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By Rachel Stella, Ascension Presents, Jan. 8, 2019
I was bemoaning my lack of access to the Eucharist when I first learned what Donatism was. In a discussion with friends online, I lamented how I could not, in good conscience, participate in communion with anyone I knew was persisting in sin (or at least what I thought was sin) without repentance.
Someone said that sounded like the ancient heresy of Donatism. Intrigued, I searched the term online and decided the Donatists were at least partially correct. In short, the Donatist heresy arose in the fourth century, proclaiming the sacraments facilitated by ministers who were in a state of mortal sin were invalid, and that Christians must be rebaptized into the “true” (Donatist) church where sin was better disciplined.
This made excellent sense to me at the time. After all, the Apostle Paul had written an instruction to not associate or eat with those who claimed to be Christians but refused to repent of their sin (1 Corinthians 5:9-13). If a church was full of such unrepentant people, and the leaders did not discipline them, the only thing a faithful Christian could do was to leave the church and join a better one (or start his own). To remain in a corrupt church would be to disobey the apostle’s instructions and therefore risk the loss of one’s own salvation.
And that was how I essentially excommunicated myself. I followed my conscience into neo-Donatism, and I wished I were dead.
Being Faithful to Scripture
I grew up as a “Bible Christian.” Unlike theologically liberal mainline Protestants, prosperity-gospel charismatics, and superstitious semi-pagan Catholics, we were the real Christians because we took the Bible seriously. But when I was twelve years old, I discovered there were Christians out there who seemed to take the Bible even more seriously than I had been taught to.
I began reading about conservative Mennonites, who seemed intent on taking New Testament instruction very literally. Jesus said remarriage after divorce was the same as adultery (Matthew 5:32), so that wasn’t allowed. Jesus said to not resist an evil person (Matthew 5:39) and to love and pray for enemies (Matthew 5:44), so participating in war wasn’t allowed. The Apostle Paul said women should cover their heads when praying or prophesying (1 Corinthians 11:2-16), so that was a requirement. And, of course, there was the aforementioned instruction from 1 Corinthians 5 to not associate with unrepentant sinners, so starting a new church was expected if there was no other good option. I was impressed at their willingness to respond with simple, literal obedience to even the most difficult teachings that, despite thinking of myself as a Bible Christian, I had never considered.
I mulled this over in the summer of 2001. The day after I turned thirteen was Sept. 11. I watched with dismay as it seemed Christians everywhere were reacting with anger and calls for retaliation. Did we or did we not really take the Bible seriously? If we were going to respond like unbelievers when times were hard, was our faith real? I tried to talk about what Jesus had said about praying for enemies and what the Apostle Paul had written about leaving vengeance to God (Romans 12:17-21), but no one seemed to listen. I didn’t stop believing in Jesus, but I had the jarring epiphany that many, perhaps most who claimed to be Bible Christians might not be as faithful to Scripture as they purported to be.
Anything but the Catholic Church
From then on, I dreamed of finding something closer to “true Christianity.” Checking out the Mennonites seemed like a good start, but they weren’t nearby (and I was too young to drive). So I waited as the years passed, feeling frustrated and hungry for this radical Christian discipleship that was noticeably different from the ways of the world.
After Barack Obama was elected president of the U.S. in 2008, I was just about fed up with conservative evangelicalism. Christians were comparing Obama to Rome’s Emperor Nero and “the antichrist.” I was bewildered. Even if these hyperbolic comparisons had merit, weren’t we supposed to be unafraid of death? Didn’t we claim a unity with Christ’s resurrection that made us invincible? Hadn’t the church outlasted past powers of darkness, and would we not again? For all their talk about being “biblical,” it seemed most of conservative evangelicalism was more interested in winning culture wars than in looking forward to the resurrection of the dead and life of the world to come. Where were the real Christians??? I wondered in exasperation.
The Catholic Church wasn’t on my radar. From early childhood I had heard about how Catholic state-churches tortured and burned religious dissenters who raised concerns about praying to statues and paying money to get into heaven and the inaccessibility of Scripture. All the Catholics I knew seemed biblically illiterate and treated their faith as an obligation to check off their to-do list. I figured it was an old, worn-out, hopelessly corrupt version of Christianity that had strayed from the Bible.
