The seriousness of becoming a Christian in the ancient church

I am the sort of person who is attracted to high ideals, although I am far too spiritually lazy to live up to most of them. Hence my ongoing appetite for monks and friars, for ascetics and mystics, for academic standards of publishing. I am always struck by the seriousness of becoming a Christian in the ancient church, as in the Apostolic Tradition attributed by some moderns to St Hippolytus.

In ancient Christianity, a person who is interested in becoming a Christian but not yet baptised is a ‘catechumen’. In the Apostolic Tradition, catechumens are expected to spend three years in preparation for their baptism (it is not the only text to do so; some ancient works on church discipline call for only three months) — during this time, they attend lectures about the Christian faith and are present at the liturgy on Sundays, but do not receive the consecrated elements.

At the end of this time, they are exorcised on multiple occasions, fast, and then spent the whole night before they are baptised ‘in vigil, hearing readings and receiving instruction’ (ch. 20.10, trans. Stewart-Sykes). Then, at cock-crow, the baptismal rite begins.

I am stirred by this idea of the ancient catechumenate. Consider the poor results of conversionism — people come to a church event or rally or ‘crusade’, or they sit with a friend or a random stranger who ‘shares the Gospel’, and then the pray ‘the sinner’s prayer’. After that, they are expected to tithe and come regularly to potlucks. (I’m not that cynical, really…)

But shouldn’t people weigh the cost of discipleship? Shouldn’t they be placed upon the pathway of spiritual growth?

I figure our churches should have as two main areas of focus:

  1. Worship God (‘glorify God and enjoy Him forever)
  2. Make disciples (both through conversion and spiritual growth)

The ancient catechumenate was part of focus #2, and everyone involved in it was also involved in focus #1.

When I mention things like this, suddenly people get edgy. If we make full involvement in the sacramental fellowship something that requires commitment, something arduous, something big and worthy, won’t people be driven away? I mean, if they’re into Jesus, won’t they just slip away to the nearest megachurch instead?

Maybe. But is easy-ism worth it? Butts in pews are not necessarily disciples.

How can we rearrange what we do as witnessing and worshipping communities both to evangelise and to help new disciples grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ? Some sort of adapted catechumenate might be part of the answer.

7 thoughts on “The seriousness of becoming a Christian in the ancient church

  1. Reblogged this on On The Ruin Of Britain and commented:
    This post echoes a lot of my own thoughts on subject of how to disciple new Christians in advance of baptism. It’s inspired by Hippolytus of Rome’s Apostolic Constitutions but I couldn’t help but think of Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures who sound very similar on this subject.

  2. My initial thought was, what about the Biblical command to “believe and be baptised”? But then I nuanced that thought with the consideration that Peter was addressing Jews, prostlyites (sic) to Judaism and God fearers- people who will have known that to believe God is to have that belief credited to them as righteousness. All Peter needed to do was to explain that Christ is the means by which our belief may be credited to us as righteousness. With pagans, there’s a lot more groundwork required to catechise them in the faith in which we believe.

    I remember in my home church, having believed aged eight being frustrated that I had to wait til twelve to be baptised (although I didn’t mind doing simple baptismal classes). Looking back, I’m rather more philosophical about it.

    Thanks for the post! 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment! I think the context you have pointed out is really important, and hopefully churches can take it into account in an increasingly pagan society.

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