In the middle of the twentieth century, American Christianity experienced a subtle but seismic shift. As sociologist Robert Wuthnow observed, where Christians had once distinguished themselves according to denominational identity, following the Second World War, institutional affiliation began to be overshadowed by political inclination. People no longer cared whether you were Methodist or Presbyterian, Catholic or Baptist. Ideological leanings were taking centre stage.
According to Wuthnow, this development had roots in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the 1920s but accelerated decades later through a series of historic events, including the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, denominational mergers, and the rise of new religions. Each became an issue on which liberals and conservatives staked “pro” and “con” positions, pressuring Christians also to take sides. Underlying this fissure was the expansion of higher education in the 1960s, which created a new educated “class” and tended to promote progressive social positions. Churches experienced these effects in a widening gap between less-educated congregants of a conservative persuasion and more-educated congregants and clergy who promoted liberal ideas.
Fast-forward to the chaos of 2020, when political leanings have hardened into battle lines across American society, and the major Christian traditions have fragmented accordingly. Denominational identity is a forgotten relic, of interest primarily to veteran pastors and seminarians seeking ordination. The real question is whether you love Trump or despise him, whether you vote on abortion and religious liberty or racial justice and climate change. The wrong position on these matters seems, from one side and the other, so immoral that it is inconceivable how those of the opposite persuasion can call themselves Christian. During a raging pandemic, even masks have become a symbol of partisan division.
I perceive these fault lines from a position of some liminality. I count myself an “evangelical” (to adopt a contested term), but my faith was birthed in Asian American settings that did not politicize the faith. I teach at Wheaton College (IL), but I live in the inner city of Chicago. I see evangelicalism as a far more complex phenomenon than the 81 percent white evangelical support for Trump, yet I am persuaded that racial justice is a matter of central—not peripheral—importance for American Christianity.
These ambivalences have prompted me to revisit the past. This is hardly the first time that Christians have been polarized. History is replete with examples of believers divided in contexts far removed from our own. We marvel at some of the issues that earlier Christians once fought over. Yet it is not difficult to imagine future generations judging our animosities as distasteful as we consider controversies of earlier ages. How do we discern which issues are worth fighting for? Is it ever appropriate for Christians united by faith and baptism to draw lines against each other?
Among the more astute theorists of Christian division was Augustine of Hippo. Let us consider what his understanding of church and society offers for our present age.
The Donatist Controversy
Augustine’s theology of the church developed through what scholars typically call the Donatist controversy. This conflict emerged in the early 300s AD following the emperor Diocletian’s persecution, the most aggressive attack on the church in early Christianity. One of the hardest-hit areas was Roman Africa, a territory whose chief city was Carthage, in modern-day Tunisia.
During the persecution, many priests gave up copies of the Bible and other liturgical books to Roman authorities as a sign of renouncing Christ. This act was called traditio, which literally means “to hand over” and is the root word for “traitor.” In a time that preceded the printing press, when a church might possess only one Bible, traditio was considered a disqualifying act. How could you retain your ordination if you gave up the church’s only copy of Scripture to a Roman enemy of the faith?
After the persecution ended, a schism arose in Carthage, Roman Africa’s biggest city, over the ordination of a bishop named Caecilian. One party claimed that Caecilian had been consecrated by a traditor. This group, the “Donatists,” denied the validity of Caecilian’s ordination and installed a rival bishop, charging Caecilian’s followers of apostasy and rejecting their claims to faith. Naturally, the Caecilians, or “Catholics,” denied these accusations and accused the Donatists of severing the church. This conflict would seethe for nearly a century before Augustine took up the Catholics’ cause.
What makes the Donatist controversy an instructive example is that it did not focus on differences of theology. Except for their views on church discipline, Augustine did not accuse the Donatists of false beliefs. The Donatists and Catholics shared the same Bible and liturgical practices, and they both affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity as articulated in the Nicene Creed.