Trouble Getting on the Same Page
I did get a bit curious during a Christian college student retreat, when a staff member from a Catholic university facilitated a mealtime discussion on Catholic beliefs. I realized I had never actually talked to a Catholic person who knew what he was talking about, so I listened to what he had to say. The only thing I remember was that he clarified that Catholics don’t pray to saints in the same way we think of prayer to God, but rather ask for the saints’ intercession. “That’s weird,” I thought to myself, “but it’s not as weird as I thought.” I got the idea that there might be other “Catholic ideas” that weren’t as weird as I thought, but I didn’t think too hard about it at the time.
I spent the next decade exploring the contours of more socially-conscious evangelicalism and, later, the Mennonite world. I found a lot of inspiring ideas about how to live the Christian life, but also a lot of conflict and division over how to put biblical teaching into practice. The earliest Reformation-era confessions at the root of the Mennonite tradition strongly emphasized the necessity of a church of genuine believers (who made their own choice to be baptized into the church) and followers of Christ’s teaching, calling for separation from (and excommunication of) anyone who was not of like faith and practice.
From here I was inspired to strongly hold the position that I couldn’t participate in communion with anyone who was committing — with no intent to repent — an act I thought (based on my understanding of Scripture) was sin. It wasn’t exactly the same as Donatism, which focused on the righteousness of the officiating clergy. In some ways my thinking went far beyond that, extending the responsibility to each participating layperson (after all, there was very little distinction between clergy and laity in the Mennonite tradition) to be assured that all his or her participating brothers and sisters were united and on the same page.
A Glimmer of Hope
While all this seemed like the biblical ideal, in reality it led to endless schisms, as each person had slightly different ideas of what actions might constitute immorality. Churches would split over such tiny things as variations in clothing styles, or whether or not to make use of certain technological advances such as automobiles, radios, TV, or the internet. The emphasis on having a visibly unified and recognizable expression of shared faith led to a vast spectrum of congregations and associations of congregations with varying rules and requirements — somewhat like a multitude of religious orders, but most not sharing communion with each other!
I was overjoyed to discover the little church I eventually became a part of — definitely on the modern liberal side of the Mennonite tradition (we didn’t have a dress code or rules micromanaging details of our lives),—was seeking to live out Christian ideals such as sharing our possessions (we jointly owned our property), refusing to participate in war or other violence, and renewing our little corner of the earth by using natural farming methods. We took inspiration from the New Testament, Mennonite values, Benedictine and Franciscan spirituality, and the Catholic Worker Movement, and the result was a scrappy little intentional community with early-church vibes that I really liked. Though we weren’t perfect, I thought we were a lot more balanced and ideal than anything else I had ever seen.
However, my church ended up dissolving shortly after I joined it. I was devastated, wondering how I could ever find anything like that again. That’s when a former coworker invited me to join him and his wife at the Easter Vigil service in 2017. I figured I might as well see what it was all about.
According to My Interpretation
Of course, what I heard was the exact same gospel I already believed — from the Bible! In fact, I was impressed by how much Scripture I heard. After that, I deemed the Catholic Church as orthodox, according to me! Sure, it had some weird unbiblical stuff, I thought, but so did most other churches, in my opinion. I laugh so much now at how I thought back then. I had no concept of an authoritative church that determined orthodoxy; rather, it was my interpretation of Scripture that granted (or withheld) my personal seal of orthodox approval to any creed, confession, or catechism. It was my job to continually be improving my knowledge of Scripture so I could effectively use citations thereof to evaluate all statements of faith. I would shop for churches by reading their statements of faith on their websites, and if I saw anything I deemed erroneous according to my interpretation of the Bible, I’d cross it off my list of places to visit.
It’s crazy to me now how I was able to function like this (honestly, I wasn’t functioning very well at all), but at the time it was the only way I knew how to operate.
Take Me to Heaven
Throughout 2017, I became more and more ill as a chronic digestive condition I’d put off dealing with was finally overtaking me. When my church dissolved, my house was put up for sale. I made the decision to move back home with my parents that July.
