Monday, December 10, 2012

The Christian Handbook, Part III - Christian Rituals


This is Part 4 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.


Christian Rituals: The Didache, Chapters 7-10

In the first two weeks of our study, the Didache focused on helping us understand the main commandment of the faith (“love God and love others”), as well as some practical examples of what that lifestyle looked like.

In the second section of the Didache, which we will discuss today, it turns to look at the rituals of the Christian church.

The Jewish Christian converts would have been used to the book of Leviticus—more than two dozen highly detailed chapters of how to perform every ritual of the faith. By comparison, Christianity is a very, very simple religion. Christianity’s focus is on grace rather than law, so new converts might be surprised to find that the myriad requirements of the Jewish rituals are nonexistent in Christianity. Frankly, modern Christians still struggle with this concept. I know of a church near where I live whose website has an entire book’s worth of bylaws and constitutional requirements and meeting rules and on and on. We Christians love to add law in after Christ has taken away the Jewish one!

The Didache is not that way. For this early Christian handbook, there are only three Christian rituals which are universally important to all Christians, and only very basic rules are given to define how to achieve them. Let us talk about each of these in turn.

Baptism (Ch.7)

The Didache begins its process of baptism by saying, “Having first said all these things…”. What things? Well, it means the first six chapters, the Way of Life and Way of Death. Before being baptized into the faith, a person should know what is expected of them. The Didache specifically avoids the “drive-by evangelism” method so popular today, where someone makes a vague altar call and baptism and feels like everything is good with their life. No, the Didache says that they should have a serious talk about what behaviors (positive and negative) are expected of them, before baptism occurs.

After the candidate for baptism has understood the Way of Life and Death, they should fast for one or two days beforehand. Ideally anyone in the church who can do so should also fast with them.

At this point, they may be baptized. The candidate is baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The ideal state is said to be baptized in cold, living water—that is a moving stream of water like a river or creek. However, this is not a requirement: if moving water is not available, standing water will do; and if cold water is not available, warm will do.

The Didache assumes that the person will be baptized by submission underneath the water. But if for some reason that is not practically achievable, then pour water three times on their head, in the name of the Father and Son and Spirit.

That is it—that is all that the ancient church’s “Christian Handbook” requires for baptism: (1) the candidate must understand the faith and its expectations of lifestyle; (2) the candidate should fast for one or two days, along with whoever else will do so; (3) the candidate should be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and (4) preferred method of baptism is submission into cold, running water, but if this is not practical you may use cold water, standing water, or (last resort) pouring water over the head.

I would argue that there is a fifth implied statement here: the person is not an infant. The implication of the candidate having understood the Way of Life and Death, and having fasted for two days, is that the candidate must be capable of some form of rational thought and be capable of making sacrificial acts regarding food.

This is the entirety of the Christian ritual of baptism. Anything else we add is a law of our own device, and should be avoided.

Fasting and Prayer (Ch. 8)

The Jewish people fasted every Monday and Thursday (second and fifth day of the week). In order to avoid doing things the same way, the Christians were encouraged to fast every Wednesday and Friday. The Friday fast would be a reminder of Jesus’ death on the cross on Friday.

According to the Talmud, a Jewish “minor fast” was the skipping of the two “daylight” meals of the day. In other words, this meant you ate nothing during daylight hours and drank only water during the day. Generally the person fasting would arise before the sun came up for an early breakfast. Scholars accept that, since no extra information is given, the Didache is speaking of this kind of fast.

So every Wednesday and Friday, the person was encourage to eat nothing during the daylight hours and only drink water during daylight.

The Didache also said that instead of doing the normal Jewish public prayers three times a day, one should pray the Lord’s prayer three times each day, in private:

“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive us our debt as we also forgive our debtors. And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from the Evil One. For Thine is the power and the glory forever.”

Communion (Ch. 9-10)

Communion (aka, the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper) is the eating of bread and drinking of wine to commemorate Christ’s death. The Didache says it can be offered to any baptized believer, but unbaptized believers may not partake.

The cup should be blessed with the following prayer:

“We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David your servant, which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant. To You be the glory forever.”

The bread should be broken and blessed with the following prayer:

“We thank You, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory forever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Your kingdom, for Yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.”

After having eaten communion, say the following prayer of thanks:

“We thank You, holy Father, for Your holy name which You did cause to dwell in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith of immortality, which You made known to us through Jesus Your Servant; to You be the glory forever. You, Master almighty, did create all things for Your name’s sake; You gave food and drink to men for enjoyment, that they might give thanks to You; but to us You did freely give spiritual food and drink and life eternal through Your Servant. Before all things we thank You that You are mighty; to You be the glory forever. Remember, Lord, Your Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in Your love, and gather it from the four winds, sanctified for Your kingdom which You have prepared for it; for Yours is the power and glory forever. Let grace come, and let this world pass away. Hosanna to the Son of David! If anyone is holy, let him come; if anyone is not so, let him repent. O Lord, come!”

Per the Didache, Communion is permitted as often as the church’s leadership desires. Later we shall see that we should be doing this at every service; this section therefore seems to be giving permission to do so more than once a week, if the preacher desires it.

These are the only Christian ritual rules which exist. As you can see this is very basic—there is a lot of grace here for slight variations depending upon culture and need and situation. But what is so sad is that often we are not fulfilling even these basic rituals, instead having lavish man-made rituals of our own device.


  1. As per the last paragraph, Amen! and Amen! It is safer to stick with what has come from the Lord by Him and also through the Apostles. When we start to go more and more beyond that line, it is only natural that we inject bits of our own intent and our own wants/needs. While the worship services are beneficial and encouraging for us, we must NEVER forget that they aren't for us!! It is for the Lord our God, and we should always default to what He has said to do, and what is pleasing to Him! The Holy Word of God is constantly taken out of context and original intent to be misused, and non-scriptural text like this could be all-the-easier to misappropriate. Thanks for the great analysis of the [Didache] text!

  2. Timely article for what I am thinking through and wrestling with.