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EARLY CHURCH SPONSORS

In the early years of the Church, it was not easy to become a Christian. For the first four centuries, until the time of Emperor Constantine (r. 306-37), the Romans persecuted those choosing to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. While the severity of the persecution varied depending on the emperor, seeking out and joining a Christian community was risky. Christians were viewed by many Romans and Jews as a disloyal secret society holding mysterious services, eating and drinking what they called the body and blood of Jesus. These Christians had only one God and refused to worship the emperor, burn incense before a Roman idol or participate in pagan activities.


The threat of persecution caused the Christians to be careful about accepting others into their community; the fear was that someone could infiltrate and then identify their members to local officials. Saul, before he became St. Paul, is an example of the kind of person the Christians sought to avoid. Even after Paul’s conversion they worried about him: “When he arrived in Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple” (Acts 9:26).


Christians were cautious and worshiped covertly. Anyone who wanted to join their community was carefully evaluated; in the vernacular of today, they were “vetted.” Each person who came forward, called an inquirer, was always accompanied by someone already Christian, a sponsor, who would vouch for the inquirer. The sponsor specifically attested to the person’s sincerity and moral character. St. Hippolytus (170-237 AD), in his discourse, Apostolic Tradition (Cambridge University Press, $31.99) wrote: “New converts to the Faith, who are to be admitted as hearers of the word, shall be brought to the teachers before the people assemble. And they shall be examined as to their reason for embracing the Faith, and those who bring them shall testify that they are competent to hear the word.” Having received the testimony of the sponsor, the Church leaders would further evaluate the one seeking to become a Christian. These persons would be asked about their lifestyle and occupation. Certain lifestyles would eliminate the person unless he or she promised to change the way they lived: prostitutes, soldiers, gladiators, sculptors of idol figures, actors, charioteers and others were rejected. Every Christian community wanted to share the Good News and expand the number of believers, but at the same time they sought complete candor and sincerity from the inquirer. Thus the role of sponsors was essential.


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