By this time, I had developed an affinity for the Early Church, and I had a vague belief in some form of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. I felt desperate to have a church home so I could access that. I visited a few churches, but by August, I realized I was slowly dying of starvation. Eating food became more and more traumatic, and my appetite shut down. I lost so much weight that I could hardly function. I could feel my mind becoming duller and slower, so I stopped driving, making it impossible to go anywhere.
I despaired of ever finding a church my conscience felt right about fully participating in, even if I wasn’t sick. And if I couldn’t have the Eucharist, life wasn’t worth living. My only hope was that God would recognize I had done the very best I could and take me to heaven.
Steps Toward the Ancient Church
In late September, I went into the hospital at 84 pounds to have surgery. I hoped I would enter the operating room and go right to heaven from there. Instead, I awoke on the afternoon of September 27, 2017 in the same place, with a giant wound in my belly, a racing heart rate, and a discouraged spirit. Now what?
I would spend more than a week there. As the days passed, I was able to move, to sit, to walk, to drink, and finally to eat again. I somehow started looking at Catholic posts on Instagram during that time, and they encouraged me. It was my first ongoing exposure to Catholics who took their faith seriously and presented it winsomely online. Now that I was on the journey toward health, I started thinking about the future, and how I needed to get my church-homelessness remedied in order for anything else to be worthwhile.
I came home on October 7, but I spent the next several weeks regaining my weight and getting my full health back. I bounced around a few different churches and often found myself driving to a nearby Poor Clares monastery during the week. I hardly knew what I was doing sometimes. I was looking for something real, something that connected me to the ancient Church.
A Consistent Ethic and Celibacy
It seemed that everywhere around me, others who grew up evangelical post-9/11 were all looking to the Church’s first three centuries for inspiration for evangelism, witness, service, and even liturgy. More and more of us were tired of the semi-Christian narratives pushed by the socio-political right and left; we wanted premium Christianity that transcended culture wars and spread the fragrant aroma of Christ. As I kept observing this encouraging phenomenon, I also kept investigating the Catholic Faith. I slowly realized that many non-Catholic Christians were trying to reinvent a lot of Christian practice while sidestepping the traditions preserved for us by the Catholic Church.
For example, there were endless debates about how best to articulate a socially conscious consistent ethic of life, what issues to prioritize, how best to engage politically and to what extent we should even do so. I remember thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if the entire global Church had a unified social conscience with a consistent ethic of life that transcends these political divides?” I sheepishly remembered the Catholic Church had something like that, but I also knew a lot of Catholics didn’t hold to that and ended up taking one or the other side of the political aisle like most evangelicals.
Another issue that concerned me was the utter lack of tangible support in evangelical circles for celibate life. Getting married and having children was seen as the only way to be worthy of celebration. Celibacy was expected for the unmarried, but it was seen as this undesirable situation to be remedied as soon as possible rather than a good and beautiful and frequent call worthy of voluntarily considering and celebrating. Single Christians commonly talked of feeling marginalized, invisible, second-class. More and more discussions popped up about what alternatives to traditional family life could be explored to provide Christian community for unmarried Christians. “Can’t we have some kind of religious communities like Catholics have?” I wondered. I tried to get various friends interested in the idea, but almost no one wanted to entertain the idea of committed celibacy for life.
The more I looked at the Catholic Church, the more I saw the synthesis of things I couldn’t find synthesized in the wide realm of evangelicalism: orthodoxy, morality, a consistent ethic of life, an esteem for celibacy, reverent liturgy, and a connection to our ancient brothers and sisters. I had thought I would have to start my own church to have all of these things at once!
Of course, I had my concerns. Chief among them was (and still is) an apparent lack of emphasis (compared to what I’m used to) on the necessity of personal holiness as normative for the Christian life, and a corollary focus on meeting sacramental obligations. In other words, it seemed like as long as one followed the Church’s minimum requirements, striving for sainthood was optional. To me, it’s scandalous to call oneself a Christian if one isn’t trying to live out the teachings of Jesus and the apostles on a daily basis. In my former neo-Donatist way of thinking, “Christians in name only” would be removed from the Church as phonies!
