What the Teaching Can Teach Us
Dr. William Varner
Not all extracanonical manuscripts reveal a 'lost Christianity.'
The church's earliest discipleship manualóthe Didacheó
is as orthodox and relevant as it gets.
The telephone call came just after we had finished our evening meal at the Knight's
Palace Hotel in the Old City of Jerusalem in May 2005. The message instructed me
to come now to the library of the Greek Orthodox patriarch if I wanted to see the
manuscript. I changed my clothes quickly and scurried through the labyrinthine
lanes of the Old City. After entering the Greek Orthodox monastery, I made my
way to the library. Soon, the librarian delivered what I had waited years to seeóa
950-year-old, 200-page manuscript containing, along with a dozen other early
writings, a little work only 10 pages long. Its name is the Didache (the "Teaching,"
pronounced "didakhay"), short for The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. While no
one believes that any of the twelve apostles wrote it, scholars agree that the work
is a faithful transmission of the apostles' teaching, intended primarily for the training
of Gentile believers.
Why do I have such an interest in this piece of parchment, the only manuscript
copy known to exist? Although scholars fiercely debate many issues about the
Teaching, most agree that it was written toward the end of the first century, by an
anonymous author who probably lived in the area of Syria near Antioch. The Acts
of the Apostles tells us that the believers were first called Christians in Antioch. This
term also appears in the Teaching.
1. The fact that the Didache comes from such an early period of church history
should make the Teaching of interest to every believer. But, while scholars have
discussed the Teaching for years, the average Christian has virtually no knowledge
of this little treasure, which can be found in The Apostolic Fathers in English (Baker,
2006) edited by Michael W. Holmes. That's too bad, because this earliest of church
manuals contains some instructions that may help us to "do church" today.
A Primitive Simplicity
Let me disappoint any reader who is hoping to find in the Teaching evidence of a
"lost Christianity" that will forever alter our understanding of the early church (like
some Da Vinci Code conspiracy). The Teaching is thoroughly orthodox in its
doctrine and, hence, from its discovery and subsequent publication in 1883, it has
been included among the writings known as the Apostolic Fathers. But it is not just
a simple repetition of information we already have in the New Testament. The initial
point of the Teaching is that we should love God and othersótaken from
Deuteronomy 6:5 and from Jesus' command in Matthew 22:37-39. The
Didache, however, adds a form of the Golden Rule familiar to Jewish readers:
"Whatever you do not wish to happen to you, do not do to another." Ancient
Jewish sources record the great rabbi Hillel expressing this idea in its negative form.
Other Jewish themes, adapted to a Christian context, abound in the book. Ethical
behavior is commended in the form of "two ways," a theme adapted right from
the Old Testament (see Ps. 1:1-6). The Lord's Prayer is to be offered three times
a day, just like the time-honored Jewish practice (Ps. 55:17). The prayers
accompanying the Lord's Table, or the Eucharist, are forms of a familiar Jewish
prayer called the birkat hamazon offered at meal times. Unfortunately, most of our
churches today know little about the Jewish roots of early Christianity. To return to
our Jewish roots involves more than occasionally inviting a Jewish believer to
speak in our pulpits.
The Teaching also can guide us regarding false teachers, and it does so in a
surprising way. While it commends strongly the ministry of hospitality, it uses
equally strong language for those teachers who prey upon the kindness of
believers. It sets the limit on traveling teachers' stays in believers' homes at one or
two nights. Also, in accord with Jesus' teaching, such traveling itinerants were to be
compensated by meeting their physical needs. With a refreshing
straightforwardness, however, the Didachist admonishes concerning guest
teachers: "But if he asks for money, he is a false prophet." One wonders what the
Didachist would say today if he could witness the tearful requests for monetary
gifts that come from some of our modern day "prophets." And what would early
Christians think of preachers today who demand a certain fee for preaching at a
church or conference?
The Teaching contains some refreshing advice on church life and organization.
Consistent with the New Testament, it advises congregations "to appoint for
yourselves overseers and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are humble and
not avaricious and true and approved, for they too carry out for you the ministry
of the prophets and teachers." Many writers have noticed a "primitive simplicity" in
the way that the Teaching describes the pastoral ministry in local assemblies. One
finds in it no elaborate hierarchy of "bishops, priests, and deacons" such as
developed in the second century.
