Catechesis, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper: Essential to the Development of House Church Communities

A study of the Lukan writings reveals the household of God to be a place of mercy, faith, and filial obedience (Neyrey 1991, 227-229).  But also of great significance to the integration of new converts into God’s family was the catechetical process.  Hinson (1981, 50-51) asserted the catechetical process offered the chief opportunity to win converts by exposing the convert to God’s Word and the hospitable community.

The Practice of Catechesis and Baptism in the House Church

Baptism was observed in house churches, but before an adult was baptized he/she had to go through an intensive discipleship. One of the key features of house church worship was catechesis, an “elementary pre-baptismal instruction” (Castillo 1982, 36; Meeks, 1983, 81-84).  The spontaneous baptisms in Acts (Acts 2:38-41; 4:4; 8:36-40; 9:18; 10: 44-48; 16:15, 34; 18:8; 19:5) were not the normal practice as time passed.  The Didache required some sort of pre-baptismal instruction summed up in the “Two Ways” (Didache 7.1).   Hippolytus required a three year catechumenoi (Apostolic Tradition 2.17).  The Pseudo-Clementine writings demanded a six year catechumenate (Ep. Petr. ad Jac. 4.1) (Hinson 1981, 76ff.). There were rigorous moral standards set for the catechumens since their conduct was a missionary witness (Jungmann 1959, 75-78). Discipleship of the catechumen and other members of the congregation was very important because they were enlisted as missionaries and expected to propagate the gospel (Allen 1962, 81ff.)  The catechumens were expected to make offerings like other members and take part in the life of a local Christian congregation.  They were not allowed to receive communion since they were not yet baptized.  This rule was so important that the catechumens were sent out of the worship service after the first part of the Eucharist (Stevenson 1989, 38-41). 

Baptism was practiced universally, but how it took place is variously described (Wegman 1985, 12, 34ff.; Grant 1964, 175; Kelly 1978, 193-195).  Justin described the baptismal rite (1 Apology, 61) as the “layperson’s ordination” (Hinson 1981, 87).  The Didache stated that the Trinitarian formula should be spoken and cold running water should be used.  If cold running water was not available then warm water was to be used.  Fasting was to precede the baptism of adults (Didache, 7).  Stevenson asserted, on the basis of archaeological findings, that what is commonly called “immersion” today would have been the exception rather than the rule in the early history of the church (Stevenson 1989, 41).  Very early in the life of the Christian Church a definite baptismal form used in the church from a very early time (Jungmann 1959, 79ff.; Stevenson 1989, 34; Castillo 1982, 42-44).  By the time of Tertullian there were at least two centers in the West that had a complete baptismal ritual possessing several similar components (Wegman 1985, 38).

The Lord’s Supper: The Family Meal

The Lord’s Supper was the high point of the worshipping community (White 1993, 24ff.; Castillo 1982, 35, 39-42; Kelly 1978, 196-199) and every baptized Christian who could examine himself/herself was expected to participate.  This was not a legalistic expectation, but developed from an understanding of who the Christian was and to whom the Christian belonged (Shepherd 1963, 153).   

Christians gathered for the Eucharist in much the same way as the Jews did for the Passover.  The family met for the meal and partook of the flesh and blood of the Lamb slain for the sins of the world (Ignatius, Smyrn. 7.1; Grant 1964, 179; Kelly 1978, 197-198; Stevenson 1989, 45ff.; Jungmann 1959, 31-38).[1]

Initially the Lord’s Supper was accompanied with a love feast. As the love feast was abused, as in Corinth (Jungmann 1959, 34; Neyrey 1991, 137ff.), and as the church grew larger, a common meal became impractical and the two meals were separated (Branick 1989, 98-101; Spielmann 1966, 21-23; Stevenson 1989, 57; Shepherd 1963, 141-142; Wegman 1985, 42ff.).  The Lord’s Supper was observed in the morning service and the love feast meal was held at night (Krautheimer 1965, 2).[2]  Hahn (1973, 103) maintains that it was not until the time of Justin that the meal and the ritual of bread and cup were separated from one another.  At this time the Eucharist was incorporated into the Sunday morning worship.  Hahn also claims Justin was not the first to give early Christianity its definitive form, which actually prevailed some time before his Apology (Hahn 1973, 103).

Maranatha, one of the oldest liturgical prayers, was a very important prayer of the Church spoken during the Eucharistic liturgy (Cullmann 1953, 13-14; Castillo 1982, 36).  The first eucharistic feasts looked back to the resurrection meals that Jesus had with his followers and forward to the eschatological banquet that awaits his people (Cullmann 1953, 15-16). Cullmann (1953, 30, footnote 1) argues on the basis of Acts 2:42, 20:7 and Justin Martyr that as a rule there was no gathering of the community without the breaking of the bread.  The Lord’s Meal was the basis and goal for every gathering.[3] 

By the latter part of the second century at the latest, the basic pattern and observances of the Lord’s Supper had been made uniform in all churches.  There were only minor variations (Shepherd 1963, 151-153).

[1]On p. 58 Stevenson notes that small children partook of the Lord’s Supper

[2]For its observance see: Justin Martyr, 1 Apology, 65; 39; 67; Didache, 9; The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, I. iv., 4-13; Jungmann devotes a chapter to the “Celebration of the Eucharist in the Writings of the Apologists”, Jungmann 1959, 39ff.; Wegman 1985, 40ff.

[3]Walsh (1986, 191) notes, “Members of the community took the consecrated elements home with them so they might receive the Eucharist during the week.”

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