The Donatists did not just condemn traditio; they condemned anyone connected with it. All Christians could agree that traditio was an offence that required penance or excommunication. The question was whether those who remained in fellowship with those who committed traditio were themselves tainted—whether, that is, the sin of traditio stained by association. The Donatists repudiated consort with anyone who sniffed of corruption, denying the legitimacy of the Catholic church on the grounds that traditores had remained undisciplined within its communion.
Despite their agreement with Catholics on most doctrines, the Donatists divided the church in their zeal for purity. In Augustine’s estimation, they were not guilty of heresy, but of schism.
Augustine’s arguments against the Donatists stress both the impossibility of avoiding corrupt communities and the primacy of grace. His commitment to God’s power in salvation has earned him the moniker “Doctor of Grace,” while his insistence that grace extends to sinners in the church prompted one scholar to dub him a defender of “Christian mediocrity.” Let us consider his arguments.
First, we cannot avoid sinners in this life. Augustine’s favourite proof of this principle is the parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13:24–43. Jesus teaches that good and evil people will arise out of the same field. Christians are commanded not to separate the tares from the wheat prematurely, lest by trying to pull out the tares, they pull out the wheat as well. The separation of the wheat and the tares awaits final judgment, when Christ will distinguish between them as ultimate judge.
This situation applies inside the church as well as outside it. The church is a mixed body, a corpus permixtum that will inevitably include both true and false Christians. There is no place where we can escape sinners. Purity is an object of hope, not reality. We are not called to judge other people’s hearts, but to entrust judgment to Christ.
Second, contact with sinners does not communicate sin. For Augustine, sin is congenital but not contagious. It is passed down from generation to generation according to the doctrine of original sin. But we cannot “catch” guilt by participating in impure communities. On the night that Jesus was betrayed, he broke bread with Judas Iscariot. The inauguration of the Eucharist, the chief sign of Christian unity, thus embraced the archetypal traitor of Christian history. No one else was tainted by participation in this celebration. Jesus certainly was not, and neither were the other disciples. What corrupts us is not our fellowship with sinners, whether known or hidden, but our direct complicity in wrongdoing.
The church is a mixed body, a corpus permixtum that will inevitably include both true and false Christians.
Third, division reflects hypocrisy and pride. Augustine criticizes the Donatists’ fixation on traditio. He agrees that traditio was a sin, but he does not believe it is the only sin that matters. The Donatists boast about their purity from traditio, but they permit all sorts of drunkenness, greed, and sexual immorality in their fellowship, including a violent fringe group that attacks Catholic priests with clubs and acid. Donatist obsession with traditio is narrow-minded and inconsistent.
The Donatists embodied what we might call Litmus Test Christianity. Litmus Test Christianity asserts the sufficiency of one measure for determining holiness. If you have not committed some sin, you are pure. If you have committed it, you are not pure. Litmus Test Christianity sees righteousness as a binary switch and is definitionally legalistic. Holiness no longer requires hard-earned virtues like love, patience, and humility, qualities that demand time and perseverance and the accountabilities of true community. We can fast-track our way to perfection with an up-down lever. Litmus tests are a tool for the self-righteous to set themselves above others and an indicator of spiritual arrogance. They repudiate the grace by which all sinners need to be transformed.
This analysis elucidates contemporary patterns of political reasoning. For all their legitimate concerns, single-issue voters substitute textured social analysis for reductionist dogmatism. They ask, “How can you vote for a party that tolerates X?” without explaining their vote for a party that tolerates Y. But purity cannot be defined by one issue, nor will it be found in half of a two-party system.
Fourth, division violates love. Augustine appeals frequently against the Donatists to 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul writes, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (NRSV). Great displays of power, knowledge, and self-sacrifice, even for the sake of the poor, count for nothing without love. Those who attack ideological errors with a hateful spirit sin just as badly as those who offended in the first place. Truth without love is worse than falsehood itself. As Paul continues, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
Augustine presumes visible and spiritual unity go hand in hand. Most church splits do not result in the dividing leaders committing to coffee every Monday morning. Visible division is caused by—and causes—spiritual division. You cannot claim to love another person if you refuse to be in fellowship with them. Augustine had no concept of a spiritual unity divorced from institutional communion.
