Contextual Theology: The Didache and the Fight for Life

Last Wednesday, Ryan Mahoney introduced the readers of this blog to a new series we are running, entitled Contextual Theology. In short, this series is driven by our desire to see Evangelicals re-root themselves in the Great Tradition of the Church.  While many within Western Protestantism have been taught that “tradition” is a dirty word most commonly associated with Catholics, the Reformers of the 1500s would never have seen the Great Tradition in this light.  Indeed, it takes little more than a cursory examination of even a few of the writings of Calvin, Luther and Zwingli to see that these men were deeply invested in tying their theology to the teachings of the universal church that preceded them. So today, as we continue to walk in the footsteps of the Magisterial Reformers, our series continues by taking a look at the modern, pro-life movement through the lens of an ancient text called The Didache or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.[1]  

First, a little background.  While scholars are almost universally united in their rejection of the claim that The Didache was written by a genuine Apostle of Jesus the Christ, these same scholars are also in near unanimous agreement that this early church document was written and distributed during a time when at least some of the Apostles were still living.[2]  What’s more, this document was so highly revered by many in the early church that even as late as 324 A.D, Eusebius, the so-called “Father of Church History,” refers to the work as being included in the inspired canon of Scripture by some teachers within the church.

“Let there be placed among the spurious works the Acts of Paul, the so-called Shepherd [of Hermas]  and the Apocalypse of Peter, and besides these the Epistle of Barnabas, and what are called the Teachings of the Apostles, and also the Apocalypse of John, if this be thought proper; for as I wrote before, some reject it, and others place it in the canon.”

So does The Didache belong in the Christian canon?  Quite honestly, that is a much larger discussion that is best saved for another day.  But what is important for today’s conversation is to understand that The Didache was widely respected by the early church fathers; and it was used as a means of helping early, Gentile believers navigate their journey between “the way of life” and “the way of death.”

“There are two ways, a way of life and a way of death; there is a great difference between them . . . In accordance with the precept of the teaching ‘You shall not kill,’ you shall not put a child to death by abortion nor kill it once it is born. . . . The way of death is this; they show no compassion for the poor. They do not suffer with the suffering. They do not acknowledge their Creator, they kill their children and by abortion cause God’s creatures to perish; they drive away the needy, oppress the suffering; they are advocates of the rich and unjust judges of the poor; they are filled with every sin. May you be ever guiltless of all these sins!”[3]

What makes this statement so significant in a modern, Western context is that it categorically refutes the liberal contention that the Evangelical, pro-life movement is nothing more than a ploy by the “religious right” to gain power over women and their bodies.  As any fair-minded reader can see, from the earliest days of the Church, Christians saw the culture of death that surrounded them; and they rejected that culture as being distinctly contrary to the values of The Christ.  Whereas many Roman citizens and pagans felt the moral freedom to abort their children and to abandon their babies by leaving them in ceramic jars to die of starvation and exposure to the elements,[4] Christians often took it upon themselves to not only speak out against such practices, but to rescue these abandoned infants by taking them into their own homes and raising them as sons and daughters.[5]

So what are we to make of this?  First, we need to realize that the fight for life is not a new development, unique to modern American politics.  The Christian commitment to the fight for life is a value as old as the church itself; and we need to realize that this value will always place us at odds with the culture around us.  Secondly, we need to recognize that the cultural mantra of making abortion “safe, legal and rare,” is nothing less than a hollow claim meant to diffuse the issue.  Untethered sexual freedom will always lead to unintended pregnancy; and so long as unintended pregnancies exist, human nature will always desire to side-step the ramifications of its actions.  Consider, if you will, the following statistics compiled by the Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood:[6]

  • 1 in 3 American woman will abort a child prior to the age of 45.
  • 58% of women who abort are in their 20s.
  • By contrast, teenagers account for fewer than 2 in 10 abortions.
  • 6 out of 10 women who abort already have at least one child.
  • 3 out of 4 women who abort describe themselves as “religiously affiliated.”
  • 18% of women who abort describe themselves as “born again Evangelicals.”
  • 4 in 10 women who aborted their child in 2008 had incomes that were below the federal poverty line.
  • While white women make up the majority of women who abort a children, women of color are disproportionately likely to abort their child.

