“Membership Standards” in the Didache
What is the Didache?
Like the Dead Sea Scrolls the Didache is an ancient document rediscovered in modern times (1873). It is a written record of the oral tradition of the first century Christian house church’s membership training. It is not Scripture, though many in the early church treated it as such. Actually it is more like a church discipline or membership-training program. It is an old book—older than some of the books in the New Testament, and for several hundred years was considered inspired and authoritative. It almost made it into the Canon, but (along with the other almost-but-not book, the epistle of Clement) did not make the final cut.
Why read the Didache?
I first came to study the Didache when searching for Christian evidence against abortion. Since there is no explicit condemnation of abortion in the New Testament I thought it seemed like the early Christians would be against abortion and sought evidence elsewhere. I turned to early church documents and found the Didache (2:2) listed abortion as one of the you-will-not new member instructions (along with murder and other commandment-like rules). I again returned to this short book when researching my book on worship to confirm the early church’s patterns of baptism and communion (chapters 7-10). I have been studying it again recently since I am now teaching more Christian Education courses and thus am interested in how the ancient Christian church did spiritual formation of new members. I’ve been pondering what the first century church’s “rules” would look like if they were put into today’s words.
How the Didache was used.
The best scholarship today believes that the Didache was used in a mentoring approach to membership training (at least the first part: the “two ways”). There is still disagreement over weather the rituals and church organization sections at the end was a separate book or not). The Didache was recited orally in section by a trainer in stages to a candidate for baptism/membership which could last as long as two years. While the New Testament gives some details of church life in the church at Jerusalem the Didache gives a complete description. Anyone interested in what the early church actually did should be interested in reading it.
How much authority does the Didache have? There are plenty of spurious documents the Christian church rejected—including the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip used by Dan Brown as sources for The DaVinci Code. However the Didache was never rejected by the church who used it regularly and gave it inspired authority for a time but eventually it slipped to the sort of authority one might give a denomination’s Discipline or Manual. The Didache is a practical guide for training new members and includes the actual instructions on the rituals a new member would take on completion of their preparation—Baptism and their first communion. (Sorry Baptists—the Didache gives a practical multiple-choice answer on immersion, though also sorry to the Anglicans—it prefers immersion. It also prefers cold water to warm and running water to still but we’re getting off track here—read the text of it to see what you think.) The real question is how much authority does it have? You will have to make up your own mind. For me it supplies a glimpse on what the early church stood for while some parts of the Bible was still being written. This glimpse is important to me as I try to understand how the first century “Jesus movement” grew and spread. However, I am not a primivitist or restorationist. I do not believe “the way they did it then was best and we should copy their ways.” Many of my readers won’t agree with me on this. I admit that I did not take this position when I knew less about what the early church actually did—but the more I’ve studied the Bible, first century culture, and what the first century church actually did in that day the more I have come to believe that we today much conserve their theology but are free to invent our own methodology. So why do I read the Didache at all? Because I like to learn. And knowing what the early church did might lead me to understand their theology (for all theology is found upstream from our actions). However if you believe the early church practice is a model for us today you’ll probably give the Didache more authority than I do. Either way—it is fun to know what the early church actually did in membership training. I’m interested in the latest way the “emerging church” does church, but I’m even a tad bit more interested in how the first century church did it.
Here is what I did in this article: The Didache has 16 chapters (though some chapters have only a few verses). My question was: What if we adapted the early church’s Didache membership training for today’s church? What if we assigned new candidates for baptism to an individual “sponsor” or “Membership mentor” and they trained the new members using the early church’s training program. What sort of member would we be trying to get? OK…you can do this for yourself—but I’ve done some of the first heavy lifting for you—but I hope you merely scan my work then read the Didache on your own and decide for yourself the kind of Christian the early church was trying to make. Don’t get sidelined by trying to decide if the Didache has any authority or not—just treat this as if it were Bill Hybel’s or Rick Warren’s membership training program for now and as you’re looking over it decide what kind of spiritual formation they were trying to do with their membership candidates. Then decide for yourself. I hope I’ve whetted your appetite enough to seduce you to actually go to the text and read through the Didache once—then decide for yourself.
(Based on the Didache c. 60-100AD)
as a member you should covenant to…
· Love you enemies
· Pray for them, fast for them
· Turn your other cheek
· Go the second mile
· Give generously to anyone asking of you
· Commit adultery
· Corrupt boys
· Have illicit sex
· Practice magic
· Make potions
· Abort your offspring
· Kill a newborn
· Covet your neighbor’s things
· Swear falsely
· Bear false witness
· Speak badly of anyone
· Hold grudges
· Make empty promises
· Hating any person
· Divining, enchanting, astrology
· Lover of money, seeker of glory
· Self-pleasing, evil-minded
· I will be gentle
· Be merciful, harmless, calm & good
· (Not be self-exalting)
· Accept all experiences as from God
· Remember constantly my mentor & other saints in the church
· (Not cause dissention but reconcile those fighting)
· Ignore social status in correcting others
· Focus on giving more then getting
· Cheerfully give without grumbling to those in need
· Be active in training my children
· Treat my slaves rightly; (slaves should be subject to masters)
· Hate hypocrisy
· I will give to those in need
· Keep these rules adding nothing or taking nothing away
· Confess my failings in church
B I WILL AVOID THE “WAY OF DEATH”
I will reject the “Way of death” as represented by the following (5:1-2)
· Illicit sex acts
· Hating truth/loving lies
· Paying unjust wages
· Not helping the poor
· Murdering children
· Turning away the needy
· Advocating for the rich
· Loving frivolous things
· Insisting on recompense for everything
After learning the “Two ways” I make these final commitments. (5:1-6:3)
· I will be wary of anyone drawing me away from this teaching.
· As I am able to live all of this teaching I shall do it; but until I am able to bear some of it I shall bear whatever load I can for now yet keep my goal of carrying the entire load.
· I will do my best to follow the traditions regarding eating food however I understand that eating anything sacrificed to idols is non-negotiable and I will abstain from it.
This ends the “Two ways” membership mentoring materials in the Didache though it continues to describe the means of baptism (7:1-4) fasting and prayers (8:1-3) the Eucharist (9:1-10:7) and various instructions on church management (11:1-16:8). There are wonderful glimpses into the early church practices in these chapters but they do not outline the core elements of membership instruction like the first six chapters.
So, what do you think? How would you describe this “membership training” material if you got it in the mail?
v What did the early church focus on mostly?
v What did they leave out?
v What sort of Christian behavior were they trying to get?
v What were the “hot issues” of the day they addressed?
v What “hot issues” of today are completely absent?
v How much do you think they actually compromised? Where’s the hint?
v What would people today say if you introduced this sort of membership approach?
v How would a 1-2-1 “membership mentor” training program differ from group training?
v (Hard one) In what way is this system like other membership systems in first century culture?
Click here for a full text of the Didache … I hope you’ll read it and decide for yourself
By Keith Drury December 24, 2004
 I’m not saying that method does not shape theology, or that some methods are incompatible with good theology here—but that’s another article.