July 5, 2020

Friday with the Fathers (4)

The Church Fathers, Kievan Miniature (11th c)

By Chaplain Mike

Today, in our Lenten series on the Apostolic Fathers, we consider a work that many think comes to us from the days of the apostles themselves: The Didache (The Teaching).

Known in ancient times as The Teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles by the Twelve Apostles, or, in shorter form, The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, this book has been dated as early as 50 AD, though most scholars tend to think it was written around 100 AD. The only manuscript we have (from 1056 AD) was discovered in 1873, though The Didache was mentioned in many ancient sources. As Michael W. Holmes notes, an early date is suggested by “the relative simplicity of the prayers, the continuing concern to differentiate Christian practice from Jewish rituals (8:1), and in particular the form of church structure—note the two fold structure of bishops and deacons (cf. Phil. 1:1) and the continuing existence of traveling apostles and prophets alongside a resident ministry.”

Scholars have observed connections between The Didache and the Gospel of Matthew, and some posit that these works may have been created in the same geographical, historical, and cultural setting. Its contents suggest a possible provenance in Syria or Palestine, and one of the main issues involved the relationship between Christian congregations and the practices of the Jewish community. Others have noted possible links with the situation in the region of Antioch and early controversies in the church regarding Gentile conversion (Acts 11-15). There are also links with the Epistle of Barnabas, which we will talk about when we discuss that work.

The Didache has been conceived as a manual of instruction for congregations that includes:

  • Moral instruction (perhaps for new believers or baptismal candidates) (1-6)
  • Instructions for church practices and order (7-15)
  • A concluding apocalyptic exhortation (16)

Christ's Appearance on the Mountain, Buoninsegna

Moral Instruction

“There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between these two ways.” (1:1)

The Didache’s longer title, which speaks of apostolic teaching to the Gentiles, brings to mind the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20), where Jesus commanded his representatives to make disciples throughout the world, “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” This is the focus of this book. In similar fashion to the NT epistle of James, The Didache does not concern itself with theological contemplation or doctrinal controversy. It is a book that describes what actual “following” looks like for those who want to follow Jesus.

Its instruction begins at the fountainhead:

“Now this is the way of life: First, you shall love God, who made you. Second, you shall love your neighbor as yourself; but whatever you do not wish to happen to you, do not do to another.” (1:2)

The beginning of all Biblical instruction about life is the Great Commandment, in both its aspects—toward God and others, and the “Golden Rule.” Love God. Love your neighbor. Do what you would have others do for you. Much of the teaching that follows in The Didache reflects the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), with Jesus’ emphasis on heart obedience, humility, and love, rather than simple outward conformity to a standard of righteousness or religious rules. The Didache likewise commends the fuller teaching of the Law that Jesus himself expounded.

We know from our discussions on grace that this kind of instruction leads us back time and time again to the Gospel. We continually fall short in our conformity to God’s revealed instructions and commands, though, as people made new in Christ, we aspire to love and act as Jesus calls us. Therefore, we fall down regularly before the Cross, confess our sins, and claim ongoing forgiveness, cleansing, and renewal through our Savior (1John 1:8-9).

One way The Didache stresses this Good News is by pointing Christians to the Eucharist, where we pray,

Remember your church, Lord,
to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in your love;
and from the four winds gather the church that has been sanctified into your kingdom,
which you have prepared for it;
for yours is the power and the glory forever.
May grace come, and may this world pass away. (10:5-6a)

This is the spiritual food that God gives us, renewing and strengthening us to walk in his ways.

However it must be said that, like the canonical letter of James, the Cross is not prominent in The Didache. Nor is the new life that comes through resurrection. Nor is the power of the Holy Spirit. One supposes Luther might not have rated this book highly had he commented on it. On the surface, it is loud on Law, quiet on Gospel.

Nevertheless, this manual reminds us that the Christian faith is to be lived, not just thought about or talked about. Jesus’ commission is that those in the church will teach one another to observe all that he commanded us. He said, “Follow me” when he called his disciples, thus defining our relationship with him in active, walking terms. He suggested that calling him “Lord” and not doing the things he says is a contradiction. While we never want to be moralistic or legalistic in our approach, or think that anything ultimately depends on our works, nevertheless there is an organic relationship between life and fruitfulness that both the Bible and the Didache point out and urge upon us.

