During the waves of state-sponsored persecution suffered by the churches during the reigns of Diocletian and Galerius in the late third and early fourth centuries, Christians in North Africa found themselves particular targets.
Following these persecutions, disputes arose within the North African Church about the status of those who had lapsed or denied their faith and who were now seeking restoration to fellowship within the church. Of particular concern was the position of those who had apparently betrayed other Christian believers while facing persecution themselves.
The appointment of Caecilian as bishop of Carthage (in modern day Tunisia) brought these controversies to a head. Regarded by many as a man of shallow moral character, the most damning allegation made against him was that he had been a betrayer of Christians during the time of persecution.
In 312, a council of African bishops declared the appointment of Caecillian invalid and appointed Majorinus as bishop in his place. This action inevitably resulted in conflict with the Catholic Church and the apparently-converted Constantine, Emperor of Rome, declared Caecillian the legitimate bishop.
When Majorinus died, his place was taken by Donatus, who refused to recognise the decision of the Emperor and who quickly found himself at the head of a movement that was in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church - an opposition that lasted several decades.
The so-called Donatists in fact came to be a reforming force with a distinct view of the nature of the church and are considered by many as a third-stream Christian movement.
Although an examination of their distinct beliefs will follow, an initial focus on some of the obvious issues produced by the Donatist controversy include:
- The difference between charismatic and institutional leadership. Much initial controversy focused around the claim that a duly-appointed bishop could confer grace by virtue of his office. Donatism rejected this, claiming that holding office alone was of no value without Christlike character.
- The relationship between the church and the state. Donatism saw the church as essentially separate from the world, not reliant on state support or patronage. Constantine's involvement in matters of church government was, therefore, seen as an unwelcome development.
- The importance of discipleship and holiness in the church - thus a rejection of the emerging monastic movement with its emphasis on different levels of holiness among Christians.