Augustine’s Process for Receiving New Members



Nathaniel said...

anonymous, he didn't "develop" such a system. It existed far before him, most of it being apostolic. In fact, starting with Pope Victor I (189ish-199ish), the Western church begins simplifying the earlier liturgies. You can see this transition sharply if you compare the earliest liturgies (St. James/St. Mark/Sts. Addai and Mari) with the Ambrosian rite.

The thing you have to remember is that the Bible is not a systematic liturgical text. In fact, there is almost *no* systematic treatment of liturgy until the Reformation at which time it becomes necessary to restore the Tridentine Mass to its pre-corrupted state. Luther tries to do this in the German Mass.

So all in all, the "extensive system" of Augustine is actually a simpler system than the one most likely originally passed down by the apostles. A great protestant author on this topic (though a bit dated), is Gregory Dix in his book "The Shape of the Liturgy."

The AJ Thomas said...

I like the emphasis on doctrine. I know alot of members who when asked what the wesleyan church beleives could basically just answer "In Jesus and no drinking".

Nathaniel McCallum said...

Keith, I've looked up the "salt on the tongue" portion of the rite of the catechumenate and was unable to find anything. I'm fairly certain this exercise isn't present in 4th century Syria and I am not aware of it in Rome. Is this specifically a North-Western African tradition? What document is this practice recorded in? Thanks!

Chris Bounds said...

For the issue of tasting salt, see Augustine’s Confessions 1.11.17, On the Instruction of Beginners 26.50, On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins and on Infant Baptism 2.26.42.

Matt Guthrie said...

Somehow I knew this subject would be coming up. My thoughts are this:

Stage 1: No different than today really. And shame on anyone who admits a member without asking these questions.

Stage 2: Some type of instruction should be required. I don't know if 2-3 years is necessary. Again, does anyone just take in members off the street? Are there churches that don't have a membership class? I do have a problem with being excluded from at least witnessing communion. I suppose this idea could lead into a sacramental theology discussion.

Stage 3: I like it. Remove the no bathing instruction,the exorcism, and leave the decision to go without sex to the petitioner. Everything else is reasonable and realistic to expect.

Lyle Schaller used to say that the churches that expected more out of its members in terms of commitment usually had more mature Christians as members. He said little, to my recollection, about the pre-membership process. If I understand the Saddleback approach, the perspective is make it easy to get in, but hard to stay in. That may have been easier to manage in its early days than now.

I'm sure there will be comments here about being graceful in our dealings and that all Jesus required was to follow him. Jesus did say to make disciples and teach them to obey all my commandments. If we take the order of the verbs in the Great Commission as prescriptive, then the teaching comes after the baptism which means Augustine got the order wrong.

The issue for us in The Wesleyan Church is whether to use membership as discipleship. That is the question here with Augustine. At the 2000 Gen Conf, the measure passed was that we now have 2 levels of membership, first class and second class, er, I mean covenant and community. Local churches need district approval before implementing the community membership and then they had to show they had some type of discipleship process in place to help move people up to covenant membership. In my opinion, all churches should be forced to demonstrate that anyway. Have one level of membership with all the rights and enforce a higher standard for those who hold positions of leadership.

And just to wrap it up and get all my thoughts in, I concur with AJ. Let's get our people educated and knowledgable on things of doctrine, theology, etc. TWC as I have experienced has been very weak on that.

Brian said...

Augustine saw in AD 400 what is hard for many churches to see today--the only way to maintain "high" standards for church members is to implement two "levels" of membership. "Getting in" to membership was easy in Augustine's day--basically only about a confession of faith or belief...not lifestyle. the second stage of narrow-way membership for them was really high and "few there were who found it."

I think Augustine's method of a two-tier membership (provisional and full; community & covenant; or whatever else they call it) is a excellent plan. It is the CONSERVATIVES who should be pushing for a two-tier membership--it is the only way to maintain high standards for leaders.

(I think Augustine withheld baptism for the higher level of membership because in his day Baptism equaled full membership.) We have now added a new rite--"recieving into membership" so we can now place baptism as the entry point for the "community members."

So I favor this plan:

1. Any baptised person who will confess the creed is immediately taken into membership. They have all the rights of a local member, but not the power to lead or serve on district or denominational boards.

2. A full member is one who has developed a level of discipleship as evidenced by attendance, giving, serving in and out of the church, wisdom, and the other characteristics of leaders we see in the Bible. Full membership equals leadership. These are able to serve on district and denomiantional boards.

Pastor Rod said...

I've been doing some thinking about this recently. I think the two-tiered view is on the right track, but I don't think it is the ultimate solution.

I think The Wesleyan Church has two different problems. And both of them are more serious than most people realize or will admit.

