I have been progressing slowly (very slowly) on my dissertation. (In case you forgot, my dissertation is titled “Mutual Edification as the Purpose of the Assembled Church in the New Testament: A Study in Biblical Theology.”) Currently, I’m studying what various Christians wrote about the assembled church in different time periods of church history.
Lately, I’ve been studying the Didache. The first part of the Didache (chapters 1-6) deals with the “two ways”: the way of life and the way of death. Many of the exhortations echo what we read in Scripture.
The last part deals with various practical (as if the way of life is not practical) aspects of living together as the church. The author discusses baptism, fasting, the Lord’s Supper / Eucharist (which those eating leave “filled”), various traveling servants (apostles, prophets, teachers), local servants, and choosing elders and deacons.
The conclusion of this book begins with an exhortation to “be on the alert”! What does he want them alert about? Well, several things, but gathering together is one of those things. Here is that passage:
Now, gather together frequently seeking those things which are fitting for your lives. For the whole time of your faith will not benefit you if you are not made mature by the last time. (Didache 16:2 author’s translation)
The author of the Didache tells his readers to gather together for one purpose: to seek those things which are fitting (proper) for your lives (souls).Â (Interestingly, worship is not mentioned in this passage.) What are the things that are fitting for their lives?
He says that the entire time of their faith (the entire time of living by faith?) will only benefit them if they mature by the end of their lives. Thus, he wants them to mature; he expects them to mature. In fact, the language is quite shocking. If they do not mature (in the context of their meeting together), then their entire time of faith will be of no benefit.
This sounds very similar to Hebrews 10:24-25:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,Â not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24-25 ESV)
The Epistle of Barnabas (another early Christian writing) also has a similar passage:
For this reason, we should be attentive in these last days; for the whole past time of your life and faith will be of no benefit to us, unless now in this wicked time we should stand against coming temptation, as is suitable for children of God. Therefore, in order that the Black One may find no means of entrance, we should flee from every futility (frustration?), and we should completely hate the works of the way of evil. Do not live separate lives, by each going his own way, as those who have already been justified; but by coming together in harmony, you must discuss what leads to the benefit of all. (Barnabas 4:9b-10)
In the Didache passage, notice the words the author uses to describe the expected gathering: “frequently” and “fitting for your lives.” Also, notice the verbs used to describe the gathering: “benefit” and “made mature.”
Similar phrases are found in the Hebrews passage: “not neglecting,” “love and good works,” and “encouraging.” And, similarly, we find these in the passage from the Epistle of Barnabas: “benefit,” “stand against temptation,” “suitable,” and “harmony.”
While there are some differences in this descriptive terms (some positive, some negative, for instance), they are very similar. And, the instructions were given to all the readers, not just the leaders. (That’s true of Hebrews, the Didache, and Barnabas – all written to and addressed to all believers, not just to overseers, elders, deacons, teachers, prophets, apostles, etc.)
Should we still expect these same types of phrases to describe our gatherings? Is it still the responsibility of all the believers, or just the leaders?