Donatus was the bishop of Casae Nigrae. He taught that the degree of effect in conducting the sacraments of the Catholic Church depended upon the Holiness of the the one ministering. Men who lived lives of immorality were considered unable to effectively minister the sacraments, requiring the one being ministered, to investigate in advance, the moral character of the man ministering before them.
Under Emperor Diocletian in 303, Donatism arose because of his persecution of those who believed in Jesus Christ. Seeking the total annihilation of the Christian religion, Diocletian ordered the burning of their scriptures and destruction of their meeting places.
In order to trap believers, the Emperor ordered the global worship of Roman gods by lighting incense and presenting it to these gods. Knowing that true believers would not worship the Gods of the Romans, those who were trusting in Jesus refused to bow before the Roman gods. As a result, many were placed on stakes along the Roman roads, covered in wax, and burned as living and dying candles to light the way.
During the consecration of bishop Caecilian of Carthage in 311 A. D., one of three bishops, Felix, bishop of Aptunga, gave copies of the Bible to the Roman soldiers. As a result of this, seventy bishops formed an assembly and declared the consecration of bishop Caecilian, invalid.
Later, many debates began regarding the validity sacraments by a man who had sinned like Felix who dared to give God’s Holy word to a Roman soldier.
After the death of Bishop Caecilian, Aelius Donatus was appointed bishop of Carthage; and later formed the movement called the Donatists. They began to rebaptize Catholics and created an uprising as this was seen as an attempt to usurp Catholic authority.
In 316, Emperor Constantine heard several issues before the ecumenical council in 316. One of these was the consecration of bishop Caecilian as to whether or not he was worthy to hold this time for his past errors. By 350 A.D., the Donatists gaining many converts, they outnumbered the Orthodox church in Africa.
Eventually it was the apologetic by Augustine that caused the end of the Donatist movement.
The error of Donatism is seen in their basic argument that a person who is struggling with sin cannot be prohibited from participating in baptism or the Lord’s supper, since all people are sinners. The fact that people are sinners before they come has not bearing on the Lord’s desire for them to participate in baptism or communion if they are coming in sincere faith. If we were to use the basis of a Holy life as a requirement for anyone to participate in the church, no once could qualify.
It is the worthiness of Jesus death and resurrection and those who are trusting in what He has done for them that is the power necessary to be acceptable.