Early Church Leadership in The Didache
Writing before he became Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger noted that "the light of Jesus is reflected in the saints and shines out again from them" (The Yes of Jesus Christ). He notes, "God's speaking to us reaches us through men and women who have listened to God and come into contact with God" (The Yes of Jesus Christ). As we continue to reflect on the message of the Didache we seek to find the face of Christ reflected there.
In chapter eleven of the Didache we are introduced to itinerate or travelling 'apostles' and 'prophets' who are to be shown hospitality and respected but who are not to ask for money for themselves or to 'out stay' their welcome. We read, "Now concerning the apostles and prophets, deal with them as follows in accordance with the rule of the gospel" (Didache 11:3). The pattern St. Paul established for his own ministry was to earn his own wages. The travelling apostles described here are the equivalent of missionaries and church planters rather than the original circle of the Twelve plus Paul.
Hospitality was to be shown to all travelers provided they were willing to work. "Everyone 'who comes in the name of the Lord' is to be welcomed" (Didache 12:1). The visitor, "if he wishes to settle among you and is a craftsman, let him work for his living" (Didache 12:3). Provision should even be made for those who need further assistance, we are told, "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" (Didache 12:4). This matches the advice of St. Paul, "For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If anyone will not work, let him not eat" (2 Thessalonians 3:10). The kindness shown to these itinerate peoples recognizes their inherent dignity as persons and is mirrored in the modern the advice given in the Compendium of Social Doctrine, which notes that,
"Regulating immigration according to criteria of equity and balance is one of the indispensable conditions for ensuring that immigrants are integrated into society with the guarantees required by recognition of their human dignity. Immigrants are to be received as persons and helped, together with their families, to become a part of societal life" (CSDC 298).
The Didache moves on to discuss the phenomena of prophets who were active in leadership of the Church. Prophets who have been tested and approved and who wish to settle in the community are to be treated with special dignity. They are to receiving the "first fruits" of the wine, oil, money and clothing. We are told, "Take, therefore, all the firstfruits of the produce of the wine press and threshing floor, and of the cattle and sheep, and give these firstfruits to the prophets, for they are your high priests" (Didache 13:3). There role as 'priests' even relates to the Eucharist. In the long section relating prayers for the Eucharist we are told, "But permit the prophets to give thanks however they wish" (Didache 12:7).
The Church structure found in the Didache is still very primitive and in the process of developing into its mature form. "Therefore appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are humble and not avaricious and true and approved, for they too carry out for you the ministry of the prophets and teachers. You must not, therefore, despise them, for they are your honored men, along with the prophets and teachers" (Didache 15:1-2). It is likely that at this early stage the titles 'bishop' and 'presbyter' were not distinguished (cf. Titus 1:5-9). Initially an Apostle, or his delegated coworkers in the apostolic circle (Timothy, Silas, Titus, Barnabas), were the leaders of Churches. Later a transition occurs with a single bishop in each community replacing the Apostles, and being assisted by presbyters. The strong involvement of prophets may have been an unusual element.
The phenomenon of Christian prophecy was still quite common in the early second century. St. Ignatius the Bishop of Antioch recounts his own prophecy in his letter to the Philadelphians, "I called out when I was with you, I was speaking with a loud voice, God's voice: "Pay attention to the bishop and to the presbytery and deacons. . . . the Spirit itself was preaching, saying these words: "Do nothing without the bishop. . . . ." (Ign.
Philadelphians 7:1-2). Ignatius encourages Polycarp to pray for the same gift, "but ask, in order that the unseen things may be revealed to you, that you may be lacking in nothing and abound in every spiritual gift" (Polycarp 2:2). Polycrates, the Bishop of Ephesus, describes the three prophetic daughters of the Apostle Philip "who lived in the Holy Spirit" at Ephesus and he describes Bishop Melito of Sardis (d. 190 A.D.) as "the Eunuch who lived altogether in the Holy Spirit" (Hist. Eccl. 5.24). The writer of the Shepherd of Hermas describes the experience prophecy (Herm Man. 11.9) as does Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho (39.1; 82.1; 88.1). The phenomena of prophecy also created difficulties for the early Church. The heretic Montanus and his prophets Maximilla and Pricilla claimed to receive a "new prophecy" which predicted the imminent end the world. The Montanists formed their own churches and eventually thought of their "new prophecy" as having greater value that Sacred Scripture. The Church rejected the Montanists as false prophets. At the same time the Church continued to recognize the role of genuine Christian prophecy. Although the Church gained more caution, St. Irenaeus of Lyon (190 A.D.) continued to describe prophetic phenomena in his churches at the close of the second century.
As we reflect on the gift of prophecy in the early Church, may we fan into flames the gift of the Spirit we have received through our Baptism, in order that we to might better reflect the face of Jesus, lighting up the pathways of this earth with faith and love.