Our world is filled with pages of books devoted to addressing issues of church growth, discipleship, and conversion. And though it seems that there are more resources then ever before to promote spiritual growth and discipleship, many have wondered (myself included), if people are actually being transformed and changed on a deep level.
What The Book Is About
It’s within this context that Alan Kreider, in his book “The Change Of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom” seeks to go back in history to examine how exactly people were converted, initiated, and baptized. He does this by examining the writings of many of those that were converted and baptized.
Kreider found that the first few centuries evidenced a certain process at work: there was a change of belief, behavior, and belonging, followed by baptism. Examining the story of Justin, in the 2nd century, he says:
“For Justin, Christian belief led to a discerning of areas of demonic power in society that enslaved people; but the freedom that Christ brought liberated people from addiction and compulsion, and led to distinctive forms of behavior. It also led to a unique sense of belonging. The Christian community was knit together by its search for ways of dealing with sex, the occult, wealth, and violence that would be in keeping with the teachings of Jesus” (p. 6).
What’s interesting is that the early church expected to see a change in the believers before they were baptized. So after someone came to belief and conversion, there had to be a change in behavior. It wasn’t only an intellectual change.
Of Cyprian, in the 3rd century, he notes that “His struggle was not to believe what the Christians believed; rather, it was to live as they taught–and as many of them seemed to have lived” (p. 8). It was a struggle because, in those days, Christianity really was a counter-cultural movement. In other words, Christians lived very differently from the rest of society, often in ways that made them stand out.
How were they different? People took care of the needs of society: they learned to feed the poor, care for those in jail, and much else. This all dealt with the 2nd stage in their discipleship process of changing behavior. People were also given “sponsors” and submitted themselves to personal mentorship and spiritual care in order to overcome addictions and gain victory over sin.
He notes the suspicion of Tertullian towards this counter-cultural movement:
“Why should a well-off pagan woman join a voluntary community about whose members’ welfare she is passionately interested? Why should she go into the hovels of the poor? Why should she enter prison to visit the martyrs or kiss their chains–or worse kiss one of the brethren? Why should she invite a visiting “brother” to stay in their home? Or share her food and drink with other church members? All these things were disturbing for the non-Christian husband…” (p. 13).
No where during this process were people ever taught how to “share the gospel” or to “share their faith.” So how did people ever become Christians? “Men, like women, according to Tertullian, became Christians because the Christians, marginal though they were, were intriguingly attractive” (p. 13). This counter-cultural attractiveness was the key to their growth.
Kreider also counters that churches did not grow because their worship services were attractive. In fact, non-believers weren’t actually allowed to enter the services. He says, “Christian worship was designed to enable Christians to worship God. It was not ‘seeker sensitive,’ for seekers were not allowed in” (p. 14).
There also seemed to be a deep sense that God’s power was at work in the early church. The laying on of hands was common and people would get healed of diseases and freed from spiritual strongholds. Kreider says that this “liberation from demonic power was one of the chief benefits that the church could offer to potential converts” (p. 17). Imagine that?
For many, this discipleship process lasted about three years. The process could have been shorter if someone was particularly motivated.
Beginning in the 3rd and 4th centuries, people began join the church by inducement and compulsion. Since Christianity was becoming such an accepted fabric of society, there were many circles in which you could not get a job unless you were Christian. So people now had quite a bit of motivation to join the church. Beginning in 529 AD, though, conversion to Christianity became compulsory under the edict of Justinian that made infant baptism the law of the land.
And beginning in the 5th century, the standards of change that were previously required were noticeably lowered–“…there is no hint that conversion required a respectable aristocrat to change…In order to encourage the conversion of the wealthier citizens, the bishops modulated their preaching” (p. 69). In other words, they began to accommodate their preaching so as to not offend the wealthier among them.
It was also beginning around this time that more religious syncretism began to take place between Christianity and paganism. Kreider says, “The people’s choice was not whether they would be Christians or pagans; in a milieu of compulsion, that choice was not given to them. Rather, it was what sort of Christians they would be” (p. 84).
I thought it was quite a fascinating read. A few things really stood out to me concerning their baptismal/discipleship process:
1. The time. The early church had a rigorous process that someone interested in being baptized would go through. I’m not advocating that someone should have to wait three years before being baptized, but I do see that many churches and denominations are practicing baptism without any instruction at all. That’s because they’re equating baptism with conversion. Pointing to the historical record, anyway, the idea of baptizing at the point of conversion seems to be inconsistent.
2. The topics. I thought the early church’s emphasis on behavior and good works was interesting. Christians were those that feed the poor, and healed the sick, and cared for the prisoners. For many churches these days, these kinds of activities are tied to missionary and evangelistic strategy. Let’s “do this” so people will come to our church. In the early church, this was a core component of what it meant to be a Christian, and someone couldn’t be baptized until that had become immersed into their lifestyle and Christian experience.
Imagine a discipleship process, then, where learning to serve the poor is a central component? Wow.
Related to this, it was surprising to read about their lack of evangelistic instruction. They didn’t teach people how to convert others. Instead, it was by living out who they were as Christians, that the pagans were convinced and converted.
So I think a modified discipleship process will be in the works. Stay tuned.
[image by neilsingapore]