Church Practices
Some of the revelations that The Didache brings are found in its depiction of early church practices. For example,

  • We read that the mode of baptism need not be immersion (ch. 7).
  • Fasting was part of the preparation for those participating in baptism. Though the book portrays nothing like a fully developed Lenten season of fasting, the same reasoning applies.
  • Regular fasts on Wednesdays and Fridays are commended, thus showing early practices of weekly penance.
  • The Lord’s Prayer is to be memorized and recited three times a day.
  • Evidence of an early liturgy surrounding the Eucharist is suggested.
  • The church is called to gather and “break bread and give thanks” on the Lord’s Day.
  • Those who gather for worship are called to confess their sins first and be reconciled to one another.
  • Bishops and deacons are the appointed leaders of the church. Prophets and teachers are also honored.

Thus we see that many traditional practices of the church have early roots. If this book is as early as some surmise, these represent what the church was doing while the apostles were still ministering.

The Didache contains an interesting section on how to evaluate teachers and itinerant ministers. I find this to be highly instructive for our situation of teachers who “come to us” through various types of media today.

So, if anyone should come and teach you all these things that have just been mentioned above, welcome him. But if the teacher himself goes astray and teaches a different teaching that undermines all this, do not listen to him. However, if his teaching contributes to righteousness and knowledge of the Lord, welcome him as you would the Lord. (ch. 11)

Traveling teachers who “wear out their welcome” by staying more than a day or two are to be considered false, as are those who ask for money. Prophets are not to be evaluated by how well they “speak in the spirit,” but by their conduct. If one wants to settle down in the community, he should work at a trade if he can; if not, the church should decide “how he shall live among you as a Christian, yet without being idle.” Those who refuse to cooperate are to be viewed as people who are “trading on Christ,” and they should be avoided. Genuine teachers and prophets should be supported from the first fruits of the community’s income and produce.

The church is to be wise and discerning concerning those who teach. Evidence of greed is a special tip-off of one who will lead you astray. Be careful who you give your money and your attention to.

Christ Pantokrator, Selvik

Living in the Last Days
The book’s brief final exhortation calls the church to live in the light of Christ’s return. Like Jesus’ “Olivet Discourse” in Matthew 24-25, The Didache urges believers to be alert and ready in their faith. Lawlessness will increase as the last days proceed. A “fiery test” under “the deceiver of the world” will mark the end of the age and many will apostasize. But then, the trumpet, the resurrection, and the Lord’s return.

Eschatology is an important aspect of our faith. We must not let the crazies with their schemes, rants, sensationalizing, and date-setting rob us of our sense of expectancy. Following Christ leads, not only on a wild and wonderful journey, but also to an ordained destination. New creation awaits us. With that in view—with him in view—we follow.

From the earliest days of the church, as this early church document witnesses, the life of following and the community of Jesus that he has called us into, is all about faith, hope, and love.

Text cited from:
The Apostolic Fathers, by Michael W. Holmes


  1. Loving the series!

  2. This is very interesting. Thanks for the post

  3. This essay was like being back in the first century, walking the streets of Asia Minor and talking with a mature follower of Christ.

  4. Not having read the entire thing, and know you undoubtedly have can you tell me if it refers or infers in any way to gender in ministry roles?

    Thanks for this post.

  5. Cunnudda says

    Where is Jeff Dunn? Does he know about this horrible document that actually aspires to giving moral instruction and doesn’t emit “grace” from every pore? Burn this spawn of heresy, I say!! 🙂

  6. cermak_rd says

    What kind of moral instruction would be necessary for new converts? I take it this would have been for Gentile converts, as Jews would mostly have known a basic morality if not practised it. I think of US culture, and I wouldn’t think that most Americans would need moral instruction on entry to a Church. So what was so different about Gentile culture of that era?

    • Most of the instruction in The Didache is taken directly from the NT—Sermon on the Mount and other places. As I said in the post, It would be easy to see that this document might have been put together to teach disciples “all that Jesus commanded” as it says in the Great Commission.

