‘Early Church Catechesis and New Christians’ Classes in Contemporary Evangelicalism’ by Clinton Arnold

In this seminal and fascinating article, Clinton Arnold looks at how the early church trained new believers – and then poses some searching questions about how our present-day evangelical church approaches this task.

He writes: “For twelve years my wife and I were deeply involved in a ministry to new believers at our local church.  When we began developing this ‘assimilation’ ministry, we started with an eight-week course that covered many of the basics of the Christian life.  . . . .  The initial idea was for new believers to take the eight-week course as a primer in some of the basics of Christian doctrine and practice and then help them blend into the regular age-graded Sunday School program of the church.”  A number of constraints prevented this from working well.  One of these was the fact that “these new believers strongly felt the need for more of the same kind of teaching and discussions centered on the basics that they had just experienced.”

Dr. Arnold had also been doing some reading in the Church fathers about how new Christians were trained in the early church – training that often lasted for three years. He came away “deeply convicted about the superficiality of what we were doing. There was such a rigorous plan and commitment by church leaders in the first four centuries to ground new believers in their Christian lives. The impact of this reading on my thinking led to some significant changes in our new Christians’ ministry, especially the development of a ministry plan and curriculum that would keep them for two to three years.”

He continues “I have . . . continued to reflect critically on what we did in light of Scripture and early church practice. It has become increasingly clear to me that the evangelical church as a whole could benefit from re-examining the testimony of the Church fathers and gleaning insights from how they ministered to new believers. It may challenge many churches to consider implementing some modifications in philosophy and structure of ministry as they entertain questions such as:  • Is a four-week (six-week, or eight-week) new Christians’ class really enough?  • Are we getting new believers adequately immersed into the Scripture?  • Have we downplayed the importance of creed?  • Are we helping new believers repent completely of sinful life-styles and practices?  • Are we taking the spiritual warfare dynamic seriously enough in helping new believers grow?”

In this paper, Dr. Arnold gathers some insights from the ‘Apostolic Tradition’,  the earliest source providing us with detailed information about how the church trained new believers, together with some other ancient sources that speak about this practice.  He offers some thoughts on how the present-day church can learn from their forbears in the early church.

Dr. Arnold describes four key features of new believer training in the early Church:  (1) immersion in the Word of God – which included teaching them the overall sweep of God’s plan of redemption; (2) teaching them the central doctrines of Christianity; (3) spiritual and moral formation; (4) deliverance from Satanic influences, received through their old lives of paganism and magical practices.  He writes: “Part of the motivation and concern for a lengthy process was rooted in a desire to foster solid spiritual formation and to protect these new believers against sin, heresy, and apostasy.   . . . .   Cyril of Jerusalem reflects on the vital importance of this process of growth for the health and stability of these new believers: ‘Let me compare the catechizing to a building. Unless we methodically bind and joint the whole structure together, we shall have leaks and dry rot, and all our previous exertions will be wasted’ ”.   He comments: “By contrast, many evangelical churches today place a minimal emphasis on the training of new believers . . . .”

Key comments that Dr Clinton makes on each of these four points are:

(1)  As we consider our contemporary evangelical churches, we need to ask ourselves how well we are doing in immersing new converts in the Word of God. Are they ‘hearing’ or reading through the bulk of the Scripture within the first three years of their walk with the Lord? Are they acquiring a grasp of the overall sweep of salvation history? Perhaps one of the greatest dangers we face is the assumption that this will somehow automatically happen once they are saved and part of the church. The lesson from the ancient church is that there was an intentional plan to facilitate this.”

(2) “Most evangelical churches today put little emphasis on providing training for new believers in the central doctrines. Some new believers’ classes cover a few of the cardinal doctrines, but a systematic training in the principal doctrines of historic orthodoxy are missing in the curricula for new believers.”

(3) “A hard question that we need to ask of ourselves is whether there is an intentional and structured part of the curriculum for ministering to new believers in our churches that addresses issues of life-style and Christian behavior in a direct way. Is there a process that helps new believers confront and deal with such sin issues as sexual impurity, bitterness, rebellion, greed, and unforgiveness as well as cultic involvements and adherence to false religious beliefs?”

(4) “Perhaps more thought, study, and effort need to be given to the task of identifying how to integrate an appropriate form of this [deliverance] ministry into contemporary church practice, especially given that it was a universal feature of the ministry to new believers in the early church.”

Read the full article HERE. This article originally appeared in ‘Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society’ volume 47, number 1, for March 2004.  Clinton E. Arnold is a New Testament scholar and dean at Biola University’s Talbot School of Theology.  He was the 2011 president of the Evangelical Theological Society. He has served as general editor of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, and general editor of the Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, for which he wrote the volume on Ephesians.  He has also authored a number of books, such as ‘Power and Magic: The Concept of Power in Ephesians’, and ‘Powers of Darkness: Principalities and Powers in Paul’s Letters’.

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