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Psychoneurologist and founding member of the Ending Clergy Abuse (ECA) organization, Denise Buchanan, right, and member Leona Huggins, second from right, participate in a protest outside the St. Anselm on the Aventine Benedictine complex in Rome on the second day of a summit called by Pope Francis at the Vatican on sex abuse in the Catholic Church on Feb. 22, 2019. Pope Francis has issued 21 proposals to stem the clergy sex abuse around the world, calling for specific protocols to handle accusations against bishops and for lay experts to be involved in abuse investigations. (AP Photo/Domenico Stinellis)

These scandals stand alongside abuses by prominent male church officials that have occurred in independent Christian communities, such as Harvest Bible ChapelWillow Creek Community Churchand Mars Hill Church.

Such scandals have led to widespread doubts about church officials and institutions. And this is not for the first time. As a scholar of early Christianity, I know that in the fourth century, Christian churches in North Africa faced a similar crisis of trust in their leaders.

Known as the Donatist controversy, it caused a schism that lasted for centuries and offers a parallel for thinking about the impact of these crises on contemporary Christian communities today.

Traitors during Christian persecution

Christians in the Roman Empire occasionally experienced periods of imperial persecution. These periods were often memorialized in Christian tradition through stories of famous martyrdoms. The stories often portrayed Christians as courageous and virtuous in the face of imperial violence.

The most infamous period of persecution occurred in the early fourth century A.D. Spearheaded by the emperor Diocletian, it was also the final imperially sponsored persecution of Christian communities.

While persecutions were sporadic, local and rare, they often put difficult choices before Christian clergy and laity.

Some renounced Christianity. Others handed over sacred books or church property and outed fellow Christians to the authorities. Christians called the latter “traditores,” a Latin term meaning “those who handed over,” the root of the word “traitor.”

Whether and how to welcome such traditores back into Christian communities after the persecutions was a topic of intense debate among Christians.

Traditores were considered to have betrayed their communities to save themselves. This sense of betrayal was particularly felt with respect to clergy members who had become traditores.

The issue came to a head in A.D. 311 in North Africa when Caecilian, the bishop of Carthage, became embroiled in controversy after it was alleged that one or more of the bishops who presided at his consecration had been traditores.

In the eyes of many Christians in North Africa, Caecilian’s virtues did not matter. The presence of a traditor among those who ordained him invalidated his ordination.

The Donatist schism

Caecilian was supported politically and financially by the imperial administration. Caecilian’s opponents pressed their case in regional councils and before local magistrates.

They even appealed to the Emperor Constantine, who wrote in a letter to the Vicar of Africa in A.D. 314 that he had grown tired of receiving requests from Caecilian’s opponents.

They brought charges, which ultimately proved to be false, against Felix of Aptunga, one of the bishops that had ordained Caecilian. Charges against other bishops soon followed.

In A.D. 313, Donatus was consecrated bishop of Carthage and became the leading voice of Caecilian’s opponents. These “Donatists,” as they came to be called, created their own massive network of churches that stood in opposition to those allied with Caecilian and the Roman state.

Constantine soon grew fed up with the Donatists and the schism that they had created in the church. From A.D. 316-321, Constantine used the force of the state to coerce the Donatists back into the fold.

Constantine’s attempts to intervene led to violence that resulted in the deaths of Donatist Christians. His intervention did little to end the schism. Constantine soon gave up state-sponsored persecution of the Donatists.

In A.D. 346, the Emperor Constans, who succeeded Constantine, tried again to end the schism. His agents used imperial funds to woo clergy back, but also used violence. Macarius, one of Constans’s agents, led a campaign of suppression, in which Christians killed other fellow Christians.

Macarius became infamous among Donatist communities. The Donatists considered those who died to be martyrs. These martyrs and their memory were celebrated by Donatist communities.

Donatus was said to have questioned the very role of the emperor in the controversy, saying, “What has the emperor to do with the church?”

By the fifth century, Donatist churches were thriving and sparring with Catholics. And Donatist churches remained active in North Africa until the Islamic conquests of the seventh century.

Donatist beliefs

The Donatists believed the sins of traditores risked the salvation of individual members and the health of the community.

“How,” they asked, “could sacraments administered by an offending priest be recognized by a holy God?” And if those sacraments were not effective, the salvation of the individual and the community were at risk. For the Donatists, only sacraments performed by uncompromised clergy were effective.

In their attempts to respond to Donatist critique, the Catholic Church settled on a strategy developed by Augustine, an influential fifth-century Catholic bishop in North Africa.