Fifth, division begets division. The Donatists claimed to be the one true church, but they were riven by their own divisions. Augustine’s favourite example was a group called the Maximianists, which broke from the Donatists over another dispute concerning the bishop of Carthage. This division established three claimants for the same office.
For Augustine, the Maximianists were a faction of a faction, a splinter off the Donatists, who were a splinter off the Catholics. Yet they inadvertently exposed the Donatists’ inconsistency. When Catholics converted to Donatism, the Donatists required them to be rebaptized on the grounds that Catholics could not be Christian. Yet the Donatists did not require rebaptism of the Maximianists, and they even allowed some of Maximian’s consecrators to retain their ordination. Despite the Donatists’ profession of purity against the Catholics, they compromised for their own schismatics, granting the Maximianists what they refused to grant Catholics.
Each time a group breaks off, it sets the stage for another group to do the same. Every new group becomes smaller and more narrowly defined, yet each alleges to be the repository of God’s grace in the world. How tiny can a group get before it reaches the point of absurdity? Is God’s kingdom, which Jesus promised would reach all nations, confined to some idiosyncratic network of churches with rigidly identical beliefs and practices? Or are these groups actually sects, the institutional expression of hatred and pride?
Sixth, our holiness derives from the grace of Christ and his Spirit. Donatist authors claimed that the power of baptism was located in the holiness of the human minister. If the person who performed your baptism was morally compromised, your baptism did not count. Augustine located the power of baptism in the office of the minister and not his character. Our holiness does not come from an ordinary human but from Jesus Christ, who is the head, the root, and the origin of our baptism. To rest your baptism on a human is to trust in a human over Christ, and, in the words of Jeremiah, “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals.” It is Christ and the Spirit who confer mercy to sinners, regardless of the mediating agent. The grace of God is the ultimate reason we are not tainted by associations.
At first glance, the contemporary relevance of Augustine’s arguments against the Donatists seems straightforward. Augustine teaches us the centrality of grace, even toward ideological opponents. We should resist judging others, leaving ultimate judgment to Christ, and not make assumptions about others on the basis of their associations. We should also remain in fellowship with the morally objectionable as an exercise in patience, humility, and love. By doing so, we may win over our enemies, and they may win us over in return. All of this would immediately improve our political climate, steeped as it is in hatred, suspicion, shame, and recrimination.
Yet Augustine’s position also raises two challenging questions. The first is whether unity compromises our moral standards. Aren’t some offences so egregious as to require discipline and division? To be clear, Augustine does not believe fellowship with sinners means approving their sins. Jeremiah retained his identity as an Israelite even as he called destruction on the Israelites for their idolatry and oppression of the poor. Augustine urges Christians to hold together two competing impulses. We should challenge others’ sins when our efforts have some possibility for success. Yet we should also remain in fellowship with those we correct.
Still, Augustine draws lines for severe violations of belief and practice. He refutes positions he considers heretical, and he maintains a system of penitential discipline that includes excommunication. Those under penance for the most serious offences could not participate in the Eucharist until they had completed a period of repentance. A second offence would permanently exclude them from eucharistic fellowship. You could only be restored from excommunication once, though Augustine hopes that those who have been banned for life might receive mercy after death.
The question is where to draw these lines, and Augustine offers no easy answers. His (unfinished) work on heresy is a scattered mess. It slaps the offending label on all kinds of groups, from the Donatists to idiosyncratic sects to groups that do not seem heretical at all. One group forbade sexual intercourse and predictably died out. Another group prayed continuously rather than seven times a day. Augustine provides no explanation as to why these groups are heretical. Indeed, he does not define heresy at all. In the introduction to On Heresies, Augustine says that defining heresy is very difficult, maybe impossible, but that he will attempt the task as the work proceeds. He died before he could try.
