Archive for the ‘United Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church’ Tag

Concerning Wheat, Tares, and Donatism, Part I   4 comments

Above:  Danish Lutheran Synods in the United States of America and Canada

Scanned by Kenneth Randolph Taylor


Another parable [Jesus] put before them, saying,

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.  So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also.  And the servants of the household came and said to him, “Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field?  How then has it weeds?”  He said to them, “An enemy has done this.”  The servants said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?”  But he said, “No; lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.  But both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”

–Matthew 13:24-30, Revised Standard Version–Second Catholic Edition (2002)


The Roman Emperor Diocletian (reigned 284-305) presided over an empire-wide persecution of Christians starting in 303.  He ordered the burning of Christian books and the destruction of churches.  The penalty for a clergyman (from 303) and a lay person (from 304) who resisted was the combination of incarceration and torture and, in some cases, execution.  The Dioceletian Persecution resulted in many martyrdoms.  That persecution ultimately ended because Constantine I “the Great” (reigned 306-337) won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 and issued the Edict of Milan the following year.  During that persecution, however, many professing Christians chose not to resist.  Traditors surrendered Bibles to the authorities, who burned those volumes.  Many of these traditors subsequently sought reconciliation with the Church, which consented, on condition that they were sincere and penitent.  This forgiving attitude met with the disapproval of rigorists, especially in northern Africa.

The trigger for the Donatist schism occurred in 311.  That year some rigorists opposed the consecration of Caecilian as the new Bishop of Carthage due to the fact that Felix of Aptunga, an erstwhile traditor, consecrated him.  Numidian bishops consecrated Majorinus as a rival bishop.  Soon Donatus, from whose name we derive the word “Donatism,” succeeded him.  The Donatist schism ended only when the Islamic conquest of northern Africa destroyed it centuries later.  Donatists understood themselves to be the true church, the assembly of the uncompromising and the holy.  They were self-righteous.  These rigorists, who identified themselves as pure, were not as pure as they thought they were.  They were, after all, only human.  These rigorists were much like the unforgiving elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Donatism (in the broad sense) predated the schism of 311.  It has also persisted to the present day.  It has been a factor in a host of ecclesiastical schisms, whether on the congregational or denominational level.  I have traced many denominational schisms, unions, and reunions as a hobby.  Along the way I have arrived at a few conclusions:

  1. Most mergers occur to the left.
  2. Most schisms occur to the right, usually in the name of maintaining a standard of purity, whether of orthodoxy, orthopraxy, or both.
  3. Whenever two or more denominations merge, two or more denominations frequently form.
  4. Regardless of how theologically conservative a denomination might be, there is probably at least one denomination to its right.  This might be the result of a schism.
  5. Schism frequently begets more schism.

The state Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark encompassed a range of theological factions in the 1800s.  Two of these were the Pietists and the Grundtvigians.  Pietists, who shunned “worldly amusements,” such as dancing, playing cards, and attending plays, emphasized separation from the world.  Grundtvigians, however, enjoyed “worldly amusements,” especially folk dancing, which scandalized their pietistic co-religionists.  Grundtvigians also differed from Pietists and agreed with Martin Luther that

Printed words are dead, spoken words are living.  On the printed page they are not so forcible as when uttered by the sound of man through his mouth.

Grundtvigians therefore argued that the Bible is not the Word of God (as opposed to the word of God) and that the living message of salvation contained in the Bible and reinforced in Holy Baptism and the Apostles’ Creed is instead that Word.

Although the Danish state church avoided all but minor schisms, the Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (1874-1962), renamed the American Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1953, was not as fortunate.  In 1894, after much controversy, pietists seceded and formed the Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America.  They quickly joined with another pietistic group, the Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church Association (1884-1896) in forming the United Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church (1896-1960), which dropped “Danish” from its name in 1946.  UDELC/UELC was strongly pietistic during much of its existence.  “Worldly amusements” were allegedly sinful for these “Sad Danes;” the folk dancing that was ubiquitious among the “Happy Danes” in the DELCA/AELC was absent in the  UDELC/UELC.

Enok Mortensen, author of the official retrospective account of the DELCA/AELC, made no excuses for pietism and Donatism:

The schism of 1894 must be seen against the background of a situation existing at that time.  The historian who weighs the evidence carefully and objectively does not doubt the good intentions of those who sought a “pure” church; he only questions their wisdom.  The Christian church is not a society of angels; in the words of the Lord of the church, it is a field of wheat and tares in which both must grow together until harvest.

–Enok Mortensen, The Danish Lutheran Church in America:  The History and Heritage of the American Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia, PA:  Board of Publication, Lutheran Church in America, 1967), page 121

Laying the issue of the identity of the Kingdom of Heaven (reverential circumlocution is a false argument, according to Jonathan Pennington) in the Gospel of Matthew aside for the purpose of this post, Mortensen’s tolerant theological position was commendable.  Likewise critical (in the best sense of that word) of pietism and Donatism was John M. Jensen, author of the corresponding volume about the UDELC/UELC:

The men who had written about the UELC in the past had generally been uncritical.  They simply glorified the pioneers and placed a halo about their heads and their works.  That was especially the case concerning the men of the Danish period.  This tended to color all writing about the church in the church papers.

It has been my purpose to be as realistic as possible.  While I have written about the accomplishments of the men, I have ever hesitated to point out weaknesses wherever I found the.  This, it seems to me, must be the prerogative of a historian.  Otherwise the history will be distorted.

–John M. Jensen, The United Evangelical Lutheran Church:  An Interpretation (Minneapolis, MN:  Augsburg Publishing House, 1964), pages v-vi


In the earlier years of the church, it was not so much in the later years, there was a sharp distinction between the saved and the unsaved, between the believer and the unbeliever.  This may have been both a strength and a weakness, but it was what furnished the motivation for the preaching and the work, for maintaining the school, and for sending out missionaries.  There were places where the spirit built up strong congregations, but there were also places where pietism became so legalistic that the congregations could not grow.  An example of this legalism was the constant preaching by some pastors that the members should be sure not to eat and drink themselves to damnation in Holy Communion.  An overly legalistic attitude sometimes became a barrier to sound evangelism.

–Jensen, page 234

To speak or write about Donatism in the past, especially in denominations that have merged themselves away (as the two Danish synods did in the early 1960s), is relatively easy.  Likewise, speaking and writing harshly of the self-righteousness of Donatists (in the narrow definition) who died thousands of years ago is a low-risk proposition.  However, Donatists (in the broad definition) exist among us.  Some of the readers of this post might even be Donatists.  Thus labeling contemporary Donatism becomes politically fraught.  Without naming any congregations or denominations in this post I assert that you, O reader, can probably find concrete evidence of Donatism in your community.

To return to the parable at the beginning of this post, I assert the following also.  Anyone who fancies oneself to be wheat and certain others to be tares might be correct.  Or one might be mistaken; one might be a tare or others might be wheat.  Only God knows for sure.  One should not presume to know more than one does.  One should also leave all weeding to God.  Collegiality is superior to Donatism.  If collegiality is not a feasible option, simply refraining from imagining that one is purer than one actually is will suffice.