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 400 AD as a means 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.
STAGE TWO: Catechumen
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.
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?
© Keith Drury, 2007
Keith Drury served The Wesleyan Church headquarters in Christian Education and Youth leadership for 24 years before becoming a professor of religion at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is the author of more than a dozen books of practical spirituality, including Holiness for Ordinary People, Common Ground and Ageless Faith. Keith Drury wrote the Tuesday Column for 17 years (1995-2012), and many articles can be found on his blog “Drury Writing.”
Keith Drury retired from full time teaching in 2012. Keith is married to Sharon and has two adult sons and several grandchildren. He is retired in Florida with Sharon and enjoys cycling.