This is Part 5 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.
Church Organization: The Didache, Chapters 11-15
Having discussed Christian behavior and Christian rituals, the Didache now gives some basic rules regarding organizing the church. In particular it has five key discussions: (1) how to receive teachers; (2) how to receive other Christians; (3) how to support prophets/missionaries; (4) how to assemble for church; and (5) church administration.
Let us discuss each individually.
(1) Receiving Teachers, Apostles, and Prophets
The Didache gives a few very practical tests to determine the legitimacy of someone’s teaching. Now of course we have luxury of comparing a teaching to that of the Scripture, but the advice below is still very wise, Biblical, and useful.
The Didache says to listen to teachers who…
• Say things which are in accordance with the Way of Life and the Way of Death
• Teaches with the goal of increasing righteousness
• Teaches with the goal of increasing your knowledge about God
• Lives according to the Way of Life in his personal life (“by your fruits shall you know [false teachers]”)
• Asks for money to be given to those in need
The Didache says to ignore the teachings of those who…
• Teaches doctrines contrary to the Way of Life
• Asks for money to be given to him
• Tries to gain food or lodging from you for extended periods of time
• Does not live according to the things he teaches
(2) Receiving Christians
If you meet someone claiming to be a Christian, accept him as a brother and assume the best at first. If he is traveling through assist him as best as you are able. Help house those who are jobless, and find them employment. But if someone tries to take advantage of you by calling himself Christian, and wishes to stay with you more than a few days without getting a job to help support himself, then do not allow him to live with you. Keep away from those who will abuse your hospitality for their own personal gain; such people are not really Christians, but just using the name of Christ to take advantage of you.
(3) Supporting Prophets
Next, the Didache talks about how to support prophets—the people who are doing your teaching. In the modern church this might seem confusing, so just a few words here.
In ancient Judaism the person who ran the synagogue (the equivalent of our pastor) and the people who helped with synagogue administration (the equivalent of our deacon) were not necessarily the ones who taught during worship services. Any male was allowed to teach. Some people were specially touched by God and given insight into life that was rare and profound; these are called prophets, and they generally traveled from place to place. If a prophet was in town, he taught at the synagogue.
So to put it in modern terms—it would be like having a “Lead Pastor” (bishop) and a “Deacon” (staff member) who made the church run each week and actually operate. But the actual teaching might be done by visitors or church members who had no other role in the church but to do the teaching. We might call such a person a “Teaching Pastor” or a member of the “Teaching Team”; the term here is prophet.
The Didache says that if there is a prophet living among you in your congregation who is able to do all of the teachings, then it is fair for him to be supported by the church members. He was supported by church members bringing the first-fruits of their labor to him. So each church member was supposed to take the first things that he made (bread from a baker, or clothing from a tailor, or crops for a farmer) and provide it to that person so that he did not need to go out and get work.
Interestingly, if no prophet existed, these offerings did not go into a church bank account; rather, they were given directly to the poor.
(4) Church Services
Every Sunday, the church should gather together somewhere (anywhere will do). As part of the worship, confess your sins to each other and be reconciled with anyone who you did wrong to. At the end of the service, have communion.
That’s all that is said about church services. No required meeting time or agenda. No requirements about what kind of music or prayers should be. Nothing about how long the sermon must be or whether Sunday School or small groups exists.
The requirement to be a church is simply—gather each week, confess your sins to each other, and celebrate communion. And guess what? Most modern Christians fail to do two out of the three.
(5) Church Administration
Each church should appoint for themselves a group of “bishops and deacons.” The church leaders are also called the elders or presbytery, the lead of whom is called the bishop. The deacons are people assigned to help take care of the church.
Generally, early Christian churches had about 50-100 members, and usually one full-time deacon or deaconess to take care of the church building, pay the bills, run the errands, etc.—sort of a church secretary/janitor position. In addition they had a group of elders (volunteers), one of whom was the bishop (usually also unpaid). Sometimes the position of bishop rotated.
These were required to be humble men who were not greedy, and who had proven themselves truthful and faithful to the Way of Life. They should be honored and taken care of. Church members are to show them respect, and disagreements should be quiet and respectful and not causing divisions in the church.
Sometimes these are the preachers as well; sometimes they simply facilitate the services and members of the church preach. It seems that they were not financially supported unless they also preached.
The church members are also reminded to bring alms—money for the poor and needy—to the church to give to the deacon/deaconess. He/she will see to it that those are distributed to the needy.
So…this is certainly a much different view of church, isn’t it? It is completely Scriptural of course, and though it is not required by Scripture that churches look like this, I think we can all agree that it would be a peaceful, simple, uplifting way to run a church.
A modern version of this might look something like this (hypothetical) example:
Our ancient-future church was gifted a small building by one of the wealthier church members and we meet there each week. We have one full-time employee, a “church secretary” we call her, but her role is that of deaconess. She cleans and prepares the church each week for service, runs errands, collects the offering each week and distributes it to the poor, gets the bread and wine for Communion, and pays the bills.
A group of men serve as the elder board for the church, one of whom is the Pastor of the church. All of them have other jobs, and serve voluntarily. The Pastor oversees the services each week, arranging any music or prayers and finding a preacher.
We have one full-time preacher, who normally is a missionary but is living with us at home for the next six months. Since he does not have a full-time job, everyone in the church brings a small amount of food and goods to him each week so that he can focus on writing and delivering next week’s message. His medical needs and dental needs are provided for by the church as well.
We come to church Sunday morning for a very simple service of teaching and prayer. A time is given to confess our sins to each other or to God, followed by Communion. Each week at the end of service, we drop as much money as each of us can afford to give into the almsbox at the door. The deaconess will collect them at the end of the day and give them to the poor.
We have no life groups or programs or Sunday school classes. We try to spend time with other church members every day if possible, but nothing is formal. Lots of people show up at the small church building randomly throughout the week to have coffee or chat or pray, but nothing is formalized about it.
Note that I am not saying that this has to be how we run the church, but it gives a good example of what a modern version of a Didache church might look.