2005-04-04

THE RISE AND FALL OF CONFIRMATION

Confirmation is a sacrament that has its origins (like all sacraments) in the life of the Apostles who followed Jesus. You might say that the first confirmation was administered by Christ Himself when He poured out the Holy Spirit upon His disciples at Pentecost, giving them the power to preach, teach, pray, heal, and perform miracles (see Acts 2). This empowerment by the Holy Spirit was Christ's "confirmation" of His Apostles and their mission to spread His Gospel everywhere. Every place they preached, their message was confirmed by the gifts of Christ's Spirit working powerfully in them.

In like manner, once a group of people came to Christ through public confession of Jesus as their Lord (usually accompanied by Baptism), the Apostles would lay hands on them and pray for them to receive the power of the Holy Spirit so they could also minister Christ to others. The Holy Spirit would them come and empower these new disciples with spiritual gifts, including powerful preaching, miracles, healings, and speaking in unknown languages. Thus, just like the Apostles, Christ would "confirm" these new believers as His disciples through the power of His Spirit.

As the Jesus movement spread, and new assemblies of believers started to grow all over the Roman Empire, these groups of believers were pastored by mature believers who had known the Apostles. These pastors, or leaders, were usually called "overseers" or "elders". The overseers would baptize new converts, and then, like they were taught by the Apostles, they would lay hands on them and pray for the Holy Spirit to confirm their faith with powerful gifts. In this way every new member of Church was a Spirit-empowered, bold-speaking, faith-praying disciple of Christ.

Within a few decades after the Apostles' deaths, the leadership of the Church became two-fold. Overseers became head pastors of whole geographic areas, and became known as "bishops" (from the Greek word "episcopos", meaning overseer). Elders became assistants to the bishops, and pastors of local assemblies of believers within each bishop's territory. They eventually became known as "priests" (coming from "presbuteros" in Greek, which became "prester" in Old English). These priests would preach the Gospel and baptize new converts, and then the bishop would periodically confirm these converts with the laying on of hands and prayers for the empowering of the Holy Spirit.

About this time, two problems began to face the Church. First, Christianity became an outlaw religion, and Christians began to be persecuted, tortured, and put to death by the Roman Empire. What should the Church do to try and make sure that Christians would not abandon their faith during persecution? Second, since the time of the Apostles, if an adult was baptized and confirmed, typically his or her whole family, including children, were baptized as well. What could be done to make sure that those baptized as infants would really become committed disciples of Christ as adults? Over time, a lengthy period of preparation for baptism and confirmation became the solution to these problems.

From around the third and fourth century, the following practice became common in the Church: Those who converted to Christianity became "confirmands" who had to go through intense training, prayer, and exorcisms for 1 to 3 years before being baptized. During this time, the priest instructed them in the basics of Christianity, and what it meant to take up Christ's cross and die to self (sometimes literally). They were taught that being a Christ-follower was not just a personal belief and a short prayer, but a literal matter of life and death. The new Christian was switching sides from Satan's kingdom to God's Kingdom in the cosmic war. They were becoming part of a new Family, and a literal member of Christ's Body. They were taking up a warfare faith, not just a belief system. They knew they were not just committing to believe in Jesus, but they were also committing to His Family to live for Christ, and even die for Him.

Those in training were regularly tested by other believers to see if they were living a Christ-like lifestyle, including living according to the commandments, helping the needy, and regularly attending worship and training classes. When they went to worship, they could only attend the reading of the Scriptures and the sermon. After that they were released to learn and pray. They could not attend the prayers of the Church, because that was when the other members admitted their faults and vulnerabilities. They also could not attend Holy Communion because that was a mystery reserved for only those baptized and confirmed by the Holy Spirit.

After a year or more of training, examination, and prayer, they proved themselves to be committed enough to be baptized and confirmed. The priests prayed several times for exorcism (to deliver them from demons) because it was taken for granted that those coming from Satan's kingdom into God's Kingdom were demonized to some extent. Exorcism prayer was usually accompanied by "slapping the devil out of them", and this is why some bishops still lightly slap confirmands during confirmation. On the last week before baptism and confirmation, the confirmands would fast and pray several days.

