Early Christian Reception of Penitents
One of the most common issues most churches face is that of members "backsliding", or falling away from the faith for some reason or other. Pastors are often left to their own devices as to how to handle someone who has fallen away from the faith, who seeks to return to the fold. Often they are simply plugged back into Sunday school classes and welcomed back. This does nothing to impress upon the penitent the severity of their sins and falling away. The early church, however, had a process for the reception of those who fell away. What follows is that process.
Depending on the severity of the sin, a penitent (the person who backslid and wishes to return) is to do penance for 2, 3, 5 or 7 weeks, depending on the severity of their sins and/or length of time away. In many churches today to impose such a period of time is unthinkable. This seems to be more due to a prevailing spirit of laxity than it does for any concern for the soul of the backslider. Much like a parent will lovingly exact a time of grounding for a child who has violated the rules of his parents, the church- if it is truly loving- will impress the gravity of violating their covenant upon the penitent by exacting a "spiritual grounding", as it were. During this time the penitent sits in the back of the church, and may not receive or be present during the reception of the sacraments. It is also a good practice to give the penitent various assignments to do while in the penance period. Mandatory attendance at adult Sunday school, a regimen of scripture reading, pastoral counseling, etc. are all some ideas for these assignments. The goal of these assignments is not to punish, but to restore the penitent, so the assignments must be faith based. After the time of penance, he/she is admitted back to full fellowship by a bishop or presbyter who blesses him/her before the congregation using the rite that follows, taken from early Christian sources:
THE RESTORATION OF PENITENTS
Presbyter: Let us pray. If you, Lord, should mark iniquities, who could stand? With you there is propitiation. This is declared in the Book of Genesis to Cain; You have sinned, be quiet; that is, do not continue in sin. The sinner should be ashamed of their sin; that oracle of God given to Moses concerning Miriam is sufficient proof, when he prayed that she might be forgiven. You, Heavenly Father, said to him, "If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been in disgrace for seven days? Confine her outside the camp for seven days; after that she can be brought back." So Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not move on till she was brought back.”
Thus we separate those who have sinned for a period of time, as you have directed. And now, as a Father to your children, receive back ____________ upon his/her repentance. Amen.
A personal prayer may be offered here.
Then he says as he lays hands upon the penitent's head:
Your sins are forgiven you; your faith has saved you; go in peace, and be restored to the tranquility of the Church of Christ.