The Purity Question
In AD 303, Roman Emperor Diocletian determined he would stamp out Christianity. To accomplish this he ordered the destruction of all churches and all Christian Scriptures. In fear, many Christians betrayed their Christian brethren or surrendered their books. Those who did so became known as traditores (trado – to hand over). Some Christians, knowing that most Roman soldiers did not read Greek, turned in secular Greek writings as if they were Scripture. Even they were counted among the traditores.
In earlier persecutions, demands were made on Christians to sacrifice incense to Caesar and declare him “lord.” Those who did so were known as the sacrificati although there was a separate class of those who bribed officials to be excused as though they had made the sacrifice.
As a class, all these became known as the lapsi (the lapsed). What’s not often discussed is how much trouble in the church, schism even, was caused by the consideration of how or if to readmit the lapsi.
The heretical Donatist movement began in the fourth century over a dispute on how to handle the traditores. Problems arose when church leaders who were traditores were involved in baptisms, sacraments, or consecrations. Donatists disputed not only the worthiness of the individual traditores, but also of the validity of the baptisms and sacraments they administered.
In effect, the Donatists were insisting on a version of purity that is impossible to effect. They viewed the actions of an unfit church leader as being of no effect. The heresy in this is that, humanly speaking, everyone is impure. Their position was stricter than God’s and that amounted to Phariseeism. Augustine is considered responsible for finally and definitively defeating their arguments, but it wasn’t until the rise of Islam that the exclusionary Donatism became extinct.
For the health of the church it was the heresy that was a big deal: the idea that the spiritual condition of the individual church leader was imputed to the administration of his duties. And that’s the idea that Augustine eventually defeated.
Yet, the Donatists weren’t entirely wrong. The established church agreed that the lapsi did not belong in leadership again – ever. They had violated a sacred covenant such that the trust of church-goers could never again be restored. But what of restoration to fellowship and communion in the church? Was forgiveness available to the lapsi?
The answers ranged from
- yes, after public penance (Cyprian of Carthage)
- yes, after public penance, 3 years probation, 7 years’ prostration, plus 2 years of prayer (Canon 11, Council of Nicea)
- never (Donatists)
So why the long lesson on church history? Because it has direct bearing on those who lapsed into promoting the now-discredited covid lockdown, masking, and “vaccination” strategies. What are we to think of those church leaders who agreed with the state about shutting down churches? What of those who shilled for the jab? How about the church leaders who sided with “The Science©” in opposition to the consciences of their parishioners?
As implied above, there are two levels of consideration:
The Leadership Question:
After Roman persecution ended, the true church considered the lapsi to be unfit for church office. Is that appropriate for today’s covid lapsi? Should churches that shut down purge their leadership?
It took many years before there was general agreement on the ban of the lapsi from church leadership. Do we wait the same many years to see what “the Church” will do or should congregations press this argument now? What satisfies God’s justice and maintains the sanctity of Christ’s church?
Or, have the congregants already voted with their feet? Are those churches that shut down and have re-opened done so to the approval of a flock that doesn’t care, having lost those who do to churches that never shut down? Is there, should there be, a schism in Christ’s church regarding covid hysteria? If the church membership and leadership alike don’t mind bowing to the state is it a church?
These questions relate to the “necessaries” of the Christian Church. In our statements of faith, may it be necessary in the near future to include declarations of whether the church bowed to state diktat regarding covid?
The Communion Question:
The bedrock of Christianity is that grace is freely available to those who truly repent of their sins and look to Christ as the guarantor of forgiveness. It’s not possible to exclude from communion those who sinned in their covid responses and have since repented and turned from that way. Leader and congregant alike may have been swept up in fear that was deliberately mis-guided by a malevolent state apparatus.
Apologies and fence-mending may be appropriate depending upon what stones were thrown during the height of the madness. Penance, prostration, probation, and the like for one sin over others seems unwarranted in today’s understanding of repentance in a Reformed Protestant church. However, a general amnesty or blanket absolution as is currently being proposed seems to be an attempt to make the matter much less than it actually is.
Today’s church has much to atone for. The fact that we round abortions to the nearest five million or so (!) attests to the slumber from which we may be awakening. That ritual sexual mutilation of our children is allowed to the applause of government officials, the woke, and criminally confused parents without our sustained outrage is – well, outrageous.
Let’s add to that the feeble abasement of much of Christ’s church to state authorities during the so-called pandemic. It is shameful in the extreme. Purifying the church from this shame is something we’ll need to deal with. I have no idea what it should look like.
We can be sure that the civil authorities will come up with a strategy to deflect either blame or punishment. Will the church follow suit?