The first problem is that we have extrabiblical, culturally-derived requirements that have little to do with denying oneself, taking up a cross and following Jesus.

If these requirements had significant value in selecting those who are serious about following Christ, they might be defensible.

The second problem is that as a church we don't take Jesus' words seriously. We really don't expect our people to love their enemies, to forgive those who have wronged them, to bless those who curse them, to return good for evil, to exhibit the fruit of the Spirit.

Good grief, we don't even expect our pastors to do this. (Or dare I say our denominational officials.)

We don't need tougher requirements. What we need is a culture that expects all disciples of Jesus to take his words seriously and to be growing in grace in a manner that can be observed in their behavior.

But we give some people a pass because of all the "good" they are doing for the church. Then we wonder why so many of them fall.

The accountability that is lacking is not just a select group of confidants. The whole church should have a culture of accountability.

This should be for everyone. And this should be focused on real stuff, not culturally irrelevant vestiges from our past.

If we really expected people to love their neighbors as themselves, this would transform our churches. It would transform the world.

In my opinion, this is a significant part of why the early church had such a powerful impact. They had rather low entry requirements and very high expectations.

Thanks for bringing this issue up again,


GBA watcher said...

Interesting timing--publishing this article the very week the Wesleyan Church General Board rejected a plan to allow Australia to make their own lifestyle suitable to their own culture insisting that they adopt American lifestyle convictions. VERY intresting timing.

Anonymous said...

How were "dividing issues" decided upon in the ancient Church? I believe you were expected to give up your violence (being a soldier) completely. This was an exclusive issue. Where drinking wine was certainly not. In the Wesleyan church today, the issues are reversed (as far as I know). You can be in the ROTC but shouldn't drink.

What issues should we only "expect" of members and which should we "require"?

Former Covenant Member said...

Recognizing that many of Keith's readers are non-Wesleyan (as in non-TWC) I apologize in advance for this little digression into TWC political waters--Keith has thrown a bone to you in his Immigration/Abortion article and while the article casts a broader membership net, my comment will be of primary interest to those in the enclave known as The Wesleyan Church, an Indiana Corporation.

Let me start by publicly denouncing hand-wringing over membership. There has been much public criticism for the current 1st and 2nd class membership standards (i.e. community members cannot serve in leadership and therefore are 2nd class citizens). This in my mind has become tiresome and an unfortunate drain on the mental and political energies of many. I sincerely hope that those with real political influence do not give in to the temptation to waste General Conference time on this issue any longer. To encourage this I offer two thoughts:

1) As most in TWC well know, in practice, there are not two classes of membership--there are many people who only meet a community level in their commitments who are, in fact, active in leadership in local Wesleyan churches. This is either because the local church simply ignores membership standards, or, more often, has a pastor and local board who wink and look the other way when accepting new covenant members. I personally dislike both of these practices but am personally not opposed to having more "worldly" Christians access to leadership influence within a local church within reason.

2) What is not as well known is that the Discipline of the Wesleyan Church allows for full participation of even non-members in positions of leadership and authority. Call this the 'Where there is a political will, there is a legal way' principle. If the pastor and local board want an alternative way of functioning, they can have it. While it is generally counter-productive to widely publicize what some might consider loopholes, here is a simple example taken from the Wesleyan Discipline

Check it out yourself

Para. 795 contains a tidy, and nicely broad provision for what is called a "Pastor's Advisory Committee." It is in there like an afterthought, thrown in there presumably to help the pastor if he/she wants some advice for what color the carpet in the nursery should be and the LBA doesn't want to do it. However, the language of this paragraph does nothing to limit the purpose or activity of the committee. In fact, it quite explicitly allows such committees to take final actions on matters so authorized by the local board.

Para. 825 applies to such committees and does not limit membership to covenant members or even community members for that matter. Anyone can be elected to serve on such a committee and it be delegated authority to run the day to day operations of a local church.

In such a circumstance the local board conference could delegate "final actions" for day to day operations, setting its own membership requirements for the committee, and serve in a only broad oversight capacity. The LBA could meet quarterly, or possibly less and simply rubber stamp the operations committee work. For a pastor who wants more operational control of his/her church, this would be a great model since popular pastors can generally hand pick who will serve on the LBA and on any such committee. The pastor could de-emphasize the importance of the LBA and the local church conference, inviting only those of his/her inner-circle to participate. He/she could sell his non-members on this approach by calling the LBA an elders committee on doctrinal oversight--a way of avoiding a Haggard-type meltdown and protecting the integrity of the church--kind of like an auditing committee for church operations. He/she could even eliminate the need for more than 10 or 12 covenant members this way. Although this would limit representation at the district and general levels, it will not really matter as long as the church keeps itself heavily leveraged such that no one will want to tinker and risk holding a multi-million dollar mortgage on an empty church.

