The Didache, Part I: Way of Life, Way of Death

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One of the primary emphases of the Christian Ethics course I teach to high school juniors is that the Christian life is a way of life, not a set of propositions. As the ACNA’s catechism, To Be A Christian, puts it in Question 361:

Does God’s forgiveness excuse you from personal obedience?

No. God has reconciled me to himself and freed me from bondage to sin in order to conform me to the image of his Son. As I live each day in gratitude for God’s forgiveness, I seek to turn from sin and follow Christ in loving obedience.

That is, God has saved us from sin and for holiness. Our faith is not passively received, but is actively pursued. Mere knowledge profits a person nothing; it must be married to a life of repentance and faith. As Paul teaches, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable unto God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).

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Way of Life, Way of Death

One of the texts I teach in this course is the Didache (which means “teaching”), one of the earliest Christian documents not included in the New Testament. Scholars place the first six chapters within twenty years of the crucifixion of Jesus, so around the time of St. Paul’s earliest epistles. The full work was completed probably by the end of the first century and it had a long life as an instruction manual for catechumens (new Christians) as they prepared for the Sacrament of Baptism.

The Didache begins by proclaiming that “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you.”

The Way of Life is characterized by admonitions like the following, drawing from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7:

Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you… If someone strikes 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 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 who asks you, and ask it not back; for the Father wills that to all should be given of our own blessings (free gifts).

And prohibitions like the following, resembling the 10 Commandments from Exodus 20:

You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born. You shall not covet the things of your neighbor… You shall not be covetous, nor rapacious, nor a hypocrite, nor evil disposed, nor haughty. You shall not take evil counsel against your neighbor.

The Way of Life is also marked by submission to godly authority, love of fellow Christians, and love of one’s own household:

My child, remember night and day him who speaks the word of God to you, and honor him as you do the Lord… And seek out day by day the faces of the saints, in order that you may rest upon their words. Do not long for division, but rather bring those who contend to peace. Judge righteously, and do not respect persons in reproving for transgressions… Do not turn away from him who is in want; rather, share all things with your brother, and do not say that they are your own… Teach [your children] the fear of God from their youth. Do not enjoin anything in your bitterness upon your bondman or maidservant, who hope in the same God, lest ever they shall fear not God who is over both; for he comes not to call according to the outward appearance, but to them whom the Spirit has prepared.

On the other hand, the Way of Death is characterized by the following sorts of actions:

Murders, adultery, lust, fornication, thefts, idolatries, magic arts, witchcrafts, rape, false witness, hypocrisy, double-heartedness, deceit, haughtiness, depravity, self-will, greediness, filthy talking, jealousy, over-confidence, loftiness, boastfulness; persecutors of the good, hating truth… loving vanities, pursuing revenge, not pitying a poor man, not laboring for the afflicted, not knowing him who made them, murderers of children, destroyers of the handiwork of God, turning away from him who is in want, afflicting him who is distressed, advocates of the rich, lawless judges of the poor, utter sinners.

The final warning in this section is against false teaching and against participating in pagan feasts, referred to as “the service of dead gods.” 

Class Discussion

When I present this text to my students, most immediately pick up on the similarity to the Sermon on the Mount, but most are also confused by this fact. Why? Well, in general, class discussion goes something like this:

Student: This is supposed to be a manual for instruction in the Christian Faith, right?

Mr. Jeffers: Yes.

Student: So where is the discussion of the Christian Faith?

Mr. Jeffers: Can you clarify what you mean?

Student: This text just seems like a list of rules to follow and sins to avoid. Where is the discussion of doctrine, of what you need to believe, etc? 

Mr. Jeffers: That is an excellent point. Why the focus on right behavior? On right living? On “rules,” as you say? 

Student: Maybe the author was a legalist?

Mr. Jeffers: Let’s be a bit more charitable. Think about this: What is the best way to learn a musical instrument?

Student: To practice.

Mr. Jeffers: Should you master music theory or the history of your instrument before you start?

Student: No.

Mr. Jeffers: Why not?

Student: Because you will never start. And besides, that’s not the point of music. The point is to play! So, perhaps Christianity is more like a musical instrument and less like math?

Mr. Jeffers: How do you mean?

Student: Christianity is lived rather than known; it is a way of being as much as it is a way of believing. 

Mr. Jeffers: Good! So does that mean doctrine doesn’t matter? That so long as we obey God’s ethical teachings, we can believe whatever we want?

Student: Of course not.

Mr. Jeffers: Why?

Student: Because there has to be a reason why we live the way we live. If doctrine didn’t matter, then what would count as ethical would change as well.

Mr. Jeffers: Good! So doctrine matters as the boundaries or grounding of our lives, but the specifics of the life that we are to live is the main work of Christian discipleship. 

Anglicans and the Church Fathers

After we are able to properly frame the text, we can then dive into the specifics of it. The Didache, and other early patristic literature, is key to understanding the origin of our faith, of course, but it is also extremely helpful for giving consideration to how we ought to live.

The Anglican project, with its focus on the Holy Scriptures as the source of theology and the test of all doctrines, its focus on Holy Tradition, especially as located within the Church Fathers of the undivided Church, and with its focus on the use of God-given reason to rightly discern, love, and apply what is Good, True, and Beautiful, is naturally suited to this kind of study. Reading the Church Fathers is also a good reminder of the Communion of Saints we confess each week in the Creed, the “great cloud of witnesses” cheering us on in the race we are running!

Let us pray:

Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow thy blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys which thou hast prepared for those who unfeignedly love thee; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

This article is the first in a series on the Didache. Click here to read Part II.

Photo by Caleb Jones

Published on

March 29, 2023

Author

Greg Jeffers

Greg Jeffers is a member of Restoration Anglican Church in Richardson, TX. He serves in the Department of Theology at the Covenant School of Dallas, where he teaches high school courses on Ethics and Rhetoric.

View more from Greg Jeffers

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