I’ve been reading (and, let’s face it, publishing) a lot of books recently about discipleship. New discipleship programmes are a bit of a booming industry at the moment: Neil Cole, Frank Viola, Tony Dale, Tim Miller, Mike Breen, Alan Hirsh, the list goes on and on, and the premise of each of their books is essentially this: “What would it look like if the Early Church wrote a discipleship training manual? What principles can we deduce from the praxis of the first Christians and turn into a system to be used to teach Christians today?”
I have very mixed feelings about this kind of idea. The early apostles learnt directly from Jesus and so more than anyone else knew how mission in the way of Jesus had to be done. And the results were astonishing: Christianity spread through the empire amazingly quickly. There are also definitely advantages for giving people a simple, reproducible pattern of discipleship that they can easily pass on to others. As a missionary that’s very important to me.
But the Early Church? The phenomenal growth of first century Christianity probably happened as much despite the Early Church as because of it. For one thing, the apostles had a number of advantages which we do not have: the time was right, there was a Messianic expectancy within Jewish society, a few dominant common languages and a common cultural system in the shape of the Roman Empire, and of course, it had all just happened. For another thing, as I have argued previously, the picture painted by the authors of restorationist discipleship is extremely rose-tinted, airbrushing away anything that does not agree with their own presuppositions about how simple the church should be, and we have no evidence that the Early Church was any more faithful, effective or godly than the contemporary church. Partly this is because the Bible does not really make value judgements on the events it describes. Sure, we have Ananias and Sapphira as an example of failure within the church, but does this mean that everything else recorded in the books of Acts was actually what God wanted the Church to be doing?
Anyway, that was a slight digression from what I wanted to write about today, which is this: the one thing that really gets my goat about all those authors imagining what an Early Church discipleship training manual might look like is that none of them seem to acknowledge or even be aware of the fact that we know what an Early Church discipleship training manual might look like, because the Early Church wrote one, we’ve got it, and it looks nothing like any of the discipleship systems I’ve been reading.
Now, turning to apostles and prophets you must treat them according to the rule of the gospel. Every apostle who arrives among you is to be welcomed as if he were the Lord. But normally he must not stay with you for more than one day, but he may stay a second day if this is necessary. However, if he stays a third day, then he is a false prophet! When he leaves you, an apostle must receive nothing except enough food to sustain him until the next night’s lodgings. However, if he asks for money, then he is a false prophet!
Have you read the Didache? It’s a strange and intriguing document which is probably the oldest Christian text we have; probably older than the Gospels, dating somewhere between 50 and 70AD. It’s a mix of a summary of Jesus’ teachings, ethical commands for daily life, instructions for church sacraments and organisation, and apocalyptic. It appeared in some early collections of Christian writings (or bibles) but not enough of them to make the final editors’ cut at the end of the 5th century.
Thomas O’Laughlin argues (and I agree) that the Didache was not intended as a book about what it means to be a Christian—there is very little doctrine in there and it seems to assume that the basic message of Jesus is known to the reader, but it does contain a mnemonic way of teaching that message to others—but was intended as a body of knowledge which circumscribes what it means to be part of the community of Jesus-followers:
If we translate he didache by equally applicable words such as ‘the training’ or ‘the instruction,’ a very different image of this text comes before us… Words such as ‘instruction’ focus our attention on the process of how disciples were made, the apprenticeship that discipleship supposes, and the priority of learning how to be a follower within a community, and so a member of that community, over the acquisition of information seen as a distinct activity…
The assumption is that of the master-apprentice relationship: a member of the community trains an apprentice member, and that process complete and reviewed, admits their apprentice by baptising him/her… the Didache belongs to a model of communication that is more akin to the workshop, the forum, or the hearth, than to the classroom, the library, or the pulpit.
Which is, of course, a model of communication that all of the modern discipleship movements are trying to recapture.
Oh man, if I was a complete bandwagon-jumper—no, wait, if I was a complete bandwagon-jumper with a decent author platform and time on my hands—I’d totally write a discipleship book based on a modern re-reading of the Didache, call it “The Way of Life”, and be able to honestly claim that it actually is based on the discipleship training materials of the Early Church, not just what we think they might have looked like. Unfortunately I don’t really have the time or the inclination, but if you do, don’t let me stop you. It’d be a breath of fresh air in the midst of a lot of similar-sounding speculation.