Thus far in our review of Patristic writings we have surveyed texts by or about: Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna - all of whom lived during the First Century A. D. Because of their close connection to Apostolic times and because they were in contact with one or more of the Apostles, these men are called “Apostolic Fathers.” Their lives and writings bear profound witness to Christianity at the time of its formation and they provide valuable insight into the structure and function of the early Church. Knowing the names and life stories of these early Christians affords us a tremendous opportunity for building spiritual communion with our Christian past. Through their eyes we can understand the story of the Church on a personal level.
But not all writings from this period are from known authors – some are anonymous. This does not detract from the value or authenticity of the writings. There are many important insights to be gleaned from texts that are of unknown authorship. One such source is The Didache (or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles). This brief instructional guide was written around A.D. 70, so it is well within the time of the Apostles and was highly regarded by the Church of the first few centuries. Some of the Church Fathers included The Didache in their list of Scriptural books. But even among those who rejected it as “scripture” it was at least a close second in importance to those books that were truly inspired.
It is important to remember here that the Bible as we know it was not compiled in the First Century…or even in the Second. It was not until the late Fourth Century that we begin to see a final list of books considered “Scripture.” Until that time, The Didache was one among many manuscripts that were passed around within the Church alongside our familiar four Gospels, the Epistles, the Book of Revelation and Acts. Amid this confusion, the “Hand of God” did not come down out of the clouds, sort through these texts, and bind them into a Biblical Cannon. Rather, the final “table of contents” was an open question for hundreds of years. To understand the Church of the first few centuries we must understand that writings such as The Didache were a powerful teaching force in the eyes of the first Christians.
Keeping that in mind, we will consider a few excerpts from The Didache and compare these texts to what we have learned from the Father’s we have so far reviewed…
The Didache opens with a solemn warning:
“There are two ways, one of life and one of death; but a great difference between the two ways…”
Upon reading these words, we might immediately call to mind the Church’s present struggle against the “culture of death” versus the “Gospel of Life” as described by Pope John Paul II. The late pontiff preached that we are surrounded on all sides by a culture that promotes death – not only spiritual death through sin and an abandonment of God’s Law, but also real physical death through anti-life practices such as contraception, discrimination against the aged and disabled, through euthanasia and most horribly the scourge of abortion. Christians are called to respond with the “Gospel of Life” – the message that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that His way is not the way of the world. There are certainly two paths: one that leads to eternal life with God, and one that is marked by death and the destruction of our souls. The Church has always testified to this truth.
As we read further we find the following command:
“…you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is begotten.”
Many people mistakenly believe that abortion is a recent phenomenon – a product of the modern medical practitioners in lab coats and sterile operating rooms. Surely our ancient predecessors never grappled with the moral dilemma with which we are now faced. This false perception of history leads some to assume that Christians of today could fairly come down on either side of the abortion debate. The procedure is so new that the first Christians would never have dreamed of such things and so we could never learn from them how to apply Christian moral principles to abortion. But ask a First Century Christian about abortion and he might very well cite The Didache as an authoritative rejection of the “culture of death.” First Century Christians would have been very attuned to the powerful message of the modern the Catholic Church against the “way of death.”
The Didache continues:
"The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, your neighbor as yourself…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, if you love those who love you? Do not also the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy…If someone gives you a blow upon 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 away 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 that asks you, and ask it not back; for the Father wills that to all should be given of our own blessings…”
Obviously this text was heavily influenced by the sayings of Jesus as found in the Gospels. Scholars believe that these sayings were circulated by word-of-mouth prior to the writing of the New Testament books and later found their way into many First Century texts. This segment of The Didache is like a mini-gospel, relating the teachings of Jesus in a compressed format to instruct the faithful. So the “way of life” as described here is truly the “Gospel of Life” of which John Paul so often spoke. The First Century Christians would have recognized the same message reflected in John Paul’s preaching.
Some might argue that the First Century Christians may possibly agree to the pope’s message, but they certainly would not have accepted his authority as bishop of the whole Church. The Catholic Church invented the power of the hierarchy, did they not?
In answer to this challenge we see that The Didache speaks highly of Church leaders and preachers of God’s Word and saintly men and women in the Church:
“My child, him that speaks to you the word of God remember night and day; and you shall honor him as the Lord; for in the place whence lordly rule is uttered, there is the Lord. And you shall seek out day by day the faces of the saints, in order that you may rest upon their words.”
We are to “honor him as the Lord” those who preach God’s Word to us. This closely echoes what we have read in other First Century Christian writings:
“See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop.” (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaens)
“…your bishop presides in the place of God, and your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ, who was with the Father before the beginning of time, and in the end was revealed…Let nothing exist among you that may divide you; but be united with your bishop, and those that preside over you…” (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Magnesisans)
But what could be more forceful on this point than Scripture itself:
“Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith...Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Heb 13:7,17)
If we seek to understand the First Century Church then we must admit that obedience to Church leadership was a vital component of the early Christian experience...