Appreciating the Ancient Roots of Church Precepts: The “Didache” Revisited

In all ages and places, members of the Church need guidance and discipline. … What we learn from consulting the Didache is that the first generations of Christians had many of the same concerns as we do today, and that these were reflected in the establishment of various Christian disciplines. 

One of the secrets hidden in the ancient document, known as the Didache, or the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, is the concept and practice of the precepts of the Church. This fact is largely overlooked, and perhaps for good reason. The Didache is a document that is recognized by theologians and historians alike as an extremely precious view into the primitive life of the early Church. Written most likely in Syria as a kind of early Catechism for the instruction of catechumens in the last third of the first century, the Didache supplies a rich insight into the moral teachings, sacramental life, and liturgical practice of the Church in late apostolic times. For instance, in its description of the “Way of Life,” the Didache provides the first explicit condemnation of abortion among the Church’s ancient writings, indicating that it was regarded as one among many sins leading to the “Way of Death.” It is interesting to find abortion similarly condemned in later sub-Apostolic writings, such as the “Letter of Barnabas,” which condemns abortion in much the same way as the Didache as a violation of the “Way of Light” and a sign of the “Way of Darkness.”

The Didache, however, was lost to history and only rediscovered in 1873, much to the delight of Church historians, who quickly recognized that this document painted a picture of early Church tradition, teaching, and practice that correlated nicely with the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, such as Ignatius of Antioch and Justin Martyr. The moral teachings and liturgical practice described in the Didache pointed to an early magisterial authority at work among the first and second generation of Christians.

Sometimes overlooked in the extraordinary discovery of the Didache was how it revealed the more mundane functioning of the Church’s disciplinary authority. This can be seen by teasing out of the text the various precepts considered necessary to the practice of the early Christian life. Indeed, each of the five or seven modern precepts of the Church—depending on whether one consults the new or the old Catechism—finds in some way its origins either explicitly or implicitly in the Didache. Although many precious jewels of early Christian teaching and practice are found there, one of the least recognized or appreciated is precisely the way this ancient document preserves a description of the disciplinary life of the Church as expressed in its earliest precepts.

One modern complaint against the Church is precisely that it establishes “too many rules.” But it turns out that from its earliest beginnings, the Church had certain disciplinary rules, as we learn even in the Acts of the Apostles where one often lauded practice was to sell all one’s assets and deposit them in the common pool of resources for the early Church (Acts 2:42; 4:32-35). The failure of Ananias and Sapphira to comply honestly with this early rule of discipline proved fatal to the deceptive couple (Acts 5:1-11). Further disciplinary rules resulted from the Council of Jerusalem in A.D. 49 (Acts 15).  The Council of Nicaea, though principally convened to refute the Arian heresy, also promulgated numerous disciplinary rules for ecclesiastical management at a time when converts to the Church were proliferating. But many of these were merely refinements of rules that already existed in Church practice, as can be seen by a close reading of the Didache.

The modern Church asks it members: 1) to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor; 2) to confess sins at least once a year; 3) to receive Communion at least once a year during the Easter season; 4) to observe the laws of fasting and abstinence, and; 5) to provide support for the material needs of the Church. (CCC §2041-2043). Immediately on listing these, the Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses the importance of its members to participate in the moral life and missionary witness of the Church (§2044-2046). Some older lists of the precepts, especially in the Baltimore Catechism, divide the obligation of keeping holy days into another precept, and formally list as precepts the obligation to obey the laws of marriage, and to participate in the missionary life of the Church.

Implicitly, if not explicitly, all of these disciplines were expected of the earliest Christians, and evidence for this is found in the Didache. Take, for instance, the rule to attend Mass on Sunday. The third commandment calls for honoring the Sabbath. The earliest Catholics did this through obligatory attendance at Mass on the New Covenant Sabbath of Sunday, and so, from earliest times, going to Mass and receiving the Eucharist were seen as essential to Christian practice. After spending several paragraphs describing the Eucharistic liturgy, in Chapter 14, the Didache commands Christians thus: “But every Lord’s day gather yourselves together, and break bread and give thanksgiving after having confessed your transgressions.” In a pithy sentence, the early Church pointed to confession as the doorway for the worthy reception of Communion. Thus, we see a conflation of both the necessity for receiving Communion, and for the confession of sins.  In Chapter 15, the Didache mentions the confession and the repentance of sins in the context of the work of bishops and deacons.

Concerning the laws of fast and abstinence, we find a much more rigorous practice among the early Christians as compared to our own. In Chapter 8 of the Didache, the authors call for fasting on the “fourth day and the Preparation day” that is, Wednesdays and Fridays. In the very first chapter of the Didache, Christians are bid both to “pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you.” In its chapter on the practice of baptism, the baptizer, and others, were urged to fast, and the one to be baptized was to keep a fast of one or two days before his baptism. Echoing the Council of Jerusalem, the Didache warns Christians in their fasts and abstinences to bear what they are able, “but against that which is sacrificed to idols be exceedingly on your guard” (Chapter 6).