The Didachist encourages believers to attend to their teacher's words, to gather on
the first day of the week to observe a simple Eucharist, and to confess their sins
before the assembly. When did you last hear someone honestly confessing his or
her sins before the congregation? While such a practice could be open to abuse,
why omit it altogether, especially when the New Testament also commends it
Not many evangelical churches observe the Eucharist weekly, but the Teaching
prescribes a simple liturgy for weekly observance, using Old Testament "servant"
terminology for the Lord Jesus (Isa. 53). The observance of this Eucharist was in
the context of an entire meal, the standard practice of the early church until well
into the second century. Why do so many churches today exchange something as
important as this experience for a 10-minute ceremony, tacked onto an otherwise
unaltered worship service, observed once a month at most? My liturgical brethren
may have something on me with their weekly Eucharist. But can they honestly say
that they are observing what both Jesus and the Teaching command?
The only other sacrament or ordinance that the Teaching recognizes is baptism.
However, it settles no Baptist-Presbyterian controversies, since it allows baptism
by either immersion or pouring, in either cold flowing water or warm still water.
This handling of the mode of baptism reveals a compassionate pastoral genius.
How, Not Why
The passage about baptism contains the following opening clause, "After you have
reviewed all these things, then baptize." The "things" that were to be reviewed are
the six chapters of instruction that the Didachist had just given. They consist
almost exclusively of practical instructions relevant to the life of a renewed person
saved from the rampant vices of a pagan empire. Missing, however, is any detailed
instruction in what we today call theology. I emphasized before that the Teaching
is thoroughly orthodox in doctrine, with a high Christology and a clear affirmation
of the Trinity. But mostly the Teaching describes the behavior that should
characterize a new believer.
My perception is that the vast majority of instruction classes in our churches today
deal primarily with what we are to believe, not how we are to obey. Perhaps the
Teaching has something to offer us, when we find so many doctrinally orthodox
believers struggling in their daily temptations, in their marriages, and in their
practical Christian walks. Maybe a training program along the practical lines of the
Teaching should replace the rote doctrinal rehearsals that characterize many of our
classes for baptismal candidates.
Some churches today place a strong emphasis on eschatology and Bible prophecy.
The New Testament also indicates that believers should be aware that they live in
the "last days" (Heb. 1:2; 1 John 2:18). The lapse of a couple of generations
since the birth of the church did not lessen that emphasis in the Teaching, which
ends with an entire chapter devoted to eschatology. But if readers expect to find
answers to all the prophetic puzzles and questions they have encountered, then
they will be disappointed. Yes, the Antichrist is mentioned as the "world deceiver,"
but we get no clues as to who, specifically, the Antichrist will be. No clear
indications of a sudden rapture are mentioned, but believers are warned that a fiery
test is coming for them. No clear millennial position is advocated, but a resurrection
for believers only is assumed. The book ends abruptly, with a reference to seeing
the Lord coming on the clouds of heaven.
The Teaching's original readers did not need to be titillated by prophecy novels, but
they did need to live holy lives in light of what lies ahead. Are we who are even
closer to the coming of the Lord any different in our needs?
We often remark that we desire to minister like the early church. Well, here is a
book that helps us better understand how to do just that.
William Varner teaches biblical studies and Greek at the Master's College in Santa
Clarita, California. His book The Way of the Didache will be published in the fall by
University Press of America.
The Didache on Taking Life
"You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery;" you shall not corrupt boys;
you shall not be sexually promiscuous; "you shall not steal;" you shall not practice
magic; you shall not engage in sorcery; you shall not abort a child nor commit
The Didache on Baptism
Now concerning baptism, baptize as follows: After you have reviewed all these
things, baptize "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" in
running water. But if you have no running water, then baptize in some other water;
and if you are not able to baptize in cold water, then do so in warm. But if you
have neither, then pour water on the head three times "in the name of Father and
Son and Holy Spirit" (7:1-3).
Copyright © 2006 Dr. William Varner
Faith and Reason Forum
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