A related and equally grave concern was (and still is) the history of the Church’s relationship to the state and the abuses of power that have spawned from it. From the beginning to the end of the fourth century, the Church underwent a dramatic shift from persecuted to persecutor due to its rapid growth that overtook the office of the emperor. This new social dominance was often egregiously misused throughout subsequent centuries in ways antithetical to the Christian gospel, marring the Church’s collective witness to this day.
A Much-Needed Shift in Perspective
I wanted a church with all the good things about the Catholic Faith and none of the things I thought were bad. I thought if I could just articulate the right vision and find the right people, I could make it happen. My concerns didn’t disappear. But this past spring and summer, my ecclesiology changed for three reasons:
First, I realized that numerous people before me had wanted the same thing — a better Church. Yet as noble and pure as their intentions might have been, none of their movements have, in fact, produced an overall better Church. I looked and looked for it until I was alone and miserable, and I finally had to acknowledge I couldn’t do a better job than the Holy Spirit did at Pentecost.
Second, I began to see the Church as a family rather than merely a voluntary association (although I believe it has elements of both). Many people are born into the family, but not all will live up to the name “Christian,” and several will, in fact, tarnish the name horribly. While this phenomenon is scandalous and should be continually opposed, it does not give us permission to abandon the Church and start another that is not in communion. This was a huge shift from my former neo-Donatist mindset, in which the pursuit of Christian perfection must be normative in order to be the true Church.
Why Donatism Doesn’t Work
A truer example of reform is modeled by many religious orders that seek greater Christian perfection while maintaining communion with the Church family and a posture of invitation to everyone to consider such holy lives for themselves. Where would the Church be if faithful religious orders decided to break communion in pursuit of purity? Those who seek righteousness and holiness are the witnesses the Church needs most! By remaining in communion with the “less perfect” members of the family, the “more perfect” members strengthen the faith of the Church as a whole.
Third, I began to question where else I could get the real Eucharist. Whatever that was, I wanted it more than anything. While I was wrestling with all the above thoughts, I had a conversation in May with a neo-Donatist-minded friend over the phone that was a turning point for me. He attended services at his church (not Catholic) but did not participate in the communion ritual due to St. Paul’s instruction to separate from those calling themselves Christians and continuing in sin, which I highlighted at the beginning of this story (1 Corinthians 5:9-13). I asked him how he was able to carry on emotionally and spiritually without access to communion. (I certainly wasn’t carrying on well, and I wanted to know how he managed it!) He said he served himself communion at home, and that I could, too!
What If I’m Not in the Right Church?
“No,” I said. “I can’t do that. I don’t think that’s right.”
“Why?” he asked. “Where in the Bible does it say we have to be assembled in a group to receive communion?”
I was momentarily stumped. I couldn’t produce a proof-text. I had to think deeper. And then I came right back to the same passage of Scripture.
“What is the point of excommunication if we can all go home and serve ourselves?” I asked.
“Hmm, that’s a good point,” my friend replied.
I could hardly believe the next words were cascading out of my mouth: “What if there’s a Church out there that actually has the authority to excommunicate and has guardianship over the Eucharist — and we’re not in it?“
“If that’s the case, that’s really scary!” he said.
Well, yes. That is scary. The point of St. Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 5 is not for each person to excommunicate himself (which was the application I had previously drawn from this teaching) — excommunication is a mechanism given to the Church precisely because the Church has guardianship over who receives the Eucharist.
While it’s by no means ideal, in theory I could receive communion alongside a hundred unrepentant sinners, but all their faults will not separate me from intimacy with Christ. My job is to live the holiest life I can, pray for continued spiritual growth throughout the Church, and let God sort out his people in the end.
I well understand the desire to flee and to form a “better” Church that roots out sin. But I also know that while sin clings to our humanity — which still awaits its full liberation (Romans 8) — we can’t have a completely pure Church no matter what we try. We can follow our Donatist impulses and believe we’ll find (or build) the true Church that will “get it right this time.” But I speak from experience: If you do this, you will be even more crushed than you might feel right now when there you find many of the same sins and faults you sought to avoid: abuse of power, sexual abuse, theft, immorality, manipulation, etc.
I started RCIA in September. I still have my concerns, but I’m here because schism is futile.