5 February 2006

Christianist Donatism, of a sort

The Christianists are at it again.  And they’re behaving somewhat heretically, again.

If you didn’t read the Times the other day, there was an article about the new film “The End of the Spear.”  Here’s what’s going down:

Christian ministers were enthusiastic at the early private screenings
of “End of the Spear,” made by Every Tribe Entertainment, an
evangelical film company. But days before the film’s premiere, a
controversy erupted over the casting of a gay actor that has all but
eclipsed the movie and revealed fault lines among evangelicals.

The film relates the true story of five American missionaries who
were killed in 1956 by an indigenous tribe in Ecuador. The
missionaries’ families ultimately converted the tribe to Christianity,
and forgave and befriended the killers. The tale inspired evangelicals
40 years ago with its message of redemption and grace, and the film
company expected a similar reception.

On Jan. 12, though, the
Rev. Jason Janz took the filmmakers to task for casting Chad Allen, an
openly gay man and an activist, in the movie’s lead role as one of the
slain missionaries, and later, his grown son.

(Growing up in Sunday School, we heard this story of these missionaries numerous times, and their martyrdom was held up as an example to us.) (I might also note that I might not have seen the film, because I’m getting a bit concerned about Hollywood’s pursuit of the “Christian” audience, but Chad Allen is just yummy….)

That which seems to be the problem here is that some people deem the deliverer of the Gospel message to be unworthy to present it, and his unworthiness somehow invalidates the enterprise.

Let’s go back to the fourth century, to discuss a conflict between the Donatists and non-Donatists.  Wikipedia tells the story as well as anyone:

Their primary disagreement with the rest of the Church was over the
treatment of those who forsook their faith during the Persecution (303–305 AD) of Diocletian.
The rest of the Church was far more forgiving of these people than the
Donatists were. They refused to accept the sacraments and spiritual
authority of the priests and bishops who had fallen away from the faith
during the persecution. Many church leaders had gone as far as turning
in Christians to the Roman authorities and had handed over sacred
religious texts to authorities to be publicly burned. These people were
called traditors (“people who had handed over”). These traditors had returned to positions of authority under Constantine, and the
Donatists proclaimed that any sacraments celebrated by these priests
and bishops were invalid. As a result, many towns were divided between
Donatist and non-Donatist congregations. The sect had particularly
developed and grown in North Africa. Constantine, as emperor, began to
get involved in the dispute, and in 314 he called a council atArles
in France; the issue was debated and the decision went against the
Donatists. The Donatists refused to accept the decision of the council,
their distaste for bishops who had collaborated with Rome came out of
their broader view of the Roman empire….

Augustine campaigned against this heterodox belief throughout his tenure as
bishop of Hippo, and through his efforts the Church gained the upper
hand. His view, which was also the majority view within the Church, was
that it was the office of priest, not the personal character of the
incumbent, that gave validity to the celebration of the sacraments.
This is the view that prevailed and has persisted to the present day….

The basic idea here is that the personal worthiness of the minister has no bearing on the worthiness or importance of the Christian message.  Sure, we should aim toward people who are virtuous, but their failure to live up to a code of virtue — especially one on which not all agree — does not affect the message, because the message is independent of the human messenger.  If it is a transcendant message, as Christians claim, then it must transcend the limitations of the messenger.

The Rev. Jason Janz seems to be skirting close to heresy, at least in some sense.  Perhaps he should go back to seminary for a bit more time.

Posted in Rayleejun on 5 February 2006 at 10:54 am by Nate