Church Offices in the Didache
One of the main theses of Felix Circlot’s Apostolic Succession: Is It True? is that, even in the New Testament, the threefold hierarchy of bishop-priest-deacon did exist, just under different names. Prior to the time of St. Ignatius, he argues, what we today think of as bishops were instead known as “apostles,” and it was those who we today call priests who were known as “bishops.” As for the “presbyters,” Circlot understands this as a general term that could be used to signify either an apostle or a bishop (possibly even a deacon), essentially being no different from our usage of the term “minister” today. Now, I’m not attempting to conclusively prove or disprove Circlot’s thesis, but rather use The Didache as a case study to see whether or not it provides a fruitful hermeneutic for early Christian documents.
The Didache directly addresses the question of church hierarchy in chapter 15, where readers are exhorted to “appoint for yourselves bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord… for they also render to you the service of prophets and teachers.” Some have used this as evidence that only the offices of bishop and deacon existed in the late 90s, however notice the last comment made about these two ministries. They also render the service of prophets and teachers. What this means is further clarified in the next sentence: “Despise them not therefore, for they are your honored ones, together with the prophets and teachers.” At face value, it seems that the Didache is actually describing four offices in the church, namely bishops, deacons, prophets, and teachers (cf. Eph. 4:11). Together, these four groups constitute the church’s “honored ones.”
However, let’s not draw conclusions too quickly. In order to know who exactly the “prophets and teachers” were, it’s necessary to examine chapters 10-13 of the Didache. The first time prophets are mentioned is in chapter 10, when the reader is told to “permit the prophets to make Thanksgiving as much as they desire.” We know from chapter 9 that “Thanksgiving” in this context refers to the sacrificial offering of the Eucharist, and so the fact that prophets are the ones who “make” this offering suggests that they were liturgical leaders of sorts.
This is important as we move to chapter 11, which begins by addressing what to do if a new “teacher” comes to you. Said teachers are to be judged on the basis of the doctrine they preach; if it’s in line with the Gospel then “receive him as the Lord,” however if it’s not, then reject him. “And concerning the apostles and prophets,” the text continues, “Let every apostle that comes to you be received as the Lord,” however if he overstays his welcome or asks for money, “he is a false prophet.” From these passages I believe it’s plausible that not only the terms “apostle” and “prophet” are being used interchangeably (which is very clear), but even “teacher” is another synonym for this one office. The logic flows like this: If a teacher comes to you, test their doctrine to see if they’re a true teacher. If they prove to be a true teacher, then they’re to be treated like an “apostle” and “received as the Lord,” however if it later turns out that they weren’t actually a true teacher, then they’re to be treated as “false prophets.” The way these three terms are seamlessly used explains why “prophets and teachers,” and “apostles and prophets,” could previously be grouped together: Because they all refer to different aspects of the same office.
Thus, when chapter 13 refers to prophets as “your high priests,” it makes perfect sense. The prophet/apostle/teacher is revered “as the Lord,” because he’s the one who stands in the place of Christ the high priest and offers the eucharistic sacrifice on behalf of the people. Chapter 4 reiterates a similar point: “He that speaks to you the word of God, remember night and day; and you shall honor him as the Lord [cf. “honored ones”]; for in the place whence lordly rule is uttered, there is the Lord.” This identity between the authoritative leader of the church and the Lord is very reminiscent of St. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church” (ch. 8). Whereas Ignatius holds the bishop to be the one who offers the Eucharist and unifies the church, the Didache holds the prophet or apostle to be the one who serves this role. Indeed, it’s precisely because of how fundamental this office is to the church’s life that the Didache cares so much about following a true teacher in the first place.
In conclusion, the Didache seems to lend itself to Circlot’s thesis that there was not a development of offices in the early church, but rather a development of titles. The early Christians knew of apostles or prophets, bishops, and deacons, however by the end of the 2nd century, it seems that the titles had switched to bishops, presbyters, and deacons. And so while there was a “change” that occurred with respect to offices in the 1st century, this change was not one that produced an entirely new clerical order unbeknownst to the great Fathers who later considered it to be divinely instituted.