With the cooperation and discretionary authority of higher district bodies, including the District Conference, a place like Australia could create an even more flexible environment that complies with the letter of membership requirements while allowing a more flexible system of government more in keeping with local standards of piety.

Scott David Hendricks said...

While I realize the issue being discussed here is church membership, it must also be realized that in Augustine's time (and from somewhere between a.d. 100-160 up to in Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicanism and Lutheranism [although with the protestants less so]) baptism is the place, time, means, and sacrament of: justification, regeneration, adoption; it was then, they believed (and still do), that a Christian is born again. So until you were baptized, your sins were not forgiven, you were not born again, you did not receive the Holy Spirit; you were not properly a Christian.

So not only was this rigorous process for those becoming members, but for those who were desiring to bear the name of Christ at all. And, the catechumens could not partake in the Eucharistic liturgy, because it was very salvific in nature (as far as I can tell):

1) The creed was recited (correct faith)
2) The Lord's Prayer was prayed (only Christians can call God their 'Father in heaven')
3) The true Body and Blood of Christ were received (these "save your soul and body unto everlasting life"; also see John 6, where "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" - the early church believed Jesus was speaking about himself in the Eucharist, and so transubstantiation has been believed for at least 1800-1900 years).

I'm not sure I've much more to say; I just wanted to point these things out.

Except: I have the hardest time not believing the church's historical understanding of the sacraments, since it is developed so early and has its primary source in Scripture. Maybe baptism and eucharist, like repentance, prayer and good works for John Wesley, are not immediately necessary for salvation, but remotely necessary?

Scott David Hendricks said...

Okay, I'm not a very good catholic Christian after all:

How about highly recommended, to at least the place that Wesley would hold the sacraments?

Chad said...

The article seems to suggest that Augustine might have considered the non-baptised catechumens saved--is that so?

Scott David Hendricks said...

To clarify Augustine's view of the great sacraments: Here is a 'brief' (ha!)passage from one of Augustine's treatises ("On the Merits and Remission of Sins and the Baptism of Infants"):


The Christians of Carthage have an excellent name for the sacraments, when they say that baptism is nothing else than "salvation," and the sacrament of the body of Christ nothing else than "life." Whence, however, was this derived, but from that primitive, as I suppose, and apostolic tradition, by which the Churches of Christ maintain it to be an inherent principle, that without baptism and partaking of the supper of the Lord it is impossible for any man to attain either to the kingdom of God or to salvation and everlasting life? So much also does Scripture testify, according to the words which we already quoted. For wherein does their opinion, who designate baptism by the term salvation, differ from what is written: "He saved us by the washing of regeneration?" or from Peter's statement: "The like figure where-unto even baptism doth also now save us?" And what else do they say who call the sacrament of the Lord's Supper life, than that which is written: "I am the living bread which came down from heaven;" and "The bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world;" and "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye shall have no life in you?" If, therefore, as so many and such divine witnesses agree, neither salvation nor eternal life can be hoped for by any man without baptism and the Lord's body and blood, it is vain to promise these blessings to infants without them.]

Please forgive me for the length of the passage.

JustKara said...

The two professors accomplished some of their goals—they got me reading Augustine and several other church “fathers” again. Here is what I found:

*Some sort of two-part catechumen process was operating by the time of Justin (early second century). [First Apology] "Those who ,are persuaded and believe in the truth of our teachings (didaskomena) and sayings undertake to live accordingly; they are taught to ask, with fasting, the remission of their sins; we also praying and fasting with them. Then they are led by us to a place where there is water, and they are regenerated in the same way that we have been regenerated…”

* By the end of that century (Tertullian) the two-part membership process was being merged or at least blurred. "one does not know which is the catechumen and which the faithful, all alike come [to the Lord’s Table], all hear the same discourses and say the same prayers… Catechumens are initiated before they are instructed"

* Once Christianity found primacy and children were “raised Christian” the idea of child baptism emerged along with immediate baptism of the “barbarians” so that this long membership process eventually disappeared.

* An individual pagan who wished to become Christian was considered a "inquirer” and not Christian (she still had to leave the mass before the Eucharist) but once the church was satisfied she was serious she as promoted to “catechumen” and was considered a “Christian” but not yet a member of the “faithful.” This answers one of the questions above about whether a catechumen was a “Christian.” "Ask a man, 'Are you a Christian' He answers, 'No', if he is a pagan or a Jew. But if he says 'Yes', ask him again, 'Are you a catechumen or one of the faithful?'" (Augustine)

* Later still the church adapted to the abrupt dismissal of the catechumens by permitting them to stay for a special prayer to be recited over them at the beginning of the Eucharist—then they were dismissed before the full table service began in full force.

