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A Case for Catechesis

The New Testament, particularly the book of Acts, indicates that the usual procedure in the first century was for recent converts to Christianity to be baptized first and then instructed in the Christian faith. By the second century (i.e., the Didache), the procedure was largely reversed. Teaching came first, and then one was baptized.

Why the change? Alan Kreider suggests four possible reasons. The words are his; the headers are mine:

1. Because Old Habits Die Hard

Contemporaries did not discuss it, at least in writing, but one scholar, Joseph Lynch, has proposed several reasons. Lynch has observed that Christianity’s earliest converts were primarily Jews or god-fearers who already shared in the Jewish heritage of story, morality and world-view; the second-century converts, in contrast, were ex-pagans who needed a far-reaching programme of instruction and resocialisation.

2. Because Bad Theology Must Be Addressed

Lynch has also hypothesised that a longer catechetical process as a precondition for baptism was a result of the theological disputes which were present in the second century.

3. Because the Church Has Enemies

A third reason, which Lynch did not mention, had to do with the need, in an age of persecution, of screening out possible spies and informers.

4. Because Discipleship Costs

A final possible reason is that pastoral experience indicated that the teachings of Jesus, which the movement was committed to incarnating and practising, were sufficiently strenuous as to require a process of resocialisation on the part of all would-be converts, Jew or Gentile.

(Alan Kreider, “Baptism, Catechism, and the Eclipse of Jesus’ Teaching in Early Christianity,” Tyndale Bulletin 47/2 [Nov 1996] 318).

What reasons for diligence in instructing new converts seem most convincing to you? Does it make more sense to give these instructions before or after baptism? In what should this instruction consist?

I’m thinking of this schema in light of a couple of things. First, I’m teaching my Sunday school’s Lenten series this year. We’re looking at some of the early catechetical texts Kreider mentions in his paper and how they lay out some of the building blocks of discipleship. I expect that for most members of my class, reason #4 is the most personally relevant. We are mainly folks who have been in church a good long time, and still feeling the need to hear again Jesus’ call to follow him—and to hear some encouragement and guidance on the journey.

Second, somebody told my wife the other day that a young person, formerly a member of my church, had since joined a different Baptist church in town. This second church apparently required their new member to be rebaptized. I can’t think of an interpretation of this requirement that doesn’t sound like a grave insult to the spiritual validity of the church of which I am a member. I can only assume this church’s thinking process included healthy doses of reason #2. (Not that it’s never appropriate to give folks a heads-up about some of the more off-the-wall interpretations of Christianity that are going around—a certain faith community in Kansas springs violently to mind.)

I expect reason #1 may eventually encroach on the post-Christian American church as mainstream cultural mores and the values of Christ drift further away from each other. To be sure, even in my grandparents’ day the church (on its better days) had its hands full confronting racism, materialism, pride, greed, envy, and other besetting sins. Unless I’m mistaken, however, they didn’t have too much trouble with society itself applauding the sexualization of children, drug abuse, or the crippling inability to admit that there ought to be community standards of any kind.

As for reason #3, I expect this is on the minds of many Christians in countries and regions where Christianity is actively opposed. I won’t comment other than to suggest that—perhaps with a few particular and highly localized exceptions—any Christian in the USA who laments that they are being persecuted does a disservice to millions of their fellow believers around the world who know what real persecution looks like.

Points to make? Rocks to throw?



  1. Craig Gibson says:

    I’m just sorry I’ll miss your Sunday school series. Sounds intriguing!


  2. Paul Ray says:

    From a historical prespective, 1 2 3 and possibly 4 all played into it. The ancient converts to Christianity were almost all Jews, who understood Holy Scripture well. Baptism was then administered to the 1st converts ( Acts 2 ). Later on a teaching of the faith at a beginner’s level took place among the Gentiles. As Christianity developed enemies, the need to screen potential converts became a neccessity. One had to have a sponsor to receive instruction, usually one year, before entry into the Church was allowed. Baptism was the final step needed to gain entry into the Body of Christ.


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