Yesterday my wife Alice and I decided to browse Rodney's used bookstore in Central Square. I immediately bee-lined it to the theology and "western religion" section and found myself quickly drawn into a little Penguin Classics book titled "Early Christian Writings". As someone with strong convictions regarding Christian nonviolence, the early church has always been dear to my heart. If you read through some of the first few hundred years of early church fathers you will discover just how strong the nonviolent ethic was early on and just how essential early Christians felt that it was to their practice of the Gospel life. As I skimmed through "Early Christian Writings" I stumbled upon an early Christian "rule" of faith and practice called the "Didache". The Didache is a manuscript of 1st century origin and anonymous authorship which provides instruction for Christian living and church order. It's importance to the church is illustrated by the fact that several of the early Church fathers gave the Didache high honor, strongly recommending it for reading (Athanasius, Eusebius) and some even suggesting its canonization (Rufinus of Aquileia, John of Damascus). I had read the Didache many years ago before my convictions about violence took shape, but reading it yesterday I found myself rediscovering it in light of the peace tradition of the church. What follows is the first four paragraphs of the Didache:
There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.
The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you.
And of these sayings the teaching is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what reward is there for loving those who love you? Do not the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy.
Abstain from fleshly and worldly lusts. If someone strikes your right cheek, turn to him the other also, and you shall be perfect.
The Didache goes on to provide a clear set of moral teaching which is then followed by instruction on baptism and the Lord's supper. What I found fascinating yesterday as I read through it was the emphasis placed on the "love of enemies" as the correct interpretation of the great commandment "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:27). According to the Didache, the essential meaning and the key doctrine of the greatest commandment is the love of enemies. Early Christian tradition felt that this was so important that it stands to serve as the preface to this manuscript of apostolic instruction. Before everything else, this comes first.
Early Christian history is rich with instruction about faith in practice. Although the preservation of sound theological doctrine was important to the church in the earliest years, the teaching of the apostles in the New Testament epistles and in manuscripts such as the Didache remind us that the earliest Christians didn't isolate theological doctrine from ethics. For the earliest believers, instructions about how to live a life of holiness seem to be just as "doctrinal" as the churches teaching on the Trinity. Unfortunately for the church of today, Christian ethics are often brushed aside as secondary to theology. Theological claims are perceived as "doctrinal" while the realm of ethics is set aside as a kind of "best practices" study of the Church. In so doing, we neglect to provide our communities with the food that they need in order to grow into mature believers. In failing to provide clear instruction, church leadership fails to fulfill the great commission which clearly states that we should go out into the world making disciples and "teaching them to obey everything" Jesus has commanded.
For further study of the early church teaching, I would recommend browsing through Calvin College's Ethereal Christian Classics Library online at this link. The full text of the Didache can be accessed here.