Does this sound as if abortion is “rare?”  Clearly not.  Rather, abortion is an all-to-common feature of the American cultural landscape – a feature that is likely to mark not only those that are outside of the church, but many of those that silently sit right next to us every Sunday morning, often hoping that their “secret sin” never becomes public.

So what are we to do as a church?    We speak out.  But more than that, we recognize the simple truth that 70% of women who abort their child state that their heart’s desire would be to provide for their unborn infant, if only someone would step up and support them physically, emotionally, financially, and spiritually.

So the question in this election season is: are you the kind of person who wants to talk about the truth?  Or are you the kind of person that wants to join with the Great Tradition in pulling babies off the refuse heaps of ancient Rome, taking them into your home and raising them as your sons and your daughters?


[1] As is the case with most of the early church writings, a free, digital copy of The Didache can be found online.

[2] The most commonly accepted date for the writing of The Didache is ~70 A.D.

[4] O.M. Bakke, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Ausberg Fortress Press: 2006).  This is an excellent resource for understanding how Christianity fought for life in a Roman culture that was drowning in death.

[5] While we have chosen to highlight The Didache as an excellent representative example of the early churches’ fight for the life of unborn and abandoned children, the reader should not misinterpret this to mean that The Didache is the only document that highlights this concern.  The following website helpfully lists numerous quotes from a variety of early church leaders related to the subject of abortion and abandonment.  http://www.catholic.com/tracts/abortion

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4 Responses to Contextual Theology: The Didache and the Fight for Life

  1. What is interesting about this issue of life is that it is set within the larger section of the Didache “The Two Ways.” It is a traditional Jewish way of writing about practical theology, stemming from the blessings and cursings of Deuteronomy. That whole section, not just the “pro-life” aspect is meant to be applicational teaching for the Church. Embedded with the “pro-life” points are charges for the Church to care for the poor, needy and oppressed; it talks about economic justice.

    Evangelicalism has been quick to defend life, but has been slow to care about justice. Evangelicalism, born of the Modern period, has been shaped by the Enlightenment values of autonomy (self-rule/care), freedom (let me be) and life. As such, issues of life easily fit within the dominate cultural paradigm and the biblical paradigm. However, economic and social justice (do not read Marx here) are writ large in scripture, but these concerns do not fit into the narratives of autonomy and freedom told to us by the Enlightenment. Simply put, we are influenced more by our cultural narratives than biblical ones, and read the early church helps us return to scripture with a different set of cultural eyes that might help us read it more truly. This is why churches can have yearly budgets of $25 million dollars and spend the bulk of that tithe on themselves in the form of bigger buildings, more buildings, technology, etc. rather than feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoners, and caring for the body in practical ways as a matter of biblical necessity.

    • If you noticed in the post above, I included a few of The Didache’s remarks on poverty; and then made a few statistical ties to poverty as well. There is a very sad, historical link between poverty and abortion in the United States. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, saw abortion as a way of furthering her eugenics project. In short, she targeted centers around ethic minority and impoverished urban centers as a means of “helping” society rid itself of the “less desirable” elements.

  2. fidelismama says:

    Scott,

    I am confused by your final question, “So the question in this election season is: are you the kind of person who wants to talk about the truth? Or are you the kind of person that wants to join with the Great Tradition in pulling babies off the refuse heaps of ancient Rome, taking them into your home and raising them as your sons and your daughters?” Can’t we do both? I think that talking about the truth is important. As you know, I am all for pulling babies off the refuse heap. Foster care and adoption need to be part of the DNA of the church!

    Blessings,

    Jen

    • You are completely correct, Jennifer. Looking back, that is a false dichotomy I put up. Just another example of the limitations of blogging and the lack of an editor. I was trying to say that we often speak, but rarely act. My wording was off.

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