Ephesians 4-6 as an Apostolic Didache

It can be argued that the material in Ephesians 4-6 and Colossians 3-4 reflect an early form of apostolic teaching or catechism material. The terms kerygma and didache are used to distinguish between two types of apostolic message.  Kerygma is the “preaching” material of the gospel for sinners (Christ’s death and resurrection), while didache is the teaching material aimed at the person that has already accepted this message and is concerned with the living out of that message in terms of ethical behavior.

didache-largeThis may imply some pre-existing documents that eventually are used in the production of the New Testament books, although these types of materials also circulated orally.  The kerygma material, for example, may include 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 or Phil 2:5-11.  But this is not to say that there was any single document called “kerygma” – the word simply refers to the material that was used in evangelism by various preachers in the early church.

The same applies to the term didache.  There would have been a core of teaching that Paul used in establishing churches and training leaders.  That material would have been generally the same in every church (i.e. qualifications for elders and deacons) but flexible enough to adapt to a slightly different cultural situation (the difference between the qualifications list in 1 Timothy and Titus, for example, show some adaptation for the situation on Crete where Titus was to appoint elders). By the end of the first century a short book of church practice known as Didache did circulate, although the contents are not quite the same as this collection of material.

This core of teaching is found as early as Acts 2:42, where we are told that the new converts were devoted to the daily instruction of the apostles. Since all of these converts in the early part of Acts are Jews, and likely observant Jews in Acts 2, the need for ethical instruction would have been less of a priority than instruction in the teachings of Jesus (i.e. doctrine – Christology (who was Jesus, what did he teach) and Eschatology (the Christ is returning very soon).  It is not unlikely that at this stage that the stories of Jesus’ acts and his teachings began to be passed from the Apostles to their disciples.

What are the implications that Paul might have used and adapted a kind of “standard teaching” in these two letters? Does this “early Christian standard” of ethics help us understand how the Church was teaching ethics in the first century?

Some bibliography: E.  G.  Selwyn, The First Epistle of St.  Peter, 363-466; Philip Carrington, The Primitive Christian Catechism; A. M. Hunter, Paul and his Predecessors; C. H. Dodd,  The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments;  Everett F.  Harrison, “Some Patterns of the New Testament Didache” BSac V119 #474 (Apr 62) 118-129; V. P. Furnish, Theology and Ethics in Paul, 68-111.

14 thoughts on “Ephesians 4-6 as an Apostolic Didache

  1. As to our q. re, ethics teaching in earliest Christianity, it is clear that it was just developing. We jump quickly, for example, from Jesus’ forgiving “seventy times seven” approach and “settle it between the two of you”, etc., to Peter “speaking to death” a couple in the very early days (per the tale which I suspect to be more legend than reality) in Acts. Was such a strict standard of integrity really part of the early ethics? Or more a severe “making an example” judgment by God so others would not sin similarly?

    • In my comment above I didn’t mean to imply either of those were viable or the only options. I don’t believe the second FOR a second. And whatever Luke was trying to illustrate, I do imagine honesty with one another was a strong expectation (part of surviving as a small, sometimes persecuted minority).

    • I think the Annanis and Sapphira story is a good thing to bring up, although the ethical issue there is not the nature of Peter’s judgment but the nature of their offense. If the apostolic community is to be like a new Israel, and if their offense was more like embezzlement, then the penalty of death is more understandable (although still shocking!)

      My point here is a bit later than Acts 5, though. By the 60s, was there a kind of stock ethical teaching, a kind of “how to live like a Christ Follower” document Paul and Peter could both allude to and use in their letters?

      FWIW, I think this stock-response may explain the similarities between 2 Peter and Jude, both are using stock material on “how to answer a heretic.”

  2. If Paul used and adapted a kind of standard teaching in Ephesians 4-6 and Colossians 3-4, this means that he would have been using didache material. This would imply that he believed the Ephesian and Colossian recipients were already saved and were ready for core of the Gospel teaching and how they were to apply it to their lives. He was instructing them how to live as individual believers and as a community as Jesus-followers–to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1). The didache material in Ephesians 4-6 includes unity in the body of Christ, “putting off various vices,” “various virtues to exhibit,” to imitate God, and how to apply these things to the household (TTP 253-4).

