The earliest Christian writers show us a potent church at work, uniting believers of different races, sexes and economic levels, a church rich in prophecies, healings, exorcisms and powerful preaching by numerous leaders.

But the Spirit began fading through the 200s, until by the time of Athanasius in the 300s the miraculous acts of God were on the wane, the leadership of women had been curtailed, orthodoxy was threatened, and church unity had virtually disappeared. What happened?

The Didache

The Didache was one of several Syrian church discipline manuals that came to define church order in the Near East. This 2nd-century document dealt with the proper conduct expected of and expected toward itinerant ministers who apparently had begun to abuse Christian hospitality.

It is remarkable in many ways, among which is its introduction of a negative Golden Rule: “All which you may wish will not happen to you, you also do not do to another” (1:2). This recasting of Jesus’ words from the positive to the negative serves as a synecdoche for the whole book; the Didache introduced into early church literature the infamous lists of “don’ts” that would come to characterize much of the Christianity that would follow. As a result, Christian freedom was sharply curtailed.

In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul leaves the eating of food offered to idols up to the individual Christian’s conscience, cautioning each Christian to consider those weaker in the faith when deciding how to exercise Christian freedom. But in the Didache, individual conscience has been superseded by ecclesiastical rule: “… keep strictly away from what is offered to idols, for that implies worshipping dead gods” (6:3). What was once a caution is now a rule.

Jesus said to baptize. But the ...

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