Tag Archives: Didache

Early Church Teaching on Abortion

Abortion has been a hot political topic in the United States for many years.

Especially in Western culture, where Christianity historically has had influence, it can appear at first glance to be a purely modern, politicized debate. Those arguing for the “right” of a woman to abort her child, frame the issue as one of progress. They argue that our society should be unshackled of old-fashioned morals and brought into a more enlightened future.

This, of course, is utter nonsense.

When we study history, it becomes quickly clear that abortion and infanticide (essentially abandoning babies) were both common practices during the first couple centuries. Abortion is not some progressive ideal unknown to ancient society. The Roman Empire was thoroughly secular, although not in the modern atheistic sense. Living conditions for the average citizen was quite poor and degrading. The cultural sexual mores were not yet positively influenced by Christian teaching. Consequently, it is little surprise that abortion was quite commonly practiced, just as it is today.

Everett Ferguson expounds upon this in Backgrounds of Early Christianity:

The Hellenistic world lived under the shadow of too many mouths to feed. This fact meant that many children were abandoned, exposed to die. W. W. Tarn has presented evidence that from 230 B.C. onward, the one-child family was commonest in Greece. Families of four or five children were very rare.  […] The answer to overpopulation was infanticide. Abortions were often attempted, but not infrequently were fatal to the mother; they were made illegal under Septimius Severus. More frequent was the exposure of the newborn child. The unwanted child was simply left to die on a the trash heap or in some isolated place.  (Ferguson, 80-81)

He goes on to explain that Greek and Roman society did not consider a newborn as a legitimate family member until the father accepted the baby into the family. “Thus,” Ferguson writes, “they did not consider exposure murder but the refusal to admit to society.”

These secular attitudes towards newborn children stood in stark contrast with Jewish and Christian teachings. The early church, in agreement with Judaism, strongly prohibited aborting or abandoning children.

The early Christian document known as the Didache (50-70 AD), listing the basic rules of Christian practice, includes both acts as completely impermissible:

The second commandment of the teaching is: You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not corrupt children; you shall not be sexually immoral; you shall not steal; you shall not practice magic; you shall not engage in sorcery; you shall not abort a child or commit infanticide. (Didache 2. 1,2; Holmes, 3rd Ed.; bold mine)

History is not on a continuum from ignorance to progressive “wisdom.” Just like today, abortion was commonly practiced in Greek and Roman society. It was only later, influenced by Christian teachings which truly valued children, that Western practices and views gradually shifted.

Formerly Christian societies have seen a resurgence in these ancient sins while Christian faith has simultaneously declined. This, of course, is no surprise. Jesus told us that in the last days “most people’s love will grow cold.” (Matthew 24:12) Even a parent’s heart for their child.

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.”

Unless Found Perfect: A Parallel Passage in the Didache and Epistle of Barnabas

There is a strong parallel phrase between the Didache (50-70 AD) and the Epistle of Barnabas (90-131 AD), two very early Christian writings found in the modern collection known as the Apostolic Fathers.

In anticipation of the last days and the return of Jesus, the Didache emphasizes the necessity of being found perfect or complete in the last days, otherwise our past faith will “be of no use.”

Watch over your life: do not let your lamps go out, and do not be unprepared, but be ready, for you do not know the hour when our Lord is coming. Gather together frequently, seeking the things that benefit your souls, for all the time you have believed will be of no use to you if you are not found perfect in the last time. (Didache 16. 1,2; Holmes, 3rd Ed.)

In the 1912 Loeb edition, Kirsopp Lake translates the last passage as, “for the whole time of your faith shall not profit you except ye be found perfect at the last time.”

Similar language is used in the Epistle of Barnabas when talking of the last days:

Consequently, let us be on guard in the last days, for the whole time of our faith will do us no good unless now, in the age of lawlessness, we also resist, as befits God’s children, the coming stumbling blocks, lest the black one find an opportunity to sneak in. (Barnabas 4. 9b; Holmes, 3rd Ed.)

Both are directly speaking of the importance of continued spiritual soberness in the last days.  The Greek has almost identical wording in both passages where it says “for the whole time of your/our faith will do you/us no good unless [now] in the last/lawless time […].”

Didache:    οὐ       γὰρ ὠφελήσει ὑμᾶς ὁ πᾶς χρόνος τῆς πίστεως ὑμῶν, ἐὰν μὴ        ἐν τῷ ἐσχάτῳ καιρῷ […]
Barnabas: οὐδὲν γὰρ ὠφελήσει ἡμᾶς ὁ πᾶς χρόνος τῆς πίστεως ἡμῶν, ἐὰν μὴ νῦν ἐν τῷ ἀνόμῳ καιρῷ […]

There is no doubt that there either was a common source that both quoted from, or Barnabas borrowed here from the Didache. Regardless, the teaching that we need to be found faithful at the end was a common teaching present among the earliest believers. The eternal state of a Christian was not strictly viewed only as a simple profession of past faith, but in terms of continued faithfulness and endurance up until the end of our life.

Eventually I may take the time and effort to complete a comprehensive survey of this teaching in the earliest non-canonical Christian writings, but until then this is just one morsel of early Christian thought to chew on.