Luke Miller takes a look at the epilogue of The Teaching of the Twelve: Believing and Practicing the Primitive Christianity of the Ancient Didache Community. Although at first skeptical, he ultimately embraced the Didache,
You won’t often see me advocating for a return to the old-time religion. I’m dubious of those who preach about the need to get back to the first-century church. What we need is to figure out how to be a faithful church today, in 2009 (though I’ll rant about that another day). Being a student of history, however, I do see immense value in learning from our foremothers and fathers. In the same way that a constitutional scholar tries to get inside the heads of the first Americans, we do well to peer into the minds (and lives) of the first Christians.
The epilogue, in full, below. I post it in hopes that, by reading it, you will feel my great affinity for the Didache, and your curiosity might be piqued enough to read the book.
Having spent the last year or so reading and thinking about the Didache, I have to admit that it has significantly influenced my Christian faith. To me, it represents a lost version of Christianity, and one that many of us long to get back to.
All across the United States, and all over the world, small, organic communities of faith—like the Cymbrogi—are blossoming. They are indigenous to the areas in which they are born, but they all reflect a desire to embrace a primitive Christianity, tainted neither by Constantine nor consumerism. It’s happening in urban centers and on rural organic farms.
Of course, we’re not the first generation to quest after a raw, primitive version of the faith. At various stages over the past two millennia, Christians have questioned the traditions of “church” and “religion” in an effort to follow Jesus more authentically. Benedict did it. Francis and Clare did it. Julian did it. So did the Shakers and the Quakers and the Jesus People.
And all along, a manual of primitive Christianity sat hidden, right in front of us.
The Didache’s secrets are not as mysterious as the Gnostic writings that land skeptical professors on the bestseller lists these days. This is not a record of Jesus’ exploits as a divine boy, turning clay pigeons into real ones to impress his peers at recess. No, the Didache’s testimony from the first century is much simpler, and much less headline worthy. Herein lies nothing particularly controversial.
As opposed to being challenging to scholars and historians, the Didache presents a challenge to every one of us who endeavors to follow Jesus. In plain and unadorned language, it calls us to self-sacrifice, altruism, and faithfulness. We’re called to love God and to love one another; to pray and fast for those who stand against us; and to give away everything we can.
Honestly, I think that for the one who has already been trying to follow Christ, the first reaction upon reading the Didache will be, “I know, I know!” For it reinforces, in clear and straightforward ways, what we already know—we should treat one another well and give ourselves over to the way of God.
How we live together, too, is implicated by the Didache. As Trucker Frank has told me, the word church has undergone a complete transformation in his thinking. Many things he equated with church have been washed away by the Didache. Instead, he now sees church as no more (and no less!) than a gathering of God’s people, sharing wine and bread, baptizing those new in the faith, and supporting one another as they try to live by the teaching of the Lord.
Frank used to despair when he read Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, for it commends the Ephesians to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Unity in the church seemed to Frank like some unattainable dream. But the very items of the faith that used to separate the Cymbrogi—such as whether to baptize by immersion or sprinkling—were overcome when they read the Didache as a community. There they saw one of the very earliest Christian communities saying, in effect, do the best you can. If you’ve got running water, great. If not, make do with what you have.
This is, indeed, so far removed from what we see across much of the landscape of Christianity today. Denominations are facing schism over issues of sexuality as they once did over slavery; local churches are in court with their denominations over who owns the land and who owns the building. And there is the never-ending human proclivity to sin, which results in church leaders perpetrating the worst atrocities imaginable on their congregants.
And yet there is, as I wrote above, a movement among God’s people—indeed, a movement authored by God’s Spirit—to sacrificially and wholeheartedly serve Christ and one another. The Didache, I think, holds an important key to this work. By looking back to this beautiful, simple, ancient handbook, we can look forward to living Christianly in a world not so different from theirs.
The challenge to each one of us—and to each of the Christian communities in which we have placed ourselves—is whether or not to do anything about it. Our brothers and sisters in the faith who lived in the Didache community call us away from the marginalia that consumes us today. They call us to simple community in which righteous living is taught and expected, sharing life is a way of life, visiting preachers are welcomed but not given any power in the community, baptism and Eucharist are practiced regularly, and Jesus’ return is expected and hoped for. Just a few activities, done well, shaped the Didache community. How can we simplify our church settings, our church language, so that our gatherings can be understood by all? How can we develop church structures that are not intimidating but welcoming, even to those who are wondering about the reality of God? The Didache is our ancient church diet manual. It reminds us that a simple diet of holiness, Eucharist, and love are the key ingredients for Christian community, and a focus on those will bring the community together in the way that Jesus prayed in John’s Gospel.
There are more and more people these days who are questing after a simpler Christianity. And there may be no better way to move in that direction than using the Didache in the same way that it was originally used: as a handbook for those new to Christianity, and for those newly rediscovering it.
I will conclude by once again quoting my friend Trucker Frank, who more than anyone has helped me understand the Didache. “There are two ways,” he told me, “and they are love and not love. I choose love.”
- Buy the book at Amazon for $10.11
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- Read our full translation of the Didache
- Listen to me read the Didache (17 minutes, mp3 file)
Previously: Adam, Thomas, and me on chapter one. Amy, Ted, and me on chapter three. Holly, Tripp, and me on chapter four. Mike and me on chapter five. Brother Maynard and me on chapter six. Mike, Greg, and me on chapter seven.