Beware of the Christ-merchant! (Didache 12:5)

I came across this fascinating passage from the Didache (50-70 AD), possibly the earliest Christian document we have outside the New Testament. It gives guidance to the church on how to treat itinerant Christian teachers and evangelists passing through the area, as well as what to do if they decide to settle down.

Everyone who comes in the name of the Lord is to be welcomed. But then examine him, and you will find out—for you will have insight—what is true and what is false. If the one who comes is merely passing through, assist him as much as you can. But he must not stay with you for more than two or, if necessary, three days. However, if he wishes to settle among you and is a craftsman, let him work for his living. But if he is not a craftsman, decide according to your own judgment how he shall live among you as a Christian, yet without being idle. But if he does not wish to cooperate in this way, then he is trading on Christ. Beware of such people. (Didache 12.; Holmes, 3rd Ed.)

Christians are to show hospitality by welcoming fellow believers, helping them out as much as they can. This assumes the travelers are only staying in town for a couple days. If the stay is any longer than that, they must work for their living.

This advice is completely scriptural. Paul himself taught the Thessalonian church that people should work if at all able, rather than rely on others. He writes in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, “For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.” For those that have families to support, Paul elsewhere writes, “If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Timothy 5:8)

However, it’s the second-to-last sentence that really caught my attention, “But if he does not wish to cooperate in this way, then he is trading on Christ.” The last phrase, “trading on Christ,” is a unique one-word construction in the original Greek (christempros; χριστέμπρός), combining the Greek word for Christ (Christos; Χριστός) and merchant/trader (emporos; ἔμπορος). It could be translated “Christ-merchant” or “Christ-mongor.” It essentially means one who is peddling Christ for profit. A “Christ-merchant” is one using Christ for their own material gain.

Keep in mind, this was written very early, possibly earlier than some of our New Testament epistles. Even at this point, before Christianity became a state-religion under Emperor Constantine, people were abusing the gospel for wealth. Not much has changed in two thousand years, has it? I’ve written about biblical tithing and giving before, because it’s an important topic that many pastors shy away from teaching in clear terms.

People start “Christian” ministries all the time to get rich, and it was no different back then. Although we live in a completely different time and culture, somethings don’t change. If someone wishes to be financially supported by other Christians, but refuses to work for a living, they are a Christ-merchant. “Beware of such people.”

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