In the wake of the publication of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers, there was much discussion of his 10,000 hours rule, i.e., his claim that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master something. Since that time, however, there’s been reaction and criticism. Whatever the case with respect to his claim it served as a reminder that the development of real skill takes time. This is an important reality in a culture in which we expect to get what we want or need in a few seconds. As a boy I remember reading about the famous quarterback of the Baltimore Colts, Johnny Unitas, who was made to throw passes through a moving tire swing. He threw pass after pass until he learned to put the ball exactly where he wanted it. “Pistol” Pete Maravich was deadly from the corner because he took thousands of jump shots from the baseline. It took time, hard work, and dedication.
Gladwell’s theory is relevant to the way we admit members to the congregation. One prevalent theory of church membership is, in essence, “easy in, hard out.” That is, we should admit members relatively quickly but make it difficult (via discipline) for them to leave (e.g., by walking way). Over the years I’ve come to doubt the wisdom of this approach. I doubt that converts, whether from paganism or from Romanism or from broad evangelicalism can be taught the faith sufficiently in six or even 12 hours.
At the school where I teach a student must earn between 106–09 credits to graduate with a Master of Divinity. Each credit represents 13 clock hours of classroom work (or the equivalent). This means that, if a student takes all 109 credits he has spent 1,417 clock hours in class preparing. If we impute to each of the in-class hours an average of 3 hours outside of class for reading, preparation for examinations, and term papers we arrive at 4, 251 hours. We’re not yet at Gladwell’s 10,000 hours but we’re almost half-way. I suspect that most of our graduates would tell you that, in retrospect, upon entering the degree they did not know nearly what they thought they did and, upon graduation, they realized they had much more to learn. Much of what they learn in those hours is how to become a Christian, how to identify with the Christian faith, its theology, piety, and practice. A good bit of what is learned in those years is the grammar, logic, and rhetoric (trivium) of the faith. Traditionally, the degree we today call an MDiv was once a BD, a Bachelor of Divinity.
Students often arrive thinking that they have the Reformed basics but they have been known either to misunderstand some of those basics or to define incorrectly (i.e., too minimally) what is basic. If it is that difficult for ministerial students to get the basics, why do we think that we can prepare people to stand before God and church, to make profession of faith after 6, 8, or 12 hours of instruction? it might be objected that the intent of catechism and new members classes is not to prepare ministers. Fair enough but how often have members walked away from a congregation even though they had sworn an oath to submit to the government and discipline of the church? How often have erring members said to visiting elders or pastors “I did not realize that when I joined the church I was going to accountable for my actions” or something to that effect? I quite agree that, in new members classes or in catechesis we are not seeking to turn members into ministers but short of that why do we assume that we can do with new members in 12 hours what it took our Lord three years to do? He spent three years teaching his disciples and there is abundant evidence that they did not understand the implications of what he was saying. It is true that there was a difference between what the disciples understood before Pentecost and after but, in the case of the Apostle Peter, it seems as he needed at least one refresher course after Pentecost, even though he was an Apostle, even though he was endowed by the Holy Spirit in a unique and powerful way.
In the ordinary providence of God it probably takes more time, especially in America, especially in our go-go high-tech, 24/7 world, than we typically spend. This is a significant question and will only become more important as we find ourselves increasingly in world that is more like the 1st century than the 17th century. Those whom the Spirit brings to new life and faith in Christ through the preaching of the law and the gospel are probably going to have less background than perhaps at any time since the first Christian missionaries came to the British Isles and Europe.
The situation with evangelical converts is not much better. Those evangelicals who find the Reformed faith attractive are likely to come to us with less Bible knowledge than their grandparents had and with more baggage (e.g., assumptions about worship and church life) than converts from paganism. In either case the question persists: What should we do?
Perhaps we should take a lesson from the early church. In the early church? In the 5th century, those who attended worship were distinguished between “the faithful” and “catechumens.” 1 In the 5th century, under Cyril of Alexandria, catechumens “stood in the lower part of the Church (νάρθηξ) to hear the Psalms, Lessons, and Sermon.”2 the Apostolic Constitutions, which were late and certainly not apostolic, (VIII i. § 5) say:
And after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, and our Epistles, and Acts, and Gospels, let him that is ordained … speak to the people the word of exhortation, and when he has ended his discourse of doctrine, all standing up, let the Deacon ascend upon some high seat, and proclaim, Let none of the hearers, let none of the unbelievers stay: and silence being made, let him say, Ye Catechumens, pray, and let all the Faithful pray for them.”