The same ambiguities arise concerning excommunicable and non-excommunicable sins. At various points, Augustine draws a boundary around three offences: idolatry, murder, and fornication. In other writings, he expands the set for the vices listed in Paul’s Letters. But Paul names many sins that we would not typically consider scandalous: gossip, jealousy, selfish ambition, and disobedience against parents, among others (Romans 1:29–30; Galatians 5:20). If everyone who struggled with these sins were excluded from church life, Sunday attendance would be very low indeed.
Ultimately, Augustine recognizes no bright line between tolerable and intolerable offences. Each case must be assessed holistically, accounting for situational factors, the nature of the offence, the character of the offender, and the consequences of the violation. Decisions should be communal, as the bishop consults other bishops and the community of the faithful. We will sometimes make the wrong call, and circumstances may keep us from making the right one. For instance, disciplining an offending parishioner could split the congregation. In these situations, we should choose mercy, entrust the matter to God, and endure the unfaithful, remembering again that Jesus preserves the wheat among the tares.
There is wisdom here for our present age. We can acknowledge the seriousness of certain offences without imposing a template on every situation. The complexities of political life require collective discernment, discretionary decisions, and unlikely cooperations. Fuzzy lines are a necessity for community in the face of disagreement and moral failure.
Challenge from the Margins
A second, tougher challenge concerns the marginalized, who bear special burdens in corrupt communities. I was first pressed on this issue by an African American female student who worked closely with survivors of sexual assault. After I completed a lecture on Augustine’s anti-Donatist teachings, she raised her hand and asked, “Does this mean vulnerable people can never leave abusive situations?” I answered no, but I stumbled over my response. And I continue to wrestle with how easily Augustine’s writings could be exploited to legitimate oppression.
A related debate has played out in the academy. In an important recent volume, John Bowlin has defined tolerance as a virtue concerning the patient endurance of objectionable difference. Tolerance corresponds to a particular kind of offence. Some offences are so serious that they must be contested; other apparent offences prove not to be objectionable. Still other offences occupy a middle ground: they are problematic but not so abhorrent as to demand an aggressive response. This third category of offence is the appropriate object of tolerance. Human conflict is inevitable, and we cannot dissociate every time we disagree. We should also acknowledge that others have the right—within limits—to do things we do not appreciate. Tolerance preserves social peace and respects the autonomy of the offender. Unless we endure each other’s offences to some extent, human society ceases to be a possibility.
Bowlin’s work has been challenged by minority scholars for treating tolerance as a virtue of the privileged. Those with authority seem to dictate the boundaries of toleration such that even when they tolerate the marginalized, they underwrite their power to do so. As the powerful tolerate the powerless, they fancy themselves magnanimous instead of interrogating their privilege to tolerate others in the first place. If we are to conceive of toleration as a virtue, we should do so from the perspective of the marginalized, whose endurance of objectionable difference is not a matter of choice but of coercion. Sometimes they endure because they have no other options.
On the one side, it seems, are the “tolerance people” who stress the importance of unity and the common good. They remind us that politics bears only on temporal affairs and is thus of penultimate importance. Christians can avoid absolutizing our political positions because politics does not deal with absolute concerns. On the flip side are the “justice people” who see these arguments as a reflection of power. Promises of heavenly reward were a trick that slave masters used to dissuade slaves from rebelling. Rhetoric about the common good delegitimates the grievances of marginalized communities. The things of this world may be temporary, but they still matter. The tolerance people do not take injustices seriously because they do not suffer them.
In situations of abusive power, the marginalized bear an impossible burden. During the eras of slavery and Jim Crow, black Christians rejected “fellowship” with their racist oppressors by forming the historic black denominations. They testified to the limits of tolerance, but they were not the source of division. That responsibility lay with the oppressive class. The same challenges remain today. Should immigrant populations respond to xenophobia and the threat of deportation with patient endurance? Should black communities respond to police brutality by calmly explaining systemic racism to those who deny it? Where is the line between divisive rhetoric and righteous anger?
