What history can teach Christians about worship
I was raised a Southern Baptist, attending the First Baptist Church of Rogersville until I graduated from high school and went to Nashville to become a Commodore. I remain steeped in the culture of Southern evangelicalism, though (thanks to be time at Vanderbilt, some religious studies classes, and a certain fiancee of mine) my faith has been tempered and refined since the heady days of May 2001.
As a part of that new understanding of just what it means to be a Christian, I have become enthralled by Paul's definition of what things, as author Max Lucado once cited, are of first importance:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Paul of Tarsus, First Letter to the Church at Corinth, Ch. 15, vv. 3-7.
This summary of the Gospel, this outline of the Faith, has become my battlecry since I first discovered it during another class at Vanderbilt, where I first engaged the history of Christianity.
It is a subject with which I am very familiar, and yet not: as a Southern Baptist, the call of my life was to "imitate the New Testament church," and avoid "modern" accretions and creeping traditionalism. But in my training as a historian (B.A. in Political Science and in History, Vanderbilt '05), I was taught that what could be considered "tradition" in one sense, is very much important history in another sense.
For me, approaching early texts from Christianity gives insight into exactly what it means to truly imitate the early Church, as opposed to reading into the New Testament the traditions and practices of my fathers and grandfathers from God's country in the mountains and hills of East Tennessee.
With that introduction, then, I want to share one of the very important texts that I discovered as a part of my class, "History of the Christian Tradition" (History 180, taught by Professor Joel Harrington).
The text is that of the Didache, otherwise known as The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles.
In this posting, I include both an editorial on the text of The Didache by the influential Christian magazine, Christianity Today, and the actual text of the Teaching itself.
WHAT 'THE TEACHING' CAN TEACH US
Not all extracanonical manuscripts reveal a 'lost Christianity.' The church's earliest discipleship manual -- the Didache -- is as orthodox and relevant as it gets.
by William Varner
May 22, 2006
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 see—a 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.
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 others—taken 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 (James 5:16)?
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 TEACHING OF THE TWELVE APOSTLES
An early manual of Christian instruction from circa 80-90 A.D. (only fifty to sixty years after Christ). Though not inspired by the Holy Spirit, it is a revealing look at the practices of the New Testament era Church.
There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you. And of these sayings the teaching is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what reward is there for loving those who love you? Do not the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy.
Abstain from fleshly and worldly lusts. If someone strikes your right cheek, turn to him the other also, and you shall be perfect. If someone impresses you for one mile, go with him two. If someone takes your cloak, give him also your coat. If someone takes from you what is yours, ask it not back, for indeed you are not able. Give to every one who asks you, and ask it not back; for the Father wills that to all should be given of our own blessings (free gifts).
Happy is he who gives according to the commandment, for he is guiltless. Woe to him who receives; for if one receives who has need, he is guiltless; but he who receives not having need shall pay the penalty, why he received and for what. And coming into confinement, he shall be examined concerning the things which he has done, and he shall not escape from there until he pays back the last penny. And also concerning this, it has been said, Let your alms sweat in your hands, until you know to whom you should give.
And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born. You shall not covet the things of your neighbor, you shall not swear, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not speak evil, you shall bear no grudge. You shall not be double-minded nor double-tongued, for to be double-tongued is a snare of death.
Your speech shall not be false, nor empty, but fulfilled by deed. You shall not be covetous, nor rapacious, nor a hypocrite, nor evil disposed, nor haughty. You shall not take evil counsel against your neighbor. You shall not hate any man; but some you shall reprove, and concerning some you shall pray, and some you shall love more than your own life.
My child, flee from every evil thing, and from every likeness of it. Be not prone to anger, for anger leads to murder. Be neither jealous, nor quarrelsome, nor of hot temper, for out of all these murders are engendered.
My child, be not a lustful one. for lust leads to fornication. Be neither a filthy talker, nor of lofty eye, for out of all these adulteries are engendered.
My child, be not an observer of omens, since it leads to idolatry. Be neither an enchanter, nor an astrologer, nor a purifier, nor be willing to took at these things, for out of all these idolatry is engendered.