In the early 3rd century Tertullian distinguished clearly between those who were still being instructed in the faith (catechumens) and those converts who had made profession of faith (the faithful).3
Canon 7 of the First Council of Constantinople (381) says:
“On the first day we make them Christians, on the second Catechumens, on the third we exorcise them by three times breathing on them on the face and on the ears; and so we instruct them (κατηχοῦμεν), and make them frequent the Church for a long time, and listen to the Holy Scriptures, and then we baptize them.”4
For how long were catechumens instructed prior to profession of faith? For those who were initiated into the church through baptism, the length of catechesis (Christian instruction) varied but it must have been several years. For converts different figures are given. Hefele cites Canon 42 of the Synod of Elvira (305 AD) as evidence that it was 2 years.
The period of probation and instruction varied at different times and places: according to Canon 42 of the Synod of Elvira, 305, it was to be two years: “He who has a good name, and wishes to become a Christian, must be a Catechumen two years: then he may be baptized.”5
There is evidence from the 2nd century that Christian instruction was not rushed. Edward Gifford argues that when Justin (First Apology, 61), in mid-2nd century, wrote:
“And this washing is called Illumination (φωτισμός), because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understanding.”
His use of the present participle refers to “a process of gradual illumination during the course of instruction, to be completed in Baptism, a sense which is well expressed in the Latin Gerundive “Illuminandi” [in the process of being illumined-rsc].6 In other words, we must be careful not to read later developments back into the 2nd century. When “illumination” and even “regeneration” were associated with baptism those were arguably figurative ways of speaking (in the case of illumination) and regeneration referred to the setting apart rather than any necessary ex opere view of baptism conferring the principle of new life.
The evidence indicates that non-believers were in attendance to Christian worship services in the 1st century (e.g., 1 Cor 14). As threats against them grew, Christians probably withdrew so that Pliny the Younger (c. 112), rather than attend a service himself, felt compelled to torture deaconesses to find out about Christian worship practices. It seems clear that in later years, however, there were baptized believers, unbaptized unbelievers, and catechumens (both baptized and unbaptized) in Christian services. Convert catechumens were not allowed to the table until they made profession and were baptized. Baptized covenant children were not allowed at the table until they made profession of faith. We’re not surprised by the latter but a 2 year “new members” (catechism) class for converts might seem bracing to our seeker-senstive consciences but perhaps we should not dismiss such an idea out of hand? Perhaps 2 or 3 years of catechesis is too much but what if it is not? What if it actually takes that long for people to learn to think like Christians? What if we slowed down the pace of catechesis to give busy people to think and pray about what they are about to do? It’s worth considering.
1. Edward Hamilton Gifford, “The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril: Introduction,” in S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, vol. 7, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1894), xv. He cites Augustine, Joh. Evang. Tract. xliv. § 2. See also Ursinus, who wrote:
In the primitive church, those who learned the catechism were called Catechumens; by which it was meant that they were already in the church, and were instructed in the first principles of the christian religion. There were two classes of these Catechumens. The first were those of adult age, who were converts to Christianity from the Jews and Gentiles, but were not as yet baptized. Persons of this description were first instructed in the catechism, after which they were baptized and admitted to the Lord’s Supper. Such a catechumen was Augustin after his conversion to Christianity from Manicheism, and wrote many books while he was a Catechumen, and before he was baptized by Ambrose. Ambrose was also a Catechumen of this sort when he was chosen Bishop, the urgent necessity of which arose from the peculiar state and condition of the church of Milan, upon which the Arians were making inroads. Under other and ordinary circumstances the apostle Paul forbids a novice or Catechumen to be chosen to the office of a Bishop. (1 Tim. 3:6.) The νεοφυτθι, spoken of by Paul, were those Catechumens who were not yet, or very lately had been baptized; for the Greek word, which in our translation is rendered a novice, according to its literal signification means a new plant; that is, a new hearer and disciple of the church. The other class of Catechumens included the small children of the church, or the children of christian parents. These children, very soon after their birth, were baptized, being regarded as members of the church, and after they had grown a little older they were instructed in the catechism, which having learned, they were confirmed by the laying on of hands and were dismissed from the class of Catechumens, and were then permitted, with those of riper years, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Those who are desirous of seeing more in regard to these Catechumens, are referred to the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, the tenth book, and latter part of the fourth chapter. Those who taught the catechism, or instructed these Catechumens, were called Catechists.
Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard, (Cincinnati, OH: Elm Street Printing Company, 1888), 11.
2. Gifford, ibid, xiv.
3. Serm. xlvi. de Pastoribus, c. 13: Tertull. de Præscriptione Hæret. c. 41: “Imprimis quis Catechumenus, quis Fidelis, in certum est.”
4. Cited in Gifford, ibid, xv.
5. Hefele, Councils, i. p. 155. Const. Apost. viii. 3: “Let him that is to be instructed be a catechumen three years.” See Gifford, ibid, xv–xvi.
6. Gifford, ibid, xvii. ὠς φωτιζομένων τὴν διάνοιαν τῶν ταῦτα μανθανόντων.
7. Gifford, ibid.