The early church fascinates me; especially the practices of those Christians who were disciples of people like Paul, Peter, Barnabas, and Timothy–the first century giants of the New Testament who set the foundation for Christian belief and practice. I’m often curious about what their disciples did to carry on the work of the gospel throughout the Roman Empire and, indeed, around the world.
Different Christian authors throughout the history of early Christianity give us a glimpse of how the early disciples continued the work of those New Testament saints. For example, in the fourth century, Eusebius, known as the father of church history, writes about those first-second century disciples,
Then starting out upon long journeys they performed the office of evangelists, being filled with the desire to preach Christ to those who had not yet heard the word of faith, and to deliver to them the divine Gospels. And when they had only laid the foundations of faith in foreign places, they appointed others as shepherds, and entrusted them with the nurture of those that had recently been brought in, while they themselves went on again to other countries and peoples, with the grace and the co-operation of God. For a great many wonderful works were done through them by the power of the divine Spirit, so that at the first hearing whole multitudes of people eagerly embraced the religion of the Creator of the universe. (H.E. III.37)
This morning of 1 January 2022, I awoke and read from what we today call the Didache. It was well-known from Egypt to Syria in the late first century to early second century as the “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.” Its short 16 chapters were used as a sort of training manual for the early church. It would not have been a book that the disciples had in their homes, but rather the oral traditions of the apostles read and passed on as believers gathered together. Perhaps most notable in the Didache are the number of direct references to passages from the books of the New Testament.
The church manual begins with ethical instructions (1-6) as well as instructions for ritual practices like baptism and communion (7-10). Chapters 11-13 provide interesting directives for interacting with those who were called teachers, apostles, and prophets of the church. These disciples especially worked itinerantly as they traveled to equip the saints for works of ministry. And the final chapters provide further instructions for corporate worship and church governance as well as encouragement to be watchful for the return of Christ (14-16).
While the Didache is not an authoritative text as it includes some practices that seem strange to the New Testament, it was often included in the regular reading of Scripture. Nevertheless, it does gives us a glimpse into early church practices. A few of the practices that capture my attention are:
- The frequency in which the church gathers. The manual instructs daily gathering of the saints (4.2; 16.2).
- Emphasis on fleeing things which are evil (that lead to the path of death) and pursuing the things which are good (that lead to the path of life).
- Recognition of the sovereignty of God in the face of hardship (3.10).
- The continuing ministry of what we often call APEST typology given by Jesus and explained by Paul (Eph 4:11-16).
The Didache begins with something that is all too familiar to those of us who are followers of Christ. I thought this passage was a great place to start the new year and want to share it with you:
This then is the path of life. First, love the God who made you, and second, your neighbor as yourself. And whatever you do not want to happen to you, do not do to another. This is the teaching relating to these matters: Bless those who curse you, pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For why is it so great to love those who love you? Do the Gentiles not do this as well? But you should love those who hate you—then you will have no enemies. Abstain from fleshly passions. If anyone slaps your right cheek, turn the other to him as well, and you will be complete. If anyone compels you to go one mile, go with him two. If anyone takes your cloak, give him your shirt as well. If anyone seizes what is yours, do not ask for it back, for you will not be able to get it. Give to everyone who asks, and do not ask for anything back. For the Father wants everyone to be given something from the gracious gifts he himself provides. How fortunate is the one who gives according to the commandment, for his is without fault. (1.2-5)
Happy New Year! I pray that the Lord, our God, will sustain us to stay on the path of life for His glory’s sake in 2022. And, in the words of that early church instruction manual, to “…engage in all your activities as you have learned in the gospel of our Lord” (15.4). Seems to me that this look at the past might be a good reminder as we move to the future.