Augustine, who describes the sparring between Donatists and Catholics in his writings, argued that the sacraments were effective regardless of the morality of the clergy involved – a church doctrine known as “ex opere operato.” He said that as the sacraments were the work of Christ, they did not depend on the moral character of the officiating priest.

What can be learned today

Today, in the face of the sex abuse crisis, contemporary Christian communities find themselves asking questions about institutions that condoned, hid and promoted abusive clergy.

This might be a moment to revisit the Donatist critique. They created their own churches because they feared not only for the efficacy of the sacraments but also for the character of a church that made it too easy for traditores to continue to remain leaders.

Widespread sexual abuse by Christian clergy represents a very different crisis from that faced by the betrayal of the traditores.

However, I believe the Donatists offer a lesson for Christian communities…

For the rest of the post…

Sexual abuse (and problematic responses to it when uncovered) is a plague wreaking havoc across our country, not only in the Catholic Church or in the independent fundamentalist congregations across the country, but also in Southern Baptist congregations. The Houston Chronicle’s three-part report (the first part was released on Sunday, February 10) found more than 700 victims in just the past 20 years, with some of the accused church leaders still serving in SBC churches even today.

Read the report. Reread it. Don’t look away. Ask yourself, How can this evil flourish in churches that name the name of Jesus? Moving forward, we cannot excuse inaction due to of our Convention’s structure (“What can we do? Every church is autonomous!”) or because of our denominational bureaucracy (“It takes too long to get anything done”) or because we are not personally involved (“I’ve never fielded an accusation”).

What kind of Great Commission people are we if we move heaven and earth to send out missionaries to spread the gospel abroad, but cannot muster the will to stop predators from “slaughtering the faith” of people at home?

We can no longer accept the reality that we are “a porous sieve of a denomination” that makes it easy for perpetrators to move from church to church and for more innocent victims to be preyed upon. This is not a problem out there. If we are in this together when we celebrate God’s work among and through us, we must be in this together when the work of the evil one is exposed and our failures are so glaringly put on display before a watching world.

I don’t know all that we can or will do in the months ahead, but I trust that the feelings of grief and anger among many of us today will lead to renewed efforts to partner together in ways that uncover abusers and protect the vulnerable. Southern Baptists must do more, and it must start with us. God give us wisdom and determination.

Below are excerpts from several of the responses from Southern Baptist leaders:

J.D. Greear:

I am broken over what was revealed today. The abuses described in this article are pure evil. I join with countless others who are currently “weeping with those who weep.” The voices in this article should be heard as a warning sent from God, calling the church to repent. As Christians, we are called to expose everything sinful to the light. The survivors in this article have done that—at a personal cost few of us can fathom. We must admit that our failures, as churches, put these survivors in a position where they were forced to stand alone and speak, when we should have been fighting for them. Their courage is exemplary and prophetic. But I grieve that their courage was necessary. We—leaders in the SBC—should have listened to the warnings of those who tried to call attention to this. I am committed to doing everything possible to ensure we never make these mistakes again.

It’s time for pervasive change. God demands it. Survivors deserve it. We must change how we prepare before abuse (prevention), respond during disclosure (full cooperation with legal authorities), and act after instances of abuse (holistic care). I will pursue every possible avenue to bring the vast spiritual, financial, and organizational resources of the Southern Baptist Convention to bear on stopping predators in our midst. There can simply be no ambiguity about the church’s responsibility to protect the abused and be a safe place for the vulnerable. The safety of the victims matters more than the reputation of Southern Baptists. The Baptist doctrine of church autonomy should never be a religious cover for passivity towards abuse.

Church autonomy is about freeing the church to do the right thing—to obey Christ—in every situation. It is a heinous error to apply autonomy in a way that enables abuse. As a denomination, now is a time to mourn and repent. Changes are coming. They must. We cannot just promise to “do better” and expect that to be enough. But today, change begins with feeling the full weight of the problem.

Russell Moore:

Our approach is seeking to encourage policies and practices that protect children and the vulnerable from sexual abuse in autonomous but cooperating churches, all the while promoting compliance with laws and providing compassionate care for those who have survived trauma. True, we have no bishops. But we have a priesthood of believers. And a key task of that priesthood is maintaining the witness of Christ in the holiness and safety of his church.

For the rest of the post…

by JOE CARTER

9 Things You Should Know About Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church

Fred Phelps Sr., the former leader of the Westboro Baptist Church—a Christian-based family cult — died last night at the age of 84. Here are nine things you should know about the notorious religious leader and his organization.