The requirement to support the Church was seen as a direct obligation of early Christians.  This finds its expression in a couple of ways in the Didache. The existence of itinerant preachers, “prophets,” and teachers in the early Church is attested to in Chapter 11. Such persons, if true to the way of the Lord, were to be received, as were other Christian guests as sojourners for as long as three days, implying the furnishing of lodging and meals (Chapter 12).  But if someone were to stay for longer than three days, they were expected to work for their keep: “if he wills to abide with you, being 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.” Similarly, in Chapter 13, the Didache bids Christians to support true prophets and teachers. In the same chapter, Christians are directly bid to give of their first fruits to the poor, as they would to true teachers and prophets who, by their teaching and prophecy, are working for the good of the Church. In these passages, we see a very direct disciplinary expectation for Christians to support materially the work of the Church. Almsgiving, however, whether to the teachers and prophets, or to the poor, was to be undertaken with prudence. Chapter 1 of the Didache puts the matter thus: “Let your alms sweat in your hands, until you know to whom you should give.”

Obedience to the Church law and to the Church hierarchy is implied throughout the Didache, but made explicit in Chapter 15, where Christians are bid to appoint bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, to serve the community. In Chapter 11, we are told that true prophets and apostles are not to be judged by the faithful. Throughout the Didache, the Christian is bid to keep a sober life of virtue, the way of life, and to avoid sin and vices, the way of death. The insistence on confession of sin before reception of the Eucharist indicates the serious expectations placed by the Church on its members, for their own eternal good. By the Christian’s very life, then, by the sum of his thoughts, words, and deeds, he was to be a witness to Christ, watchful always for his Second Coming, as indicated in the last chapter of the Didache. From the beginning to the end, the Didache bids Christians to follow an obedient life of faith, love, and hope.

In all ages and places, members of the Church need guidance and discipline. It was so from the beginning, and remains so today. What we learn from consulting the Didache is that the first generations of Christians had many of the same concerns as we do today, and that these were reflected in the establishment of various Christian disciplines.  Loving God requires communion with him in prayer and sacrament. Thus, Christians need to keep the Sabbath by attending Holy Mass, the very summit and source of the Christian life, by receiving Communion by which we are fortified with the sanctifying grace necessary to fight the spiritual battle for good, by confessing our sins when we fall short of our Christian obligation, and by disciplines of prayer, fasting, abstinence, and alms-giving for the poor, and for the good of the Church. We need to be obedient to the teaching of the Lord as preserved and taught by the Church, and to live a life that itself speaks of Gospel values. In doing this, we participate in the Church’s witness to the wider world. We cannot live as Christians without the regular practice of the faith. The precepts of the Church, when all is said and done, are necessary for advancement in the spiritual life of a Christian disciple, but they are only a foundation and a start, because the Christian, seeking to advance in holiness, will go far beyond their minimum demands to become a constant instrument of God’s grace in the world. Keeping the precepts is but a first start to the fulfillment of one’s Christian life, which ultimately enters a land of freedom and beatitude beyond our expectation, in an outpouring of ourselves for the love of God and neighbor.

Note: All citations from the Didache are taken from: Ancient Christian Writers. Edited by Johannes Quasten. Translated by James Kleist. (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, No. 6, 1985) pp. 15-26.

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avatar About Deacon Robert F. Gorman, Ph.D.

In addition to his duties as University Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Texas State University, Deacon Gorman serves at Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in New Braunfels, Texas, and also teaches government and theology at John Paul II Catholic High School.

Comments

  1. avatar Sam. Eggleston says:

    Very well written article, Dr. Gorman. The insights and meaning of this very early Christian document should be taught in every Christian Church. Unfortunately, most Christians are entirely ignorant of Christian history and don’t see the importance of changing their status. You have explained succinctly the importance of this document which should encourage those who are intellectually curious to read it for themselves. I wish I could have had a political science professor like you when I was in college.

  2. avatar Chris Gammon says:

    Re: “New Covenant Sabbath of Sunday” (paragraph 6) … Doesn’t the mention of both fasting on the “day or Preparation” and celebrating the Eucharist on The Lord’s Day imply a Church that celebrated both the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day? I mean, what else were they preparing for on Friday?

  3. avatar Martin Drew says:

    Deacon Gorman, thank you for this paper on the Didache. I studied it in a liturgical class at St. Mary’s Seminary Perryville, Mo. The Didache seems to be a parallel to the Acts yet it goes into detail about the life of a Catholic and what the Catholic church is as later in 1546- 1563 the Council of Trent extends this strain. Unless one has a class in a catholic college or university on the liturgy the Didache will not be covered. Thank you for the refresher.. Martin Drew in Dallas.

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