Donatism

Greg Strand – August 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Jasmine Young, “Resignation of Ex-Spy Pastor in Sweden Recalls Fourth-Century Donatist Controversy,” CT Liveblog (August 9, 2012)

The story:

An Austrian pastor in the Church of Sweden has given up his license to preach after being exposed as a former spy for a once-feared Communist intelligence agency.

Aleksander Radler admitted that he was recruited to East Germany’s Ministry of State Security, popularly known as Stasi, after studying theology in the Communist nation. When Radler moved to Sweden in 1968, he continued his work as a Stasi agent for 24 years, denouncing students planning to escape from East Germany among other tasks.

The Church of Sweden also found records that the 68-year-old pastor was an “elite spy,” the highest ranking such informants working abroad could receive.

After giving up his preaching license, Radler wrote a response to Swedish newspaper Dagen. “Through information that I passed on about students in what was then the DDR, these people were incarcerated and treated badly at the end of the 1960s,” he wrote. “Nothing torments my conscience as much as that.”

Radler went on to admit that “on the one hand there was my work for God, and then the dark memories, irreconcilable with the Christian message, on the other.”

CT has examined whether past collaboration with Communist persecutors should bar pastors from ministerial positions, noting that this continues the debate started by Augustine and the Donatists in the 300s.

Now would be a good time to review the early church debates mentioned in this article. Here is a brief word about Novationism and Donatism.

During persecution under Decius (250 AD), some pastors denied the faith rather than be persecuted, offering pagan sacrifices, or even claiming they had offered pagan sacrifices when they had not. In either case, they avoided persecution. Cyprian of Carthage was a part of this discussion.  It had to do with sin, forgiveness and the purity of the church. This is referred to as the Novation Schism.

This issue surfaced again during the Diocletian persecution (303-305 AD) that resulted in schism with the Donatists. The Donatists rooted their teaching in Tertullian and Cyprian who claimed that the pastor’s role in the sacraments was substantial, not instrumental. Augustine’s teaching was that of the latter. For Donatists the church was the visible society of the elect that was separate from the world. They also had a reference for the Bible such that if one poured a libation to an emperor or gave up a Bible to Roman persecutors, they were heretics. These heretic were forever outside the visible church, unless they were rebaptized, or saved all over again. Augustine taught that there was an invisible church within the visible church, that it consisted of both wheat and tares. It was not absolutely pure. This meant that traitors could be forgiven and welcomed back into the church. Augustine’s teachings on the nature of the church won the day.

What would you have done and why? If one were to ask you what they should do, how would you counsel them?

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

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