In Ephraim Radner’s book Hope Among The Fragments he suggests that the Donatists “saw the practices of the Christian Church as corrupted and corrupting because of the sinful character of particular priests and lay people who might participate in them,” while “Augustine insisted that Christ’s sanctifying work in baptism and ordination, in particular, was effective over and beyond whatever sullying secrets were harbored by Church members who might participate in these rites. Since God alone effected his plan for the Church through these rites, the disposition of human participants was not determinative of their value for the Church (or world) as a whole” (Hope Among The Fragments, Ephraim Radner, 153).
On one level Augustine is right. The work of the Holy Spirit will continue to move throughout history regardless of how sinful people attempt to pervert God's Work. But this is not simply a debate about the importance of human righteousness vs. Divine Providence. The Donatists were Christians before Rome had become a Christian state and they were economically oppressed as Christians by Rome. Now this same “Christian” Empire, was trying to tell them that they are no longer the real Christians. In fact with Augustine’s newly minted Just War Theory, they would be violently oppressed as heretics (The Story of Christianity, Justo Gonzalez, 176-179). This is the danger of our conformity to power and authority; all too often it produces numbness to injustice. Yet standing up for our individual convictions in defiance of our leaders often undermines the common good of a society or religious community, and only further creates more division and injustice.
How then are we to act in the midst of this dilemma? Scripture calls us to submit to the authorities in our lives even as we look for opportunities to communally push our leaders toward a greater good. 1 Peter 2 tells us that as “slaves, in reverent fear of God” we are called to submit ourselves to our “masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who treat you unjustly” (2:18-20). Jesus suffered patiently, “ giving us an example to follow in his footsteps; he does not lash back, he does not resist, he trusts only in God’s judgment” (1 Peter 2:21-25). The leaders of the church are called to be “willing examples of Christ’s sufferings for their flock,” while “others in the church are to be subject to the elders themselves” (1 Peter 5:1-5).
Learning how to leave room for a Prophetic Imagination within this hierarchical based church structure is the central question on my mind these days. How are we to imitate a Christ who eats with, washes the feet of, and maintains Judas’ place as an Apostle (even as Christ knows what Judas intends to do), but also calls out corrupt religious leaders as a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:33)?