Saturday, March 08, 2008

Rites of Passage

After discussions in church planting workshops, readings associated with it, and further discussion with others with a passion for discipleship and church planting, I have been spending some time in reflection and prayer on the idea of "rites of passage" in our walk with God. So, here are some more of my rambling thoughts on all of this.

In many societies, there are time honored rites of passage. Whether it is a Jewish Bar-Mitzvah or a Graduation Ceremony, they mark important transitions in a person's life. They give order and stability to the process of personal growth.

I find it interesting that the early church had such rites of passage. The most obvious rite of passage is Christian baptism. This is not merely a human tradition, but one that begins in the ministry of Christ. The meaning of baptism was transformed by the atoning work of Christ on the cross and his resurrection. The association of baptism with Christ's atoning work as what made it "Christian" baptism."

In the book of Acts, most of the converts came from Jewish backgrounds. They already had a history and background with Yahweh, the God of Israel. Many were familiar with biblical ethics, worship, and lifestyle. When they accepted the Christian message, they were converted quickly, usually being baptized on the same day. They typically did not need instruction on morality, ethics, worship, and things of this nature. They needed instruction on the Messiah who has fulfilled, or made full the Torah of Yahweh.

After the destruction of the temple, the church quickly became gentile in flavor as the "Jewishness" of the church began to wear off. In fact, the Jewish liturgy after the fall of Jerusalem changed in such a way that it became impossible to remain both a Jew and Christian. With the addition of a prayer that basically pronounced a curse on Christians, Christians could not longer participate in Jewish worship. Even though gentiles had been flooding into the church, the church still was in touch with its Jewish roots until this time.

As the church increasingly became more gentile and less Jewish, more and more people were coming who had no Jewish background. Their world-view was either pantheistic or henotheistic. Their ethics, morality, and worship were awash with pagan ideals. Conversion to Christianity was not merely a simple matter of accepting Jesus as the Messiah because gentiles had little point of reference for this concept. The term Messiah, or "Christos" in Greek did not resonate with pagan Gentiles at all because it was solidly a Jewish concept. For the pagan, to be "anointed" meant nothing more than to be medicated with some sort of oil or ointment.

It was perhaps for these types of reasons that the situation in the second century was different. Quick baptisms were not longer the case. In fact, it was not unusual for there to be a considerable instructional period before catechumens were admitted for baptism. The four stages in this period included Seeker, Hearer, Kneeler, and Faithful. There was a rite of passage that marked the end of one stage on the beginning of the next that included such things as the rite of welcome, or ultimately the rite of baptism and communion when people officially became a member of the body. It is interesting that in the early church, the hearers were separated from the faithful at some point in their worship. The hearers received instruction pertinent to their stage in the journey while the faithful received communion.

I will not go into great detail, because the details of theses practices were pertinent and relevant to their particular time, which is far removed from us today. However, I am wondering if the baby was not thrown out with the bathwater. The Protestant movement slowly distanced itself from the medieval church, rejecting many practices that were either neutral or even beneficial. Then came American Christianity which fractured into many, many religious groups, each distancing themselves from each other. Our own "Restoration" movement, as we typically call it now, began as a unity movement, but also has given that up in favor of distancing itself from anything that looks or feels like practices that exist in other religious groups. In effect, the faith, life, and practice of the church became reduced to the lowest common denominator. Anything not expressly commanded in scripture is rejected, especially if it is a practice found in other religious groups.

I have to wonder, do we honestly believe that something is bad simply because it exists in some other religious group? Is something that is neutral in itself to be rejected simply because some other religious group has it? What about something that is a positive practice that exists elsewhere? Should we turn away from it simply because it looks like something someone else does? Shouldn't our faith and practice be rooted in good, sound, biblical theology rather than reactionary theology? I think most of us would agree with this…on the intellectual level. However, I have seen the emotional reactions to practices which is "like what those (insert the name of the religious group) do." Our emotional reactions tend to overshadow our intellectual ones. So even though we say that there is nothing wrong with certain practices that may be found in other religious groups, our actions say otherwise. We treat some practices and those who do them as though they were wrought of Satan.

We need to realize that some practices in various religious groups pre-dates those religious groups. Some practices go back to the 2nd century church, and perhaps even to the first century church, which is prior to many of the deviations that degenerated into the problems, abuses, and heresies in medieval Christianity. If we get past some of the baggage associated with some of these practices, we may be able to re-claim the baby and still leave out the bathwater.

I am thinking specifically about the practice of formal instruction in preparation for Christian baptism. Many that still practice this today call it "Catechism." The word itself came from a Greek word, katachizein, which means to teach or instruct orally. Even though there were some variations from area to area, the overall instructional practice of the pre-Nicene church was pretty much standard. There was extensive and fairly standardized teaching that included intense discipleship training for all believers as a prerequisite for baptism . One could not straddle the fence and still be considered faithful. The process of instruction had definite, identifiable stages with definite rites of passages going from one stage to the next.