My child, be not a liar, since a lie leads to theft. Be neither money-loving, nor vainglorious, for out of all these thefts are engendered.
My child, be not a murmurer, since it leads the way to blasphemy. Be neither self-willed nor evil-minded, for out of all these blasphemies are engendered.
Rather, be meek, since the meek shall inherit the earth. Be long-suffering and pitiful and guileless and gentle and good and always trembling at the words which you have heard. You shall not exalt yourself, nor give over-confidence to your soul. Your soul shall not be joined with lofty ones, but with just and lowly ones shall it have its intercourse. Accept whatever happens to you as good, knowing that apart from God nothing comes to pass.
My child, remember night and day him who speaks the word of God to you, and honor him as you do the Lord. For wherever the lordly rule is uttered, there is the Lord. And seek out day by day the faces of the saints, in order that you may rest upon their words. Do not long for division, but rather bring those who contend to peace.
Judge righteously, and do not respect persons in reproving for transgressions. You shall not be undecided whether or not it shall be. Be not a stretcher forth of the hands to receive and a drawer of them back to give. If you have anything, through your hands you shall give ransom for your sins.
Do not hesitate to give, nor complain when you give; for you shall know who is the good repayer of the hire. Do not turn away from him who is in want; rather, share all things with your brother, and do not say that they are your own. For if you are partakers in that which is immortal, how much more in things which are mortal?
Do not remove your hand from your son or daughter; rather, teach them the fear of God from their youth. Do not enjoin anything in your bitterness upon your bondman or maidservant, who hope in the same God, lest ever they shall fear not God who is over both; for he comes not to call according to the outward appearance, but to them whom the Spirit has prepared. And you bondmen shall be subject to your masters as to a type of God, in modesty and fear.
You shall hate all hypocrisy and everything which is not pleasing to the Lord. Do not in any way forsake the commandments of the Lord; but keep what you have received, neither adding thereto nor taking away therefrom. In the church you shall acknowledge your transgressions, and you shall not come near for your prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of life.
And the way of death is this: First of all it is evil and accursed: murders, adultery, lust, fornication, thefts, idolatries, magic arts, witchcrafts, rape, false witness, hypocrisy, double-heartedness, deceit, haughtiness, depravity, self-will, greediness, filthy talking, jealousy, over-confidence, loftiness, boastfulness; persecutors of the good, hating truth, loving a lie, not knowing a reward for righteousness, not cleaving to good nor to righteous judgment, watching not for that which is good, but for that which is evil; from whom meekness and endurance are far, loving vanities, pursuing revenge, not pitying a poor man, not laboring for the afflicted, not knowing Him Who made them, murderers of children, destroyers of the handiwork of God, turning away from him who is in want, afflicting him who is distressed, advocates of the rich, lawless judges of the poor, utter sinners. Be delivered, children, from all these.
See that no one causes you to err from this way of the Teaching, since apart from God it teaches you. For if you are able to bear the entire yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect; but if you are not able to do this, do what you are able.
And concerning food, bear what you are able; but against that which is sacrificed to idols be exceedingly careful; for it is the service of dead gods.
And concerning baptism, baptize this way: Having first said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in living water.
But if you have no living water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, do so in warm.
But if you have neither, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.
But before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.
But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week. Rather, fast on the fourth day and the Preparation (Friday).
Do not pray like the hypocrites, but rather as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, like this:
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily (needful) bread, and forgive us our debt as we also forgive our debtors. And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one; for Thine is the power and the glory for ever.
Pray this three times each day.
Now concerning the Eucharist (the Lord's Supper), give thanks this way. First, concerning the cup:
We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever.
And concerning the broken bread:
We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever.
But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they 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."
But after you are filled (i.e., after the Lord's Supper), give thanks this way:
We thank Thee, holy Father, for Thy holy name which You didst cause to tabernacle in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality, which You modest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Thou, Master almighty, didst create all things for Thy name's sake; You gavest food and drink to men for enjoyment, that they might give thanks to Thee; but to us You didst freely give spiritual food and drink and life eternal through Thy Servant. Before all things we thank Thee that You are mighty; to Thee be the glory for ever. Remember, Lord, Thy Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in Thy love, and gather it from the four winds, sanctified for Thy kingdom which Thou have prepared for it; for Thine is the power and the glory for ever. Let grace come, and let this world pass away. Hosanna to the God (Son) of David! If any one is holy, let him come; if any one is not so, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen.