Finally, on baptism day the confirmands would confess their faith in Christ by reciting a creed and promising to live in God's Family according to Christ's commands. Then they would be submerged nude in water three times: once for the Father, once for the Son, and once for the Holy Spirit. After this, if the bishop was present, they would receive anointing with oil to symbolize that they were anointed to be Christ's own forever. The word Christ literally means "The Anointed and Chosen One", and being a Christ-ian means to be a little christ, one who is anointed an chosen by THE Chosen One. The bishop would then lay hands on them and pray for them to be confirmed with power and gifts from the Holy Spirit. Finally, they were admitted into the prayers of the Church and Holy Communion, and they became mature members of God's Family! It was a day of rejoicing, power, and praise! They were finally confirmed!

Often, however, bishops were not available to confirm those newly baptized because of all the churches they oversaw. New Christians had to wait a year or more for confirmation, and those who were baptized as children of believing parents had to wait until they were mature and instructed in the faith to receive confirmation. So gradually, confirmation became a special event that was separated from baptism. Baptism was seen as a new birth into the Church, while confirmation was seen as an official commitment to be a Spirit-empowered mature member in the Church. This created a Christian church that was so spiritually powerful that something amazing happened: the entire Roman Empire converted to Christianity as its official religion! The miracles, healing, goodness, commitment, and love of the early Christians was so self evident that even those who persecuted them became convinced by the Gospel.

This was the greatest triumph and the greatest defeat of the early church. Why? Because once Christianity became the official religion and socially respectable, people started becoming Christians for other reasons than Jesus Christ. Many became Christians because that is what "nice respectable" people do. The time of instruction and requirements for confirmation became less and less as more and more people crowded into the Church. Eventually, every good citizen was duty bound to have their children baptized, because it was basically required to be a citizen. Confirmation no longer had much to do with prayer, commitment, or power from the Holy Spirit. It became just a coming-of-age ritual to celebrate a citizen's onset of puberty. The church became merely the religious institution of the state, and they forgot that Christ had not come to make us into "nice" people, but into radically transformed ministers of His Gospel.

As a result, the Church entered into decline. Faith was at a low point. Superstition reigned. There was little power, few miracles, and a lack of healing manifested by the Holy Spirit. The Church was almost ripped apart by infighting several times. Wrong priorities and lack of commitment was the cause for this decline in the power of the Church in all areas, including the poor practice of confirmation. One of the few places where the power of the early Church was still seen was among those communities of monks, nuns, and other people who had withdrawn from society to commit themselves wholly to Christ. In fact, every time there has been a movement in the Church that stressed passionate commitment to Christ and relying on the strength of His Spirit, there has been revival and power.

Today we struggle with the same problems. How do we form passionate, Spirit-empowered followers of Christ who will change the world? In many churches, confirmation is still just a coming-of-age event to celebrate becoming a teenager. There is no power, and the children have little idea Who or what they are committing to. Still others see confirmation as a "graduation from the Church": the exact opposite of what Christ intended it for! After confirmation they feel like they have come to know all they need about "religion", and they do not have to come to Church or Sunday School or volunteer any more. It is "cultural Christianity", if you can even call it Christianity at all, for it bears little resemblance to the life-changing, world-transforming faith of the book of Acts. Is confirmation just a photo-opportunity, or a commitment to follow Christ with one's whole life? We all must decide this for ourselves.

In our Church family, we take confirmation seriously. It is not just a rite of passage or even a right for all Christians. It is a choice about life and death: Who will we live and die for? We seek to take confirmation back to what the Apostles intended. Because of this, we emphasize certain requirements: There is a requirement for living faithfully as part of our Church family by attending regularly and coming to special events. There is a requirement for learning, in community, what it means to be a sold-out follower of Christ. There is a requirement for serving the needy as part of God's Family. All of these things are done regularly and IN community, because following Christ is about living faithfully for Him IN our Church family.

Are these requirements tough? Compared to many churches today: Yes. Compared to the early Church and being martyred for Christ: Not at all. For us, Confirmation is a promise to live faithfully as a mature member of God's Family, fully involved, fully committed to Christ, and fully active in His mission to transform the world by His Love. To do this, we ask for and expect the Holy Spirit to empower us through our bishop's prayer and laying on of hands, so that God's gifts, power, and boldness flow out of us. If all we are looking for is a beautiful ceremony to celebrate coming-of-age and a photo opportunity, then we will be sadly disappointed. But if we want to see God move in amazing ways, then this is the place to be confirmed!
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.