      Other moral instructions reflect the Ten Commandments, Paul and Peter’s vice and virtue lists, as well as culturally specific exhortations such as avoiding magic and witchcraft, not aborting children or performing infanticide, or committing pederasty, responsibilities of slaves and masters, and so on.

      As for Americans not needing moral instruction, I think you might get some disagreement with that assertion.

      • Christiane says

        “As I said in the post, It would be easy to see that this document might have been put together to teach disciples “all that Jesus commanded” as it says in the Great Commission.”

        Hi Chaplain Mike,
        It seems to me, and I may be wrong, that the ‘biblical gospel’ of Christian fundamentalism centers on ‘hell’ primarily, rather than on the Beatitudes and ‘all that Christ commanded’. If I am correct, how did it come to be that way, do you think? Is it just a matter of what is emphasized, or is the whole structure of fundamentalism centered elsewhere than on the words and actions of Our Lord in sacred Scripture?

        • David Cornwell says

          Sometimes the church has departed from telling the story of Jesus, including his teachings, in favor of teaching the so called fundamentals or social action or whatever.

        • Christiane, in my opinion, one unfortunate consequence of the Reformation was that it led to an emphasis on dogmatic theology which came to overshadow living in the story of Jesus. Later developments that have had a more direct effect on contemporary evangelical/fundamentalist practices would include revivalism, which emphasized “making a decision” for Christ to avoid hell and embrace the promise of heaven.

          • Christiane says

            Thank you, Chaplain Mike.

            Can anything be done to help these good people put their emphasis back on the Holy Gospels which highlight the life and teachings of Our Lord?

            I noticed the recent ‘reaction’ among fundamentalists to do with Rob Bell’s new book, and they seems defensive, as though he was attacking the very center of their ‘gospel’. Many were critical, but would not even read the book. It was kind of sad, because I think his book was intended to start a meaningful dialogue.

        • Jonathanblake says

          “they seems defensive, as though he was attacking the very center of their ‘gospel’.”

          At the Bible College I’m at it seems to be exactly the case. It blows my mind how some people (at my school again) have reacted to a little bit of inclusivism. One of my professors made mention of the legitimacy of people who will never hear the gospel having a shot at heaven/salvation based on the grace and light God gave them and their response to it and people began flipping out as if their world was shaking.

  7. “…like the canonical letter of James, the Cross is not prominent in The Didache.”

    I think that is a matter of perception. The cross is the climatic symbol of the incarnation. God didn’t save humanity by sitting on a cloud debating theology; instead, God became a human and walked, talked, worked, touched, healed, died, and rolled away the stone. It seems like the call against “trading on Christ” and in favor of taking up a trade is not just to defend against religious exploit of the faith and the faithful but to guard the congregation against gnosticism. I think this is at the heart of James’ exhortation against mere mere words in place of acts of charity (James 2:16); it isn’t that such religious acts will save, but that gnostic-like emphasis on words, debate and knowledge kills – a corruption, rotting of the true faith and of those who fall into such false beliefs.

    I think the emphasis on the eucharist also points to the incarnation: Christ doesn’t just give teaching but gives “the spiritual food that God gives us, renewing and strengthening us to walk in his ways.” Jesus feeds us with himself and we give ourselves in service to our neighbors. This is not to draw attention to ourselves and our works, but to the One who feeds us and desires to feed the world.

    Modern evangelicalism has lost its incarnational, sacramental emphasis in favor of knowledge, principles, and religious practices separated (literally and figuratively) from neighbor and neighborhood.

  8. “On the surface, it is loud on Law, quiet on Gospel.” For many early documents, I have been amazed by the emphasis on Law. Gets me thinking.

    • Allen, I am not enough of a Lutheran to consider all moral instruction as “Law” in the traditional Reformation sense that its primary function is to show us our sinfulness and lead us to Christ.

      In my opinion there is a difference between “keeping the Law” in the sense of practicing religious observances in order to be considered part of God’s covenant community on the one hand, and “obedience” in the sense of the new obedience that is God’s gift to Christians because we have died with Christ, have been raised with him to walk in newness of life, and have received the Spirit to produce the fruit of love in and through us.

  9. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    The Didache is probably my favorite Patristic writings. It’s one of the few that I go to again and again.