This is Part 3 of 7 in a series about the Didache, a very early Christian book written to serve as a handbook introducing the faith to new Christians. It serves as a great overview or orientation manual on Christianity.
Click here to read the entire series.
The Way of Death: The Didache, Chapters 5-6
In last week’s post, we saw how the Didache defined the Christian life—loving God and loving others, with some details added to give us practical examples of the commandment.
This week, we will study chapters five and six: The Way of Death. The Way of Death is a list of the types of behaviors that lead someone away from loving God and loving others. They are destructive to the relationship and should be avoided.
Much of this, of course, is simply the opposite of the Way of Life: it is chapters 1-4 restated in a negative way, to drive home the point with contrast. To wit, the behaviors listed are things like murder, adultery, lust, fornication, theft, rape, lying, hypocrisy, selfishness, greed, arrogance, injustice, paying attention to evil things instead of good things, vanity, and pursuing revenge.
These actions, Didache says, lead to “not knowing Him Who made them.” We should be delivered from these things.
Interestingly, this list includes advocating for the rich at the expense of the poor. We should be careful not to let our modern political debates turn this into too much of a “1%” issue, since the poverty at the time of the Didache was far worse than today: a few hundred people held over 90% of the wealth at this time, with the average person’s annual salary being about $600 in modern terms. Still, the general principle is a good one – Christians should not be expending our energy trying to keep the rich happy at the expense of the poor, especially (as alluded to in this passage) if we are doing so to gain the favor of the rich.
This first section of the Didache—the Way of Life and Way of Death—now concludes with a warning:
“See that no one causes you to err from this way of the Teaching, since apart from God it teaches you. If you are able to bear the entire yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect; but if you are not able to do this, do what you are able.”
I would like to make a few comments. First, this is a much “lighter burden” than Judaism, Islam, or basically any religion—including modern Christianity! Modern Christian pastors want to define a healthy relationship with God as pouring out works like sunrise Bible study and praying twenty times a day and doing great service projects and regular tithing (off of the gross!) and teaching Sunday School and attending life group, etc. None of those were things that the early church cared about.
The early church said to avoid the big sins that most Christians today avoid easily (murder, blasphemy, devil-worship, adultery, pedophilia), and a few that modern Christians do worse with (hypocrisy, hatefulness, lying, and sex before marriage). With a concerted effort to this second group, a modern Christian can in fact pretty well adhere to the commandments of last week’s “Way of Life.”
Much more difficult is adhering to all of the “General Comments” from last week—but even so, this is a much lighter burden than most modern churches teach to their people. And the Didache says that if you achieve all of that, you are living a “perfect” Christian life. (As perfect as we get on this side, anyway.)
What I love about the Didache, though, is that even though it tells you to be aggressive about avoiding the 13 grave sins from last week, it says that with regard to the others…”do what you are able.” If you can’t perfectly follow the Way of Life, then strive to simply improve. Aggressively avoid the 13 grave sins, and do as many of the “general comments” as possible. But don’t beat yourself up about these – they are good for you, but they are not commandments. They do not destroy your relationship with God or others.