The ancient church had no “membership” like modern denominations have, but it did have a process of taking candidates into the church and members in the church and catechumens knew who was who. It may be helpful to outline the process for a person to become a fully functioning “member” of the church at Augustine’s time—about 400AD as a mean of examining our own process of receiving members and preparing them for baptism. The membership methods of the North African Christian churches Augustine led provide a handy platform for discussing membership today (and provide arguments for both those who wish to “raise” or “lower” membership standards, so it is an excellent platform to discuss membership matters).
STAGE ONE: Examination and initial rites
This initial stage involved a four step process.
1. Interview by a “catechist.” A catechist was a gatekeeper of sorts and the first person processing someone interested in joining the church. The interview asked why the person wanted to be a Christian and be baptized. Was it because of another Christian or a dream they had? Had they experienced a miracle or healing or was it because of Christian literature they’d read? The question was not intended keep people with mixed motives but for clarification. Augustine argued that the catechist should presume the best and trust that the grace of God will use the catechist to turn a feigned “conversion” or a “conversion” for improper motives into a real one.
2. Introduction to Christianity in a single well crafted speech The second step was hearing the Christian narrative from Old and New Testaments in a prepared speech that closed with an exhortation about last judgment, resurrection of the body, and warning about the “chaff” in the Church. The warning about the “chaff” in the church was to encourage the prospective member look for the wheat in the congregation, but not be discouraged by those in the church who were not living full Christian lives. Augustine compared this speech to the idea of one friend taking another friend through a tour of a beautiful country.
3. Accepting the basic Christian Narrative. After the narrative speech the person was asked directly if they accepted this basic Christian message.
4. Initial rites: sign of the cross, laying on hands, & salt. If the person accepted the basic Christian message they experienced the initial three rites—the sign of the cross on their forehead, a laying on of hands, and a taste of salt on the tongue. By this rite, they were now Christians and counted as “catechumen members” of the Church. Augustine taught that Baptism gave new birth, but this initial rite signaled a person’s conception in the Church’s womb.
STAGE TWO: “Catechumen”
1. Multi-year “Apprenticeship” in Christian Living
Once the person had receives the initial rites they entered a 2-3 year apprenticeship in Christian living before they could apply for baptism and they were considered a “catechumen.” While initial rites had cared for belief matters, this process addressed lifestyle. Augustine put it thus: “What is all that time for, during which they hold the name and place of catechumens, except to hear what the faith and pattern of Christian life should be?” The catechumen needed both instruction in Christian living and time to implement the lifestyle of the Christian. So, where did they get this instruction?
2. Attending church
One might assume that there were special “catechism classes” for the catechumens at this time but that is not so. The “classes” were the regular “Services of the Divine Liturgy.” They joined with the regular congregation for worship, heard and pondered the Scriptures as read, sang hymns and listened to sermons. However this was more than “come to Sunday worship a couple years” in Augustine’s day—the Service of the Divine Liturgy occurred four times a week or more—they expected serious commitment for a couple years. During these several years the catechumens only stayed for the first part of worship—all catechumens were dismissed soon after the sermon and before the Eucharist. The liturgy of the Eucharist was kept a part of the “secret” second part of worship and reserved only for baptized Christians. At every service all attendees know who was not yet a full member of the church—they left before the Eucharist.
This exclusivist practice seems repugnant to modern equalitarian Christians but it was the practice of the ancient church—not just by Augustine but across the ancient church. But it was not without its own problems then either. Many catechumens never proceeded beyond this step. They continued in the catechumen stage for years or even to near the end of their life. Some wanted to avoid the rigorous penitential discipline that was next required, and some simply wanted to “sow more wild oats” before taking the final plunge. Augustine acknowledged that many catechumens lived at a lower standard, but his conventional wisdom was: “Leave him alone, let him do it; he is not yet baptized.” Apparently it did not frustrate Augustine that so many had taken the first steps of faith but refused to “go on” and become fully devoted to full membership.
