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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…

By Megan Briggs

Steve Carter
It’s been over a month now since Steve Carter, the lead teaching pastor of Willow Creek, resigned unexpectedly. On Sunday, August 5, 2018 while he was supposed to be onstage at Willow Creek’s main campus in South Barrington, Illinois, Carter was backstage throwing up. Afterward, he drove home and typed out his resignation letter. Carter recently granted his first interview since resigning, in which he shares a little more about his decision to leave.

“Pat’s story was pretty brave,” Carter told Religious News Service. “I thought, what’s the brave thing I am supposed to do?” Pat Baranowski served as Bill Hybel’s assistant for over eight years. When the New York Times published her story on August 5, which included allegations of sexual harassment by Hybels, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Carter. He could no longer serve in a position of leadership at a church that was initially averse and then woefully slow to respond to allegations of sexual harassment involving Hybels.

The church and its leaders had been dealing with the fallout of an article published in the Chicago Tribune in March, in which multiple women shared their own allegations against Hybels and his alleged sexual misconduct and harassment. Carter had even stood on stage when Hybels denounced the allegations as false and described them as an attempt to ruin his legacy. Now, Carter seriously regrets the agreement with Hybels that his physical presence implied.

He also regrets being on stage for any of the “family meetings” (meetings hosted by the elder board of Willow Creek, designed to communicate to the congregation) that occurred after the Chicago Tribune article broke. Carter wrote in a blog post titled “An Apology” what he believes the church leadership should have done at those meetings: “I believe now that what our church needed initially was to practice transparency and repentance, to grieve, and to reflect on what Jesus was inviting us into and to listen to the Holy Spirit.” Carter also apologized for not doing more to “prevent the hurtful statements that were made” about the women who brought allegations forward.

Steve Carter Moves Forward

The mantra Carter is repeating through this process of moving on from Willow is “Grieve. Breathe. Receive.” RNS reports instead of rushing into a new assignment, Carter is “focusing on his own spirituality and asking God what he should do next.”

Before his resignation, Carter had a book in the works with publisher David C. Cook. That book, the topic of which was to be about his leadership role at Willow, has been sidelined. Carter is now working on another project with David C. Cook titled Everything to Lose: Doing the Right Thing When the Stakes Are High. The book will be released in November and will focus on the reasons he left Willow.

According to the interview with RNS, Carter has also been reaching out to the women who have brought allegations against Hybels. He and his wife, Sarah, have also started a GoFundMe campaign called “We believe you.” The campaign is raising money (the goal is $50,000) to create a counseling scholarship program for “those who have been abused and shamed at the hands of churches and clergy.” The campaign description says 100 percent of the funds raised will go to pay for counseling for those seeking help healing from sexual and power abuse.

For the rest of the post…

Years ago, I heard a speaker say at men’s retreat that every man who follows Jesus can fall into sin. Hopefully, these allegations are false. May we all avoid sexual immorality by God’s grace. Bryan

April 11, 2018 at 2:03 PM

Prominent pastor Bill Hybels announced April 10 he is stepping down from his Chicago-area megachurch Willow Creek, saying an investigation that cleared him of sexual misconduct had taken its toll. (Reuters)

Prominent pastor Bill Hybels announced Tuesday he is stepping down from his Chicago-area megachurch Willow Creek, just weeks after the Chicago Tribune published allegations of misconduct from several women. Hybels, who with his wife co-founded one of the nation’s largest churches in 1975, was a spiritual adviser to President Bill Clinton around the time of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

He told the church publicly last year that he was planning to step down in October, but he resigned Tuesday, saying he would be a distraction to the church’s ministry. Some members of his congregation shouted “No!” in response to his decision, and the crowd gave him a standing ovation following his address.

The stories surrounding Hybels have been part of a series of recent high-profile allegations of sexual misconduct among some evangelical leaders.

In March, the Chicago Tribune published allegations that Hybels made suggestive comments, extended hugs, an unwanted kiss and invitations to a staff member to hotel rooms. The newspaper also reported allegations of a consensual affair with a married woman, and the woman who said she had an affair later retracted her allegations. Hybels has denied all the allegations and said on Tuesday again that the church’s investigations found no evidence of misconduct.

For the rest of the post…

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