We have previously discussed the enmity between Jews and Christians in the period of early Christianity and how that related to ideas about the Sabbath in the Didache , and some readers may remember that Diotrophes is the villain of 3 John . Today, though, I would like to examine a curious connection between Diotrophes and the Didache that demonstrates a marked bias in the Didache against the itinerant but godly ministers that 3 John has a great deal to say about. Although both 3 John and the Didache are fairly short documents and both are readily accessible to many readers, this connection has not been frequently discussed and its relevance to contemporary Christianity is similarly not well understood. As is the case with previous examinations of curious connections , therefore, we are looking at artifacts that are easy to understand but where connections have seldom been made between the two elements in question.
In Section 11 of the Didache we receive some advice on traveling prophets, itinerant ministers of the kind that were very common in early Christianity (Paul and Apollos, for example, were both leaders of this type): “As regards apostles and prophets, according to the Gospel directions this is how you are to act. Every apostle who comes to you should be welcomed as the Lord, but he is not to stay more than a day, or two days if it is really necessary. If he stays for three days, he is a false prophet. And an apostle at his departure should accept nothing but as much provisions as will last him to his next night’s lodging. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet (195-196).” These are, one might imagine, rather strict standards for judging traveling apostles and prophets. In the Didache we are not dealing with a church that accepted a great deal of oversight from apostles who would move around a good bit but stay at the same place for a while, or that was very hospitable to traveling prophets, but rather wanted them to say what they needed to say and get out as quickly as possible so that the local ministry could stay in control.
This is not the sort of hospitality that the Gospel demands of believers that we read in Paul’s epistles, for example. Even a cursory reading of Acts and Paul’s letters will demonstrate a hospitality far exceeding that countenanced by the Didache. To take a few examples at random, Philemon :21-22 tell us: “Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. But, meanwhile, also prepare a guest room for me, for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to you.” Likewise, Acts 16:13-15 tells us: “And on the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made; and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there. Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” So she persuaded us.” The sort of lodging provided in guest rooms by Lydia and Philemon were not brief one night visits where Paul would come for a day, tell some stories, and then leave. Rather, this staying was of a considerable duration, depending on the raising up and tending of congregations. In the case of Philemon, moreover, the visit was a subtle effort at influencing Philemon’s approval to Paul’s proposal to free Onesimus from slavery and to avoid punishing him in the fashion common to runaway slaves, which was somewhat savage in that period (and most periods where slavery can be found).
Nor was Paul some sort of freeloading prophet. Yet Paul was very strong in pointing out that those who preached the Gospel had a right to live by the Gospel, a right that springs from both the Mosaic law as well as attitudes towards Christian charity. 1 Corinthians 9:9-14 tells us, for example: “For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope. If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things? If others are partakers of this right over you, are we not even more? Nevertheless we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who minister the holy things eat of the things of the temple, and those who serve at the altar partake of the offerings of the altar? Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel.” Even when Paul did not take advantage of this right to demand that congregations where he traveled support him, he was very clear in pointing this was a right and not some sort of sign of his being a false prophet merely concerned with money. Paul’s practice is entirely at odds with the model set up in the Didache, indicating that this church manual did not reflect the sort of biblical Christianity that is worthy of emulation, but rather reflected a congregation which had lost its first love and its passion for evangelism.
Yet there is one situation in the New Testament that we can find in scripture that mirrors that of the situation we see in the Didache, and that is not a flattering comparison. We find this connection in 3 John :9-11, we read: “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church. Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God.” Rather than praising the mentality of Diotrophes against itinerant prophets whom the Didache labels as being profit-seeking in nature, John condemns the lack of generosity and godliness of Diotrophes in the harshest terms, calling it evil and calling on brethren not to follow that hard-hearted example of showing hostility both to itinerant ministers as well as brethren who support them through their hospitality. We can infer from this that John would have viewed the Didache and its thoughts about traveling apostles and prophets–perhaps including himself–in a similarly negative light.
Why do both the Didache and Diotrophes show this hostility to traveling apostles and prophets? We can see from the pages of scripture that the leadership of the early Church of God was frequently on the move, and also frequently sent people to pass letters along as well as to exercise the authority the apostles had as leaders over various congregations. To be sure, there were some traveling ministers who brought false Gospels and sought to capitalize on the generosity being provided by members–a problem that both 2 John and the Didache comment upon–but there was also a place for genuine traveling ministers during that time. This is not something that is only a matter for the past. Even now there are believers and ministers in whose travels they seek the hospitality of brethren to share in conversation as well as Christian love and generosity, and certainly I have done so on occasion in my own travels . I can speak for my own integrity and that of others I have seen that such efforts at enjoying the hospitality of others has not come with a desire to make merchandise of the Gospel, but has often been a combination of a desire to save money (as traveling can get somewhat expensive) as well as to enjoy the company of fellow believers.
Why, then, would both Diotrophes and the Didache show such a hostility towards itinerant prophets and preachers? The issue is one of control, and John’s comments about Diotrophes and the comments of the Didache reveal both what John (and, by inference, God) thought about these efforts by local leaders to maintain absolute control over local congregations and how these tyrannical false leaders justified their position by not being honest about their motives. It was the desire to have the preeminence that inspired Diotrophes and the leader(s) of the congregation(s) that created the Didache to be hostile to traveling prophets and apostles whose messages demonstrated a larger overall authority above their own. Incidentally enough, this also made evangelism efforts difficult, as traveling ministers had more universal motivations whereas local church leaders would often be concerned with local matters and local politics and often were not interested in supporting larger efforts at spreading the Gospel into new areas. We may see similar tendencies towards independent local congregations in contemporary mainstream Christianity that similarly avoid involvement in evangelism on a larger level and that have a very narrow view of the Church, a nearsightedness of which the Didache and Diotrophes were merely early examples. Let us neither be led astray by our own desires for preeminence nor let ourselves forget the larger united body of Christ of which we are a part as believers, wherever we may be.
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