    Understanding this early Christian standard of ethics certainly helps us understand how the Church was teaching ethics in the first century, and how we should be teaching ethics in the church today. It is a balance many modern churches attempt to find, but it can be difficult to know how or when to use “kerygma” or “didache” material. You want to reach out to unbelievers, new believers, and more mature believers all at the same time. A church that only preaches “kerygma” material will only benefit non- or new believers, but not be beneficial in the growth of their mature believers. Only preaching “didache” material, on the other hand, will not be what non- and new believers need. To me, “kerygma” material is the general information believers should use to witness to unbelievers in order for them to gain an understanding of what the Gospel is. In part, it should be used within the main messages given, but separate classes outside of the main service should be offered to unbelievers and new believers that need to simply learn more about Christianity and what it is. At the same time, “didache” material should be in part taught in the main service, but separate classes should also be offered for more mature believers in order that they may grow and understand better how they are to operate within society and the church.

  3. The difference between kerygma and didache is important as it identifies the fact that these are two separate necessities in the church. Those in church leadership must teach both. Today in the church we use words like discipleship or spiritual formation to describe didache. Longenecker and Still present the idea that chapters 4 and 5 deal specifically with teaching new Christians to grow and mature in Christ and to do this by serving and by staying pure (TTP 253). They summarize the purpose of the book saying that “Ephesians aims to assist more recent gentile converts to live a life worthy of the calling they had received” (TTP 247). If this group of believers are new Christians it is important to recognize that Paul had to explain the basics or code of ethics to them. This new life that Paul is asking them to live is not something that they might assume they should start doing. Paul recognizes that before they were saved they lived in darkness. However, Paul also reminds them that now that they are saved they should live differently (Ephesians 5:8-10). It would make sense that Paul would need to communicate this didache to this church of new converts. Having received the message they needed to know what happens next. In the church today we should seek to answer this question for those who come to the faith and communicate the code of ethics as communicated through scripture. This is clearly not an evangelistic passage of scripture. Paul does not expect the world to act according to his instruction but instead pointing out the difference between saved and unsaved argues that Christians behave differently. In the church today we must have both kerygma and didache. We must be willing to teach the new Christian and have those conversations about what happens now that you have received the message.

  4. I think the fact that Paul is planting churches makes the standardized teaching pretty awesome. He had a blue print for how to thrive at new campuses. Keeping teaching and really DNA of the churches the same. Every believer would have been believing and teaching the same things. Standardized teaching would have unified the believers. When Paul writes Ephesians it is to Gentile believers, so Paul writes what Christianity believes and then what we do because of what we believe. TTP says it this way, ”Ephesians 1-3, the so called “indicative” or doctrinal section, focuses on the recipients new identity in Christ. Ephesians 4-6, the so called “imperative” or paraenetic section, concentrates on the recipients new morality for Christ” (TTP 248). So, Paul would have had different “programs” for different levels of believers. It was really a smart idea to keep the church movement going through history.

    • Miller2016, As to “standardized teaching”, a “blue print…”, and “every believer… believing and teaching the same things”… not so much at ALL. Read Gal. 1 and 2 compared to the basic story around Peter and around “the Jerusalem Council” in Acts. Also note especially Acts 19 on Apollos as to LACK of uniformity on even basic doctrinal matters. There are many more examples, but look at the critiques of Paul in Galatians, and 2 Cor., especially, toward Peter and James and “people from James” to see that even the basic concept of what was “the Gospel” was different and under contention, although there WAS agreement on Jesus as Messiah (in general, not specific terms), his return, etc.

      • Wouldn’t unity be the goal, even if perfect agreement was never achieved?

        In this particular case, could there be a difference in practice on “husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church” or “children, obey your parents”? I am sure there were some early Christians who didn’t live up to the ideal of Eph 4-6, but that ideal was still the goal.

  5. Since Paul put together this collection of ethical teachings, we can assume that they may have been generally wide-known and seen as a whole. This is important (seeing them as a whole) because some of the parts wouldn’t really stand on their own without the other instructions. If Paul only gave instructions for husbands and wives and their conduct with each other with respect to Christ and the Church, where would the unmarried or the widows find their advice/teaching? Also I see little parts in here that show up in other books of the New Testament. Eph. 4:14-16 sounds like the last half of James 1. And parts of Ephesians 4 and 5 explain in a bit more detail what other passages only mention in little detail, like who will inherit the kingdom of God based on what they do. Based on these few examples and the rest of what is there, I think it makes sense that there was some unified collected book of teachings that the Church would have used to teach new Christians. Paul must have taught out of this in those certain places in the Bible.

  6. I think it is safe to say that Paul adapted a “standard of teaching” in these letters because of his style of writing. Also from what the church was teaching at the time, and if the church was right in those teachings or wrong. When Paul is teaching in his letters, he does so very well, we see this in Ephesians 4, when Paul tells the Ephesians how to live, and then the next step to doing so, like Longenecker states, “Having called his Gentile audience to unity and maturity in Christ, Paul next calls them to purity,” (Longenecker 253).

Leave a Reply