Recently I was studying for a class in which I had the privilege of exploring the spiritual lives of those in the process of demonstrating their devotion to Christ in the first four centuries of the Mediterranean Church’s existence. This process of the assimilation of new devotees to Christ that resulted in their baptism, which the Church fathers describe in meticulous detail throughout the Apostolic Tradition, is referred to as the Catechumenate (derived from a Greek word meaning “to teach”). Here’s how it would work if I had just professed my desire to give my assent to the faith: A church leader would ask me why I had given my assent to the faith. Once I said I believed they would receive me into the church to hear Scripture; however I would not yet be allowed in the company of others until I had been “sealed” and “approved.” Therefore, it was a process of assimilation into the church that ultimately lasted about 3 years, and concluded with an oral exam and a baptism (if the new convert passed the exam). It consisted of strict practice of the spiritual disciplines, and an extremely rigid, disciplined style of living in which every action they took was within the confines of the daily schedule.
In the ancient church, the pagan in the process of conversion (for practical purposes I’ll refer to him as a new convert) was signing on for 3 years of strenuous theological training, and rigorous training and practice of the spiritual disciplines for the benefit of proper, healthy spiritual formation. Cyril of Jerusalem states, “Let me compare the catechizing to a building. Unless we methodically bind and joint the whole structure together, we shall have leaks and dry rot, and all our previous exertions will be wasted.” Jesus himself spoke to this issue in his famous parable of the sower who scattered seeds. Some of the seeds that were scattered were received well in the fertile ground and were rooted deeply so that they grew and even bore fruit. Therefore, according to Jesus, the idea that new believers be rooted and grounded in Him is a beautiful and necessary thing.
However, your first complaint upon reading about the Catechumenate may be that it seems a bit legalistic. The requirements may seem too demanding and too authoritarian-oriented, and could possibly get in the way of someone actually pursuing a personal relationship with Christ the Person. My response is that legalism is always a concern with any religious endeavor when people are involved. Humans have a tendency to take beautiful, well-intentioned plans and absolutely ruin them. For this reason I don’t believe that the road to hell (hell in this case being legalism) is paved with good intentions. I believe we are known to take good things and abuse our God-given power to pervert the good because of our pride and arrogance, our “I can do it better” mentality or “I’m going to interpret this as what I think it should mean” mentality. However if we take the Catechumenate for what it’s worth and internalize its worth for what it was intended we shouldn’t descend into the downward spiral of legalism.
My point in writing this note is that lately I’ve been disappointed with my own life and the lives of the “followers of Christ” in my life. And I can’t help but to think that some of it is due to the ambiguity of what it means to be a Christian in contemporary western culture (as opposed to the early church). What’s the difference between someone who follows Christ and someone who chooses not to? The old school church (2nd and 3rd centuries) left no room for such ambiguity. I see so many contemporary “Christians” making mistakes that are inexcusable. You may say to me, “You’re sounding like a Pharisee, Candace. We’re living under grace, not the law.” But I say to you, “Should we continue to sin so that grace may abound? Of course not!” (Romans 6:1).
I constantly see self-proclaiming “Christians” become intoxicated, use poor judgment, participate in extramarital and premarital affairs, struggle with addictions on their own without accountability, have an inability to offer a defense for what they believe other than to ignorantly say “Just believe!” abuse and neglect their spouses, proclaim the gospel in arrogance rather than sober humility, lie about the breadth of their accomplishments, gossip about each other, lack compassion for the lost, have abortions and promote same-sex marriage and vote for candidates who endorse such behavior as well. We rationalize living like pagans and then we ostracize and make fun of those who point out our condoning of the pagan lifestyle. When confronted with a willing brother or sister who wants to lovingly hold us accountable for our sin that is further driving a wedge between us and Christ, we say, “You can’t judge me. Jesus said not to cast stones.” And yet we ignore the Giver of grace because we enjoy the temporary pleasures of having our will be done. My point is that we’ve lost the emphasis on being “set apart” as holy ones in service to God. The lines have become blurry between us and the rest of secular society. A lot of proclaiming Christians today would not even be able to claim the same title in the 4th century church. I do recognize that many of these self-proclaiming Christians may not even be what they claim; however, there’s still a problem if they feel no shame in labeling themselves as such in the face of genuine believers.
I’m sad because I wonder what the state of our hearts and our church as a whole would be if we had followed the practices of the early church today in America. I have to ask myself if holiness is really what I long for, and if I truly want the Holy Spirit to conform me to Christ’s likeness. The early church longed for righteousness in their daily lives, and the discipline of theology used to be seen as the “Queen of the Sciences” in academia, but now it’s the joke of the nations even to so-called Christians. The bar used to be so much higher if you desired to claim the name of Christ. I’m certainly not naïve enough to think that implementing the Catechumenate in the contemporary church could curtail the demise of the contemporary western evangelical church, but it certainly causes me to look at the early church with envy and a saddened longing. The church was a solid force to be reckoned with back in the day, but this isn’t the case for the body as a unit anymore. It is not my intention to ignore the good aspects of the contemporary Church or discount those who are diligently bringing honor to Christ today (and there are many), but it is certainly my intention to grasp the attention of the ones who have lost focus and strayed from the truth, back to their roots. The church authorities who went before us put so much meticulous effort into training our predecessors to live up to their names as the congregation of the “Christ ones.” I pray that we would allow God to bring us back to our roots today.