We now come to the Fourth Century. At the turn of the century, Diocletian was the Emperor of Rome. Diocletian's rule was one of extreme persecution directed towards Christians. I would recommend a reading of Martyr's Mirror to read of the heinous accounts of persecution ordered and allowed by Diocletian.
On February 24, 303 A.D. Diocletian began issuing edicts against the Christians. These edicts called for all Christian buildings to be pulled down, Bibles and Christian writings to be destroyed, and all civil and human rights to be taken away from Christians. Severe and indecent persecution followed.
It was about this time that a new emperor arose named Constantine. In A.D. 311 he fought a battle at the Milvian Bridge. He claims that he saw a flaming cross in the sky with the words "By this sign conquer." After winning this battle, he soon 'converted' and Christianity became the state religion. Constantine's 'conversion' was not a true conversion as he still waited until his death bed to be baptized to 'wash away all his sins.' Due to his edict of a now state religion, the churches became filled with unbelievers and sin. The 'church' became a political entity and pastors became politicians. A new 'Bible' was produced by Eusebius in Caesarea who used Origen's corrupt text. Baptisms teaching and administration was further changed. Baptismal regeneration was already being taught which led to a further digression of baptizing babies so they do not die in sin (Infant Baptism). Constantine's example also led to many delaying their baptism until right before death to wash away all their sins (Clinical Baptism). How great was the tragedy of just how far churches had corrupted and left the truth. But, while the world was corrupting, churches forsaking truth, and leaving Biblical doctrine; let it be said-the Dontatist Didn't.
We have seen that the Lord Jesus started the church with His disciples. The Apostles taught their doctrine and solid men obeyed the Lord in discipling others. The churches began to corrupt and change this doctrine, but thankfully there were churches like the Montanists and the Novations who upheld truth. Now, in this fourth century, it was the Dontatists who upheld Truth.
The Dontatists were named after a pastor Donatus in Carthage, North Africa. In the face of corruptness and the Constantine's edicts, the Donatists stood for Truth. They believed in a Scriptural Baptism. This doctrine was being attacked by the 'state' church further, yet they stood for truth. They demanded all those coming from the 'state' church (Catholic) to be re-baptized. They would only baptize believers, and it was always done by immersion (due to infant and clinical baptism-pouring was being introduced as a means of baptism). The term 'anabaptist' was used to describe the Dontatists as they rebaptized converts.
The Dontatists also stood for the separation of church and state. Despite the then 'state' church, Dontatists insisted that the state had no business forcing anyone to believe in any way. The sword was put into the hand of the 'church' and the free will of men and purity of the church was threatened. The Dontatists were even given an opportunity to plead before Constantine himself in 314 A.D. The Dontatist said to the emperor:
What has the emperor to do with the church? What have Christians to do with kings? What have bishops to do at court?
The Dontatists rejected the union of a state and church, condemned the paying of clergy with taxes, and the forcing and bribing of citizens to join the church.
The Dontatists therefore stood for the purity of the church in a time when corruption was filling it. Members of the church were expected to live visibly pure lives and those who refused were to be disciplined. Their churches could not and would not fellowship with corrupt churches as this would indeed corrupt them. Pastors were to be qualified so to protect the purity of the church.
We also note the Dontatists taught the independence of churches. There was not to be a hierarchy; and the only tie between true churches was love. The churches were to be independent of one another just as the Lord and His apostles taught.
Constantine, though 'converted', began persecuting the Dontatists and even put some to death. By the close of the century around 377, then emperor Gratian decreed that the Dontatists were to be deprived of their churches, prohibited from assembling, and suppressed. Yet, they grew and prospered. It is said of them at that time "There was scarcely a city or town in Africa in which there was not a Donatist church." The Lord promised the perpetuity of his churches and He keeps His promises.
We look at today's churches. We see New Evangelicalism, Catholics, denominations, and yes-Independent Baptists. We see churches corrupt, members immoral and wicked, a gross uneducation on the separation of church and state, unqualified men serving as pastors, immorality of church leaders rampant (go to abc.com and watch April 8's episode of 20/20), churches being corrupted by fellowshipping with corrupt churches in an ecumenical view point, a lack of church discipline, sin acceptance, fellowships and organizations destroying the autonomy of our churches...and we wonder what is wrong!
It is not easy to take a Biblical stand in the face of the world and persecution (most at this time by the 'religious' crowd-but state persecution probably to follow). It may not be the modern thing to do not to accept everyone and everything; but that does not excuse us as pastors, does not excuse our churches, does not excuse us as individuals for forsaking Truth! It doesn't matter if all the world says to compromise and forsake Truth-we shouldn't!
THE DONTATISTS DIDN'T!