To most older evangelicals, this seems archaic, a step back to what we have tried to get away from. It smacks of authoritarian Christianity. What many do not realize is that this is older than they think. This did not originate with the medieval Catholic church. It goes back to the early church fathers in the first three centuries of the church. This practice of instruction is likely a major contributing factor to the ability of the church, though marginalized, illegal, and persecuted, to not only be able to survive, but to also inundate the Roman empire in such a short amount of time. This is probably why the church was able to stay pure in the midst of so much defilement. This would have been a major factor in the church remaining holy. The church didn't become flooded with pagan ideas until after the legalization of Christianity and the outlaw of all other religions, which made virtually everyone in the empire a "Christian." The culture paganized the church and the church Christianized the culture. The two became indistinguishable. This was such a far cry from the biblical perspective that affirms that Christ's kingdom is not of this world, that we are aliens, that our citizenship is in Heaven, that familial relationships have to do with faith rather than genetics or nationality. The church became married to the powers, authorities, and principalities that were supposed to have been hostile to it. With the paganization of the church also came the "worldly Christian," which is the Christian who worships, prays, performs various Christian rituals, but whose way of thinking, interactions, attitudes, and affections are still of this world. No wonder it became "respectable" in the world's eyes to become a Christian. But from the beginning, it was not this way.

I believe that we are returning to our rightful place, which is out of the mainstream of this world. This was the church of the first three centuries. Contrary to what many believers think, the church is not the chaplain to society, which is the role it received as the result of its paganization. Even when the church was "officially" decoupled from government in America, the church still remained a "chaplain" to it in an unofficial sense, though this has been changing over the last forty years or so. We need to understand that the church is not the "pastor" of the community, but is the body of Christ. The church is salt and light. It is a counter cultural community of people who has aligned their allegiance to Christ and Christ alone. This is why early Christians did not take oaths of allegiance. They had already declared their allegiance when they were converted to Christ. They saw the world clearly for what it was and knew clearly what their role in the world was. There was no confusion in the first three centuries. Why? A major reason was the instruction and training they received.

Curiously, it is often the younger evangelicals that want to go back to the "old days," or to use a biblical term, the "old paths." There are some people that use the term "old paths" to refer to the way things were 50 years ago. But these younger evangelicals are thinking of the practices and faith of the apostolic church. They are thinking of faith and life in the first three centuries when the church was at its best. I ran across a term that has become popular for many evangelicals under 30 that seems to express their perspective. That term is, "ancient-future." The "ancient" faith (not the faith of the 1950's) provides the compass to face the challenges of today and the future as God would have it. Some ancient practices are being recovered, such as Christian rites of passage, intense discipleship, a greater emphasis on the holy in worship, the devotional and not just academic reading of scripture, a passion for social justice, and the idea of every Christian as a minister. Getting away from the modern paradigm for Christianity which really began with the emperor Constantine, a growing number of younger Christians are identifying their faith not with a place or building, but with Jesus himself. They are seeing the church as themselves rather than a locality. They don't strive to "go to" church, but to "be" the church.

Most sociologists and anthropologists recognize the impact of rites of passage on the growth and socialization of people in a given society. All societies have them. It is an integral part of personal growth. Even here in America, we go from Junior High School to High School. Jewish children do a Bar-Mitzvah. And there are countless others. It is what defines the end of one stage of life and the beginning of another. Even scripture recognizes that we are at "stages" in our growth. We start out as babes, we long for milk, we grow in grace and knowledge, we reproduce, etc. The early church embraced this idea and with a formal training program that involved what we would call a mentor, the elders, and the congregation (usually a house church). Christians grew strong. Whether we call the stages seeker, hearer, kneeler, and faithful, as the early church did or call it something else, it should be clear to see how this idea along with rites of passage can be immensely helpful. Whether you call it "catechism" or use some other name, it should be clear to see how this would be helpful and almost necessary.

Yes, these are man made. Yes it would be a tradition. Keep in mind, though, that traditions are not inherently bad. Most of us have family traditions that we cherish. They order life, help give it meaning, and help us to remember where we have come from and face the future with confidence. Whether we recognize it or not, our life is full of traditions. Our churches are full of traditions. We are blind to many of them as being traditions, but they are traditions none-the-less. We need to not be so afraid of "tradition" that we avoid what is needed and could be immensely helpful.

For church leaders to employ a definite program of discipleship with identifiable stages and transition points is beneficial. When they "give an account" of their ministry as shepherds, they would be able to say that this is one of the ways they ensured that the sheep were healthy and fed.

As I continue to reflect on all of this, it occurs to me that this is easier said than done, especially in a church that is already established. I have heard some people say that it is easier to start a new church than to renew an old one. It is also easier to kill a church than revive it. Is this pessimistic or realistic. If we love God and are dedicated to knowing him and carrying out his purpose, how could this be? Lord, I pray that you give me wisdom, give us all wisdom to see clearly. I am still looking forward to some further workshops in the near future, Lord I pray you bless me, my family, and my ministry through these. Help me to understand the nature of the kingdom, your purpose in it, and my place in it. Help me to be devoted to kingdom purposes, not to a "job," to a single "congregation," or to merely "getting a paycheck." Help me to capture your vision. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

No comments: