “The Spirit clearly says that in later times, some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1 Timothy 4.1). Evidently, there will be those who claim to have faith but will abandon that faith. He writes again, “I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel, you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain” (1 Corinthians 15.1-2). And the letters to the seven churches in Revelation all end with some statement similar to “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Revelations 2.7).

Of course, there are many passages that also teach a clear picture of the security of the believer, too. I do not believe we can “lose” our salvation any more than we can “earn” our salvation. Salvation is by grace through faith. My point is that there are some passages that indicate that just as one enters salvation by faith, perhaps one can abandon the faith by “un-faithing” in the gospel. In the end, our theology has to embrace some view of this situation that allows for the promises of our security in Christ and the apostasy of others. The most succinct way to sum this up might be with the words of John: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us” (1 John 2.19).

Secondly, I am against the official position of the IMB because I believe the validity of one’s baptism to rest in the faith of the one being baptized and not in the church which administers the baptism or in the person performing the baptism.  Paul writes, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6.3-4). We have been baptized into Christ not a church or not into a particular person’s ministry. Further, there is not a single piece of Scripture that teaches the conditions for the person who performs the baptism. In this area, we are adding to the words of the Scriptures.

So, count me as one who identifies himself as a true Southern Baptist who opposes the policies of the IMB regarding the baptismal requirements for missionary candidates.

Todd Pylant


Posted by on May 7, 2008 in Uncategorized



5 responses to “Donatism and the SBC

  1. wade burleson

    May 7, 2008 at 11:00 am

    The clearest, accurate, and most concise rationale I have read for why the baptism policy of the IMB is a mistake. Well done.

  2. tpylant

    May 7, 2008 at 11:03 am

    I am honored by your presence on my blog.

    Thanks for bringing to light the letter from Rodney Hammer on your blog. The average Southern Baptist is not privy to the inworkings of the convention that we sacrificially support. Let all be done in the light of day.

    Todd Pylant

  3. Scaramouch

    June 19, 2008 at 2:11 am

    Somehow i missed the point. Probably lost in translation 🙂 Anyway … nice blog to visit.

    cheers, Scaramouch.

  4. tpylant

    June 19, 2008 at 8:18 am

    Sorry if the point was not well presented, but this was it in a nutshell:

    “So, over 1700 years ago, in the land of Africa, the church was struggling with a most basic question: what makes baptism valid? Is it the one who performs the baptism or is it the faith of the one being baptized?”

    That is the same question that many in the SBC are wrestling with today.



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