But permit the prophets to make Thanksgiving as much as they desire.
Whosoever, therefore, comes and teaches you all these things that have been said before, receive him. But if the teacher himself turns and teaches another doctrine to the destruction of this, hear him not. But if he teaches so as to increase righteousness and the knowledge of the Lord, receive him as the Lord.
Concerning the teachers and prophets, act according to the decree of the Gospel. Let every teacher who comes to you be received as the Lord. But he shall not remain more than one day; or two days, if there's a need. But if he remains three days, he is a false prophet. And when the teacher goes away, let him take nothing but bread until he lodges. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet.
Every prophet who 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 who speaks in the Spirit is a prophet; but only if he holds 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 does not eat it, unless he is indeed a false prophet. And every prophet who teaches the truth, but does not do 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.
Whoever says in the Spirit, Give me money, or something else, you shall not listen to him. But if he tells you to give for others' sake who are in need, let no one judge him.
But receive everyone who comes in the name of the Lord, and prove and know him afterward; for you shall have understanding right and left. If he who comes is a wayfarer, assist him as far as you are able; but he shall not remain with you more than two or three days, if need be.
If he wants to stay with you, and is an artisan, let him work and eat. But if he has no trade, according to your understanding, see to it that, as a Christian, he shall not live with you idle. But if he wills not to do, he is a Christ-monger. Watch that you keep away from such.
Every true prophet who wants to live among you is worthy of his support. So also a true teacher is himself worthy, as the workman, of his support. Every first-fruit, therefore, of the products of wine-press and threshing-floor, of oxen and of sheep, you shall take and give to the prophets, for they are your high priests.
If you have no prophet, give it to the poor. If you make a batch of dough, take the first-fruit and give according to the commandment. So also when you open a jar of wine or of oil, take the first-fruit and give it to the prophets; and of money (silver) and clothing and every possession, take the first-fruit, as it may seem good to you, and give according to the commandment.
Every Lord's day gather yourselves together, and break bread, and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. Let no one who is at odds with his fellow come together with you, until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice may not be profaned.
For this is that which was spoken by the Lord: "In every place and time offer to me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great King, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations."
Appoint, therefore, for yourselves, bishops (shepherds) and deacons worthy of the Lord, men meek, and not lovers of money, and truthful and proved; for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers.
Therefore do not despise them, for they are your honored ones, together with the prophets and teachers.
Reprove one another, not in anger, but in peace, as you have it in the Gospel. But to anyone that acts amiss against another, let no one speak, nor let him hear anything from you until he repents. But your prayers and alms and all your deeds so do, as you have it in the Gospel of our Lord.
Watch for your life's sake. Let not your lamps be quenched, nor your loins unloosed; but be ready, for you know not the hour in which our Lord will come.
Come together often, seeking the things which are befitting to your souls: for the whole time of your faith will not profit you, if you are not made perfect in the last time.
In the last days false prophets and corrupters shall be multiplied, and the sheep shall be turned into wolves, and love shall be turned into hate; for when lawlessness increases, they shall hate and persecute and betray one another, and then shall appear the world-deceiver as Son of God, and shall do signs and wonders, and the earth shall be delivered into his hands, and he shall do iniquitous things which have never yet come to pass since the beginning.
Then shall the creation of men come into the fire of trial, and many shall be made to stumble and shall perish; but those who endure in their faith shall be saved from under the curse itself. And then shall appear the signs of the truth: first, the sign of an outspreading in heaven, then the sign of the sound of the trumpet. And third, the resurrection of the dead -- yet not of all, but as it is said: "The Lord shall come and all His saints with Him." Then shall the world see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven. Amen.
LISTENING TO: A song that's stuck in my head
FEELING: A sense of excitement about seeing Kat this weekend