1. Phelps was an Eagle Scout who was slated to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. But during a Methodist revival meeting at the age of 17 he “felt the call” to ministry. He was baptized and ordained by First Baptist Church of Vernal, Utah, in 1947. In 1954, the East Side Baptist Church in Topeka hired Phelps as an associate pastor, and then promoted him to be the pastor of their new church, Westboro Baptist, which opened in 1955. Soon after Westboro was established, Phelps broke all ties with East Side Baptist.

phelps2. In 1964 Phelps earned his law degree from Washburn University and founded the Phelps Chartered law firm, where he worked as a civil rights attorney. “I systematically brought down the Jim Crow laws of this town [Topeka, Kansas],”Phelps claimed. His career as a lawyer ended in 1979, when he was disbarred by the state of Kansas for allegedly being too abusive to witnesses.

3. After being disbarred, Phelps remained prominent in state and local politics, working for years as a major organizer for the state’s Democratic Party. (In 1988, Phelps housed campaign workers for Al Gore’s first presidential run.) He ran for governor of Kansas in 1990, 1994, and 1998, for the Senate in 1992. Because of his work in politics, Phelps was invited to two of Bill Clinton’s inaugurations. He attended both—and protested the president at the second.

4. Phelps established Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in Topeka, Kansas, in 1955. The church describes itself as “an Old School (or, Primitive) Baptist Church.” (The Baptist World Alliance and the Southern Baptist Convention have each denounced the WBC over the years, as have many Primitive Baptist congregations.) The church subscribes to a form of hyper-Calvinism and claims to subscribe to three confessions of faith: The First London Baptist Confession of Faith (1646), The Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order (1658), and The Philadelphia Confession of Faith (1742). At its peak, the church had approximately 40 members, almost all of whom were related to Phelps by blood or marriage. (Phelps has 13 children and approximately 45 grandchildren.)

5. Phelps teaches a number of peculiar beliefs, including a form of “equal ultimacy,” in which God works equally to keep the elect in heaven and the reprobate out of heaven; that Billy Graham is the “greatest false prophet since Balaam”; and that after President Obama leads the nations in a war against Jerusalem (sic), 144,000 “elect Jews” will join WBC members in heaven.

6. Phelps and WBC claim “Jesus Christ invented picketing.” They began protesting in 1991 and picket approximately six locations every day. (One of Westboro’s followers estimated that the church spends $250,000 a year on picketing.) They claim to have picketed more than 52,000 times in all 50 states and three foreign countries. In 1997, Saddam Hussein granted Phelps and a group of WBC congregants permission to travel to Iraq. After arriving, they stood on a street in Baghdad and led a protest against the United States.

7. Because of Phelps protests at funerals of military service members, the U.S. House and Senate passed the Respect for America’s Fallen Heroes Act in 2006. The act bans protests within 300 feet of national cemeteries from an hour before a funeral to an hour after it. Violators face up to a $100,000 fine and up to a year in prison. On August 6, 2012, President Obama signed Pub.L. 112-154, the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012, which, among other things, requires a 300-foot and 2-hour buffer zone around military funerals.

For the rest of the article…

Can Evangelical Chaplains Serve God and Country?—The Crisis Arrives

Tuesday • September 17, 2013

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Can chaplains committed to historic biblical Christianity serve in the United States military? That question, though inconceivable to our nation’s founders, is now front and center. And the answer to that question will answer another, even more important question: Can religious liberty survive under America’s new moral order?

The repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, coupled with the Supreme Court’s ruling that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional, set the stage for this crisis. The full normalization of same-sex relationships within the U.S. military is part of the unprecedented moral revolution that is now reshaping American culture at virtually every level.

The crisis in the chaplaincy arrived with these developments. The presenting issue is clear: Can a chaplain committed to historic biblical Christianity remain in military service? Does the normalization of homosexuality require that all members of the military, including chaplains, join the moral revolution, even if doing so requires them to abandon their biblical convictions?

The answer, at least from the advocates of the moral revolution, is that evangelical Christian chaplains must go—and Southern Baptist chaplains must go first.

In recent weeks, the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, the endorsing agency for SBC chaplains, formulated a set of policies on these issues. These policies are required of all SBC-endorsed chaplains, and the guidelines are clear. SBC chaplains are to minister in line with the biblical convictions of the SBC and its churches as made clear in our denomination’s confession of faith, The Baptist Faith & Message. Chaplains are to offer respect to all, respect for the religious liberty of all, and respect for the religious diversity represented within the armed forces. But evangelical chaplains cannot deny or compromise the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As the document states:  ”Responsible pastoral care will seek to offer repentance and forgiveness, help and healing, and restoration through the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ’s sacrificial gift of love on the cross.”

For the rest of the post…

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