"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Didache on the Church

Selection from the Didache
H/T Taylor Marshall

The Didache is an important early Christian document. Its title means '[The] Teaching', though its full title is "The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles". It was held by some early fathers to be close to canonical. The date of its composition is not easy to determine. It has been dated anywhere from 70 AD up to 160 AD. What it says about apostles and prophets and fasting (viz-a-viz the Jews) indicates that it is probably a late first century - early second century composition.

What does the Didache teach us about the early conception of the Church? In chapter 9 we read:

[BOQ] Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom; for Yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever. But let no one eat or drink of your Thanksgiving (Eucharist), but they who have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, Give not that which is holy to the dogs.[EOQ]

Here we see a conception of the Church as universal (i.e. catholic). Christ has one Church that is being gathered together from the ends of the earth into His kingdom. In chapter 10 we see a similar conception of the Church:

[BOQ] Remember, Lord, Your Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in Your love, and gather it from the four winds, sanctified for Your kingdom which You have prepared for it [EOQ]

The "Church" here needs to be delivered from evil and made perfect. So it cannot merely refer to those who are perfect. The Church is being sanctified, and being gathered together from the four winds. This idea of "gathering" implies a unification. The Church is not a mere collection, a disunited plurality. The Church is a unity into which men from the ends of the earth are being gathered and united.

In chapter 11 we find the following:

[BOQ] Whosoever, therefore, comes and teaches you all these things that have been said before, receive him. But if the teacher himself turn and teach another doctrine to the destruction of this, hear him not; but if he teach so as to increase righteousness and the knowledge of the Lord, receive him as the Lord. But concerning the apostles and prophets, according to the decree of the Gospel, thus do. Let every apostle that comes to you be received as the Lord. But he shall not remain except one day; but if there be need, also the next; but if he remain three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle goes away, let him take nothing but bread until he lodges; but if he ask money, he is a false prophet. And every prophet that speaks in the Spirit you shall neither try nor judge; for every sin shall be forgiven, but this sin shall not be forgiven. But not every one that speaks in the Spirit is a prophet; but only if he hold the ways of the Lord. Therefore from their ways shall the false prophet and the prophet be known. And every prophet who orders a meal in the Spirit eats not from it, except indeed he be a false prophet; and every prophet who teaches the truth, if he do not what he teaches, is a false prophet. And every prophet, proved true, working unto the mystery of the Church in the world, yet not teaching others to do what he himself does, shall not be judged among you, for with God he has his judgment; for so did also the ancient prophets. But whoever says in the Spirit, Give me money, or something else, you shall not listen to him; but if he says to you to give for others' sake who are in need, let no one judge him.[EOQ]

We see here something important about testing itinerant teachers. They have to teach in agreement with what came before. Similarly, those who claim to be prophets but do not live in the way of the Lord, are false prophets. But those true prophets who are "working unto the mystery of the Church in the world" are not to be judged. The meaning of the phrase "mystery of the Church in the world" is not entirely clear. But the Church is here treated as a mystery, i.e. a sacrament that is in the world. The idea of a mystery or a sacrament, in this context, is that there is more to it than meets the eye. There is more there than we can see. Implicit in this sacramental conception of the Church is thus the idea that the Church has both a visible and an invisible aspect, as Christ Himself had both a visible and an invisible aspect. He was mysterious in the sense that there was much more to Him (that's quite the understatement) than met the eye. The Church imitates Christ in this very manner. Her saints are quiet, hidden, and mostly unknown. They are, in that respect, like Jesus Himself, for Isaiah tells us, "He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him." (Isaiah 53:2-3) The Church, which is the Body of Christ, imitates Christ in this very way. The Church is so human that you can just walk right past it, not even recognizing it for what it is. This is the mystery of the Church in the world.

In chapter 15 we read the following:

[BOQ] Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, and not lovers of money, (1 Timothy 3:4) and truthful and proved; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers. Despise them not therefore, for they are your honoured ones, together with the prophets and teachers. And reprove one another, not in anger, but in peace, as you have it in the Gospel; Matthew 18:15-17 but to every one that acts amiss against another, let no one speak, nor let him hear anything from you until he repent. But your prayers and alms and all your deeds so do, as you have it in the Gospel of our Lord.[EOQ]

Here the believers are told to appoint for themselves "bishops and deacons" who are "worthy of the Lord". These men will render to the laity the service corresponding to that of the "prophets and teachers". This, we may suppose, was at the time when the apostolic era was coming to a close, and there would no longer be traveling apostles, prophets, and teachers to feed the infant churches. So the people would need to select from themselves those who were to be bishops and deacons to oversee their churches. Some have interpreted the first line here "Appoint, therefore, for yourselves bishops and deacons" to mean that the Didache is endorsing congregationalism. But if we read the Didache in the context of the other early Church fathers, we see that this isn't a congregationalism in which ordination is conferred by the laity. Rather, the laity were to select worthy men from among themselves, and put them forward as candidates for ordination by the apostles.

To read the Didache in its entirety, go here.


George Weis said...


I am in the middle of my work day (at home), but I do not have the time to look over all of this, but I have read the Didache, and I am eager to hear your thoughts on it.

I am astounded by your series of posts. Simply the speed at which you are posting them, and by the overall understanding that you have of these writings is excellent.

I appreciate your heart my friend! I am still struggling with all of this. I am sure to set myself to read your thoughts in succession when time allows me.

Many thanks!


Principium Unitatis said...

Thanks George for your note. I am putting forward this little series on the early fathers on the Church to see if we can find some common ground, ecumenically. As Christians, this is *our* Church. This is *our* history. These are *our* fathers in the faith. I hope we can learn from these men who either knew the Apostles or were only a few generations removed from them, regarding what they thought about the Church and her structure and the nature of her authority.

I hope and pray that this will help to bring us (Protestants and Orthodox and Catholic) to full communion, for the glory of God.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts and reflections on these matters, when you have some time.

Oh, I almost forgot, congratulations on the birth of your son! May he know and love God from his infancy, and may he faithfully serve Christ throughout his whole life.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

CD-Host said...

In terms of mystery I think the phrase, "working unto the mystery of the Church in the world" is dealing with the notion of how spirit interacts with matter. In this case through the Eucharist.