The beginner’s guide to Confirmation
What is confirmation? Where did it come from? Why do only some churches do it?
Confirmation: What is it?
When I was in youth group, each year at church we would have a special service. A bunch of year 10 students would stand up one by one during the church service and say “I turn to Christ”. This would be followed by each of those teenagers kneeling in front of a guy in a purple shirt (the Bishop), who would then lay his hands on their heads and pray for them. The whole church would then join him in praying for them. Sound familiar? Or does it sound bizarre?
If you haven’t already worked it out, the special church service I am talking about is called “confirmation”, and it has been going on since the early days of Christianity. Today Christians disagree about confirmation. Most Presbyterians and Anglicans still have it, while other Christians, such as Baptists and Pentecostals mostly don’t.
My goal in writing this article is to help Christian teens understand what confirmation actually is, because there is a bit of confusion out there. In another article, I will tackle the question of whether or not Christians should get confirmed - stay tuned! So in order to understand what confirmation is, I’ll first tell you a bit about where it comes from and then explain what is actually going on when people get confirmed.
A brief history of Confirmation
The exact origin of confirmation is a bit of a mystery. Some Christians think that Acts 8:14-17 where Peter and John lay their hands on the first Samaritan Christians and pray for them (with the result of them being filled with the Holy Spirit) is a Bible passage that teaches confirmation. The problem with this view is that Peter and John’s actions in Acts 8 are during a pretty unique time in Christian history (ie. the first record of non-Jewish Christians receiving the Holy Spirit!). Other passages in the Bible such as 1 Corinthians 12:3 show that it’s when people confess Jesus as Lord that they receive the Holy Spirit.
Hebrews 6:2 however, refers to baptisms and the laying on of hands together. Whether or not the writer to the Hebrews meant to or not, this verse pretty much describes how confirmation was done in the early church. As I said, it’s a bit of a mystery exactly when or how confirmation started, but we can be sure that quite early in the history of Christianity, Bishops would visit churches, and baptise / confirm Christian converts and their families, by laying hands on them and praying. But there was a big problem that came up in the 4th century when Christianity became the state religion! Suddenly stacks of people were becoming Christians - so many in fact, the Bishops just couldn’t get around to baptise and confirm all of them. Something had to be done! But what?
There were 2 different answers to the problem. In the 'Eastern Church' (Asia, Lebanon, etc.), the Bishop would pray over a flask of oil, then all the local ministers could baptise children and pour this oil over them. This is still the way they do it today - I was amazed to hear about a Lebanese guy in my youth group who was baptised and confirmed as a baby, not at all the way I’d heard of it being done!
In the 'Western Church', local ministers would baptise babies and the Bishop would come and visit when he was able to confirm them. So, confirmation used to be part of baptism, but at least for us in the western world they are now two separate rites and it’s all because of the church growth explosion in the 4th century!
Still confused about Confirmation?
You might have a few questions at this point. Isn’t confirmation about reaffirming the promises mum and dad made when I was baptised as a baby? What’s the deal with the oil? I can understand why you’d be wondering these things. To understand why confirmation is so different now than it was earlier, we need to spend a bit of time thinking about the reformation, when guys like John Calvin, Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer changed confirmation (and with good reason!). There had been a big problem in the church in understanding what confirmation was. It was seen at the time as a kind of magical act where Christians were actually filled with the Holy Spirit just by the Bishop laying hands on them. The reformers made two main changes to confirmation which explains why it is understood and practiced differently today.
1: They got rid of the oil being poured over confirmees (i.e. they toned down anything which might make it seem like a magical act!).
2: They made people wait until they were old enough to understand the Christian faith, which usually meant having confirmation classes before they were confirmed.
So what is Confirmation all about now?
What is actually going on in confirmation, well here’s what it’s all about. There are 2 big things:
1: A promise is made: At confirmation, we celebrate as someone publicly declares their personal faith in Jesus. As a baby, their parents made promises on their behalf, including “I turn to Christ, I renounce evil, I repent of my sins, and I will keep God’s holy law and commandments”. In confirmation, the person getting confirmed owns these promises for himself or herself. They don’t just follow their parents' faith anymore, but now take an adult responsibility for it themselves (that’s why confirmation classes are really important in helping confirms understand the Christian faith and what they are committing to!). Hearing people declare their faith, and make these promises is also really encouraging for other Christians at church.
2: A prayer is prayed: The minister leads the entire church in praying for each person who gets confirmed. The prayer is that God will strengthen his servant by his Holy Spirit. I think this is one of the best things about the confirmation service. How often does your whole church pray for God to help you personally to serve Christ? I’m really thankful that this prayer was prayed for me 13 years ago and always say a passionate 'amen' to it when I’m at a confirmation service for others.
So there’s a bit about what Confirmation is, next week an article will be posted to help you think through whether or not you should get confirmed.
If you have any questions about Confirmation, leave them below & we'll try and get some answers for you!