That was a nice excursion this afternoon from my normal church work. And it reminded me of what I enjoyed about seminary. Local church work seems far removed from the academic life—this afternoon I remembered how much I miss it.

Anonymous said...

Sooooo... If Jesus returned after the person began the process but before the person was fully catechized, where would the person spend eternity? :-)

Sorry, but it seems to me that this whole conversation seems very legalistic swatting at a gnat while bumping into a camel. How quickly the good news becomes just another system to satisfy in every age and every time.

No wonder the publicans and sinners were attracted to the profound simplicity of Jesus the Christ. The choice is still law or grace and while human nature always sides with law and control, the way of the Spirit is always grace and life.

Perhaps these things are simply too lofty for me to comprehend. The plumbline of loving God with all my being and all others as myself is quite enough of a standard to live by. I see no such pattern in the preserved Christian documents. Why are people stubbornly determined to bind burdens on others?

Is not the Way enough to lead to life? This road of religious standardization never leads to anything but the twin sisters of judgmentalism and hypocrisy. Given the choice between that road and the person and pattern of Christ, what path do you think a sinner would choose?

The fundamental hidden issue here is whether it is the Church or the Christ that has authority to impart spiritual life. I'm placing my bets on the One who rose from the dead and offered life to all who receive Him. He is the One who forms the Church, builds and sustains the Church and empowers the Church.

Kevin K. Wright said...

I like Augustine's (and others before him) method in that it allows a person to "know what they're getting into" when they become a member of the Church. Thus, the Church can be visible in that its members have made a public confession and now submit themselves publicly to the grace and mercy of God manifested in their daily lives. For Augustine, baptism is entry into full communion with the Church- the saving vessel of God in this world. In his book "Believers" Jeffrey Sheler recounts an encounter at Saddleback church where he speaks to a recently baptized woman who has no conception of traditional Christian dogma, or of the doctrine taught by Saddleback. If we do not properly educate people before their baptism and/or entry into church membership, then we unfairly invite them into something other than what they think it really is.

Anonymous said...

The argument for a two tiered membership based off of the catechuman/faithful distinction in the early church is really a non sequitur. One must remember that there are THREE classes in early christianity: catechuman, faithful and penitant. Neither catechumans nor penitant could partake of the eucharist.

One should also note that should a catechuman stop showing up to the liturgy on a regular basis he would be removed from the roll of catechumans. Should that person ever want to become a catechuman again, he had to faithfully attend for three years before being readmitted to the catechumenate. ( http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214.vii.vi.xxi.html )

Brian said...

I don't think anyone can (or has) made an argument for 1, 2 or 3 tiered membership based on the authority of Augustine's approach--even the original article did not grant much more authority to Augustine than Rick Warren (!).

However using this opportunity as a springboard for discussing membership is interesting just to same, while not arguing "My way is the way of Jesus" or "I have Augustine's authority behind my way."

So here is MY way:

1. Any baptised person who confesses the creed be recieved into church membership.

2.Leadership in the church (whatever the church calls it--Advanced membership, leadership standards, full member, whatever) requires a higher (mostly lifestyle) set of standards which are determined by the local church (or if a denominational church in combination between the denomination and the local church).

(I do not claim Augustine, or Jesus or Paul or Peter or any other authority for these opinions--they are wholly my own, but I welcome discussion on them)

John Mark said...

I am not a theologian, but that has never stopped me from having an opinion on anything :). As to Augustines method of membership, it seems to me from a first reading that he was simply concerned that a person really demonstrate the fruits of a transformed life before becoming a member of the church. Having different levels of belonging seems biblical enough to me, as in Jesus ministry those selected for leadership had greater demands placed on them. As for the question of when you are truly converted I think of confession, repentance, walking in the light and faith. Abraham, who did not have the light we have, is our great model of faith, a man whom Kinlaw points out had no priest, no litury, no church, no Decalogue, no creed, no cross, and no fully formed conception of Calvary.
Two of the places I struggle as a fairly new pastor are the induction of members (I have had many people want to join who could not tell me that they were born again) and with annual board elections. I absolutely dread this, because it is very difficult to even get people to run when the requirements (from the our denominational Manual) are clearly spelled out.
There are many pastors like myself who could probably use more instruction and frequent encouragement on these two issues-membership and leadership.

John Mark said...

Two quick additions. First, I meant liturgy when I wrote litury, obviously.
And maybe I wasn't clear that I certainly believe in the need for the Church even though Abraham knew God without that.