These are serious questions to which I do not have settled answers. But I am not convinced that they are as insuperable as they appear. And I derive my convictions from the community my family and I call home. For about a decade, my wife and I have lived and worshipped in Lawndale, a low-income African American neighborhood in Chicago with among the highest rates of poverty, violent crime, and incarceration in the city. In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. moved into our community to draw attention to housing inequities in the urban North. When he was assassinated, our community exploded in riots from which it has still not recovered. A few years ago, Lawndale was featured in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s celebrated essay on reparations as a case study in discriminatory housing practices and their resultant inequities.
I commute daily between Lawndale and Wheaton, which is only twenty-five miles away but feels like a different planet. As I cross into each world, I am regularly struck by the disparities of experience and perspective between the two contexts. Yet I am even more impressed by how much the communities share in common. People in the inner city want the same things as people in the suburbs: a safe neighbourhood, gainful employment, good schools, meaningful relationships, parks and libraries, and healthy activities to nurture their children. Lawndale and Wheaton are also profoundly spiritual, dense with the most inspirational Christians I have ever met. In Lawndale, my family is surrounded by friends who have survived poverty, addiction, and incarceration with supernatural faith and resilience. At Wheaton, there are people like Sharon Coolidge and Norm Ewert, who have for over thirty years hosted a weekly “Mennonite Dinner” with fifty college students to discuss Christians’ responsibility to the least of these. Each meal that I have attended has felt like a miracle.
Our church welcomes the suburbanites who visit with an interest in the inner city. Yet they are wary of a recurring pattern where Christians of privilege drop into our neighbourhood, do some service project to “help” us, and congratulate themselves on their way back home. In a community where so many of the men are professional contractors, it has always perplexed me why these outsiders assume they could do a better job painting one of our rooms. The interaction is different when I have brought Lawndale residents to Wheaton to address students preparing for an urban summer program. My church friends appreciate the chance to get out of the city and speak with young people. My students are rapt with attention as they realize how much they have to learn from those of different backgrounds.
My time in the Lawndale and Wheaton communities has persuaded me that fellowship between the rich and the poor is possible but that it must be established on the right terms. The rich and the poor need each other. The poor cannot flourish without material resources to which the rich have access. Yet the rich must learn that material resources are not the ultimate source of happiness and value. This is a lesson they can receive from the poor. From this perspective, the marginalized do not reject Christian unity but they expose the work required to actualize it. Christians of privilege cannot expect the marginalized to remain in their communities if they are unwilling to forsake their participation in oppressive structures. Unity begins with equity, which requires a preferential option for the poor. There is a reason Gustavo Gutiérrez describes this option in terms of conversion, and Jesus says it is harder than a camel entering the eye of a needle. To enter solidarity with the disadvantaged, wealthy Christians must break from their class and die to earthly goods. “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
In After Whiteness, Willie Jennings offers this passage from Luke 5 as an image for Christian unity: “Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God. . . .” It is a loud and unruly scene, onlookers jostling for Jesus’s attention and help. We can imagine Pharisees and Sadducees mixed in with the sex workers, the insurrectionists, the tax collectors, the orphans, the magistrates, and the widows—none of whom wanted anything to do with the other, yet each impelled toward Jesus, fastening on his words. They have not yet become disciples, but Jesus is already joining them with strangers.
In seasons of division, this is an uncomfortable, even offensive prospect. We prefer the comfort of tribe over the agonism of forgiveness. Our causes appear too righteous for compromise. Yet the principles of grace extend to our present age no less than to ancient times. We are to endure sinners as God has endured us. We can do so by the power of Christ, who has liberated us to love our enemies. And as we try, we may learn something about humility and the mysteries of Christian mercy. For it is the delight of divine love to reconcile adversaries—Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, God and the ungodly—often to our own surprise.