Joining a Church the Ancient Way: From Clement to Egeria

Article
04.28.2011

How did a person join a congregation in the earliest days of Christianity? From one perspective, the question is easy to answer. Simply put, believer’s baptism was the church’s rite of entry down to the early fourth century.

But—and no surprise here—there was more to it than that.

CONFESSION AND BAPTISM

The New Testament portrays the church as a congregation of believers. What did these believers believe? As the apostles taught, they believed that Jesus is Lord and that he had been raised from the dead (1 Cor. 12:3; 1:2; Rom. 10:9). Further, they believed that Jesus is God himself come in the flesh (1 Jn. 4:1-6). And they believed in the Trinity (Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14; Eph. 4:4–6).

In order to join a church, a person had to formally confess this body of truth, “the Faith” (Jude 3; 1 Tim. 1:19), which also included other crucial beliefs such as the return of Christ. This normally took place, it appears, at the time of baptism. During baptism, an individual would recite a creedal statement that contained these key elements of the Christian faith and would give their assent to it (cf. 1 Tim. 6:12).

Thus, inspired by New Testament examples (see, for example, Eph. 4:4–6), creedal statements emerged in the post-apostolic era. For example, Irenaeus (c.130–c. 200), bishop of Lyons, quoted what may have been his own church’s statement of faith in Against Heresies (180), his defense of Christianity against Gnosticism.

It begins by stressing that, contrary to Gnosticism’s view of the world, there is “One God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them.” This confession goes on to stress that there is also “One Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation,” who suffered and died, was raised from the dead, ascended “into heaven in the flesh,” and will come again “from heaven in the glory of the Father.” Gnosticism denied all these points, all of which are absolutely central to apostolic Christianity. And someone would have had to affirm this statement of faith in order to be received into the church in Lyons.

THE NEED FOR CATECHISM

As the church evangelized the Graeco-Roman world, it encountered people who were prepared to believe in Christ Jesus as Savior and Lord, yet who were ignorant of Scripture and the theology it contains. So the church needed to instruct or catechize people in the fundamental affirmations of the Christian creed. The church needed to teach people about things like God’s creation of the world, and the life of virtue that flows from a true confession. Catechesis thus had biblical, doctrinal, and moral components.

So, at least by the end of the second century, catechisms and the process of catechizing had developed. For example, the only other extant writing from Irenaeus is a catechism, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching (early 190s). The first half of this work details the history of salvation and the second half presents proofs for the truth of Christianity from the Old Testament.

By the following century, there is clear evidence—for example, in the writings of Hippolytus of Rome (c.170–c.236)—that catechizing could take up to three years. And while the person being so instructed, called a catechumen, was regarded as a Christian, he or she could not receive the Lord’s Supper until baptism. As the second-century Christian author Justin Martyr (died c.165) maintained: “no one is allowed to partake” of the Lord’s Supper “except the one who believes what we teach to be true, and who has been washed . . . and who lives in exactly the way Christ handed down to us” (First Apology,66).

During the period of catechesis, there was also a time in which catechumens could ask questions of the instructor, who was usually a bishop. The late fourth-century authoress Egeria (flourished 381–384) noted this when she visited Jerusalem. She pointed out that the result of this catechizing was that all of the believers in the Jerusalem churches were able to follow the Scriptures when they were read in the church service. Only with the spread of infant baptism in the fifth and sixth centuries did this process of Christian catechism undergo decline.

A USABLE PAST

When we study the past, we must avoid privileging the questions which our own circumstances prompt. The past must first be understood on its own terms, in relation to the questions that dominated that era. Nevertheless, God has given us history as a vehicle of instruction (we could draw an analogy, for instance, with Romans 15:4). Thus, the search for a “usable past” that sheds light on present circumstances is a legitimate exercise.

What then does the historical investigation undertaken above mean for our present-day situation? One thing is clear: many parts of a once-Christian West are rapidly being paganized. Thus, the sort of biblical, doctrinal, and moral instruction that the early church found necessary is once more becoming necessary for us.

As it was in the earliest days of the Christian faith, so it is again: entry into a local church should be by way of catechism, creed, and baptism—and in that order.