STAGE THREE “Petitioner for Baptism”
The third stage began when a catechumen, after having been a faithful catechumen for several years wanted to become a full member of the church. The catechumen was urged to apply for baptism. Usually before the season of Lent, Augustine would rally all his catechumens and exhort them to apply for baptism. While the initial rites was considered a “conception” into the church’s womb of sorts the third stage was seen as giving birth
1. Rigorous Training—40 days of Lent
For those prepared to go on into full membership (called “petitioners”) the 40 days of Lent were a time of severe preparation beginning on what we call “ash Wednesday.” Each petitioner was expected to fast each day until 3:00 PM, to abstain from all meat and wine; they did not bathe and, if married they abstained completely from sex for the entire Lenten period. They were expected to attend all-night prayer vigils and they gave alms to the poor and attended daily instruction which lasted several hours at a time.
2. Handing Over of the Creed—two weeks before Easter
Two weeks before Easter, Augustine would recite the creed “handing it over to the petitioner” and he gave a sermon explaining and expounding each of its phrases (we have these sermons). Over the next week, the petitioners were expected (with the help of others) to completely memorize it. One week later Augustine would test each petitioner next “giving” them the Lord ’s Prayer.
3. Exorcism—eight days before Easter
Usually eight days before Easter, the petitioners spent the entire night praying and singing psalms together. Then one by one they would be led before the assembled faithful. An exorcist came forward and invoked the name of Christ, cursed the Devil, and then breathed on the petitioner so “the hostile power of the devil might be knocked out of them.”
4. Breaking Fast and Bathing—Holy Thursday
On what we now call “Maundy Thursday” the petitioner broke their fast and bathed the first time since beginning the intense process of moving toward baptism.
5 Handing Back the Creed—Holy Saturday
On Holy Saturday the petitioners stood before the assembled faithful and recited the creed from memory. After this, Augustine delivered a sermon on baptism. There would be prayer and worship especially focused on anticipating the resurrection of Christ.
6. Baptism, Chrismation, and Eucharist—Easter Sunday
Early Easter morning the petitioner would receive a white baptism robe and be baptized among the faithful, then they would receive the “chrismation” (anointing with oil signifying the sealing of the Holy Spirit) and finally (after several years) they would be able to take their first communion—the Eucharist at the Easter service.
7. Follow up Instruction
The entire following week would be spent in further instruction, helping the newly baptized person understand more fully the events, rituals and symbols of baptism and Eucharist.
Following this rigorous multi-year process the catechumen became a fully received member of the church. He or she could now participate fully in the church including staying for the second part of regular worship where the Eucharist was served.
The process sounds made up to modern church members. We say, “well, who would even join the church if it took that much to get fully in?” We are astonished that they would exclude people from even watching the Lord’s Supper take place. We can’t imagine anyone would consider joining the church could be so important as to suffer this process. But this is how it happened in Augustine’s time.
Of course Augustine’s membership training methods are not inspired any more than Rick Warren’s or Joel Osteen’s methods. But they are methods of the ancient church and do give us a platform to talk about membership methods today. What issues does it raise for you?
So what do you think?
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By Chris Bounds and Keith Drury November 21, 2006
Chris Bounds is Associate Professor in Theology at Indiana Wesleyan University where he teaches theology courses.
Keith Drury is Associate Professor of Religion at Indiana Wesleyan University where he teaches practical ministry.
SOURCES: Augustine’s The First Catechetical Instruction, T.M. Finn’s Early Christian Baptism and the Catechumenate: Italy, North Africa, and Egypt - Message of the Fathers 6- (Collegeville, Minn.:Liturgical Press, 1992), T.M. Finn’s “It happened One Saturday Night: Ritual and Conversion in Augustine’s North Africa,” in Journal of the American Academy of Religion 58(1990): 589-616, and William Harmless’ Augustine and the Catechumenate (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1995).
ART: Gozzoli’s Augustine above. From University of Pennsylvania