Milavec, Aaron. The Didache: Faith, Hope, & Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C.E. New York: The Newman Press, 2003.
Chapter 9, “Community Organization in a Companionship of Empowerment” pp. 579-617.
Milavec opens this chapter by asserting that because there is no assigned role of authority in the Didache it was a radically egalitarian group. “At no time did the community exclude, in principle, potential presiders on the basis of gender, race, economic status, marital status, or social status” (Milavec 2003, 582). He sees this radical egalitarian community in terms of empowerment. However, his assumptions are shaken by 15:1, which speaks of appointing elders and deacons. This is problematic to Milavec’s conception because it asserts a heirarchy. However, he notes that these leaders are under the control of the people in general (Milavec 2003, 583). Apparently this would prevent the whole problem of powerful elders acting contrary to the desires of the community.
Milavec thinks the comparative lack of explanation of the selection of overseers would indicate that the community already had the habit (Milavec 2003, 583). He takes the word episkopos to be already a secular term and not to imply having power or presiding over anything. His view is that the appointed overseers needed support in the face of opposition from the more charismatic prophets (Milavec 2003, 584). There is no sign that the elders were appointed by an apostle or other authority figure.
Milavec observes that the word episkopos is rarely used in the New Testament, and that in the Septuagint it may refer to any person. The word is often used interchangeably with presbuteros. Though the words have some overlap in meaning they are often used as synonyms (Milavec 2003, 585).
Milavec briefly conflates references to bishops, deacons, and the pastoral office with other roles of service. He notes that Acts 6:1-6 shows election by the congregation and classifies those people selected as pastors, not as other servants (Milavec 2003, 585). He then immediately discusses the term diakonon, which normally refers to someone who manages primarily physical care issues in the church. Because Philip and Stephen apparently engage in preaching, and because the apostles are sometimes mentioned in a role of “a deacon” the term must refer to pastors.
Milavec finds a conflict between bishops and prophets in Didache 15:2 (Milavec 2003, 588). He considers the conflict to be rooted in three differences between the groups. He finds the bishops to be liturgists who followed predictable formulas. In contrast, the prophets “were the charismatic zealots for the kingdom” (Milavec 2003, 587). Milavec considers the prophets to be very like charismatic evangelists of our own age. In this view, the bishops may have urged rather mundane lives of holiness, while the charismatics “were given to extraordinary feats of holiness” (Milavec 2003, 587), thus urging more charismatic lives. Milavec also sees the bishops making plans for the long run but the prophets as living in the daily expectation of Christ’s coming.
Didache 15:1 calls for worthy elders to be chosen. Milavec finds that four requirements are made. They were to be gentle, not coveting money (Milavec 2003, 588), truthful, and tested as to their reliability (Milavec 2003, 589). Milavec notes that the biblical qualifications from 1 Timothy 3:1-18, Titus 1:5-11, and 1 Peter 5:1-4 were from a later period, when he considers there to be more distinction between elders and deacons (Milavec 2003, 589). He clearly indicates the epistles as coming from the second century, and the teaching role of a bishop as a later development, with the role as a chief preacher, teacher, and celebrant to be a third century development.
Building on the idea of the deacon as a servant, Milavec theorizes that the work of the deacons would have been to prepare and serve the fellowship meals while the bishops would act as the overseers and managers. This would contribute to the role of the bishop as one who offers prayers. However, Milavec also considers that the text could describe “bishops who are deacons” to indicate people in both offices at once (Milavec 2003, 590).
Milavec notes that in the early 20th century, starting from Adolph Harnack, some scholars have shown the Didache as drawing a distinction between the (positively viewed) charismatic leadership and the later more institutional (negatively viewed) leadership. This was used by Protestants to describe themselves as the true and spiritual Christians (Milavec 2003, 591). By the end of the 20th century we find agreement that Didache 10:7 and 13:3 show worship led by prophets and teachers, not people in an apostolic heirarchy (Milavec 2003, 592). Milavec finds the argument convincing if three assumptions are so. First, he considers that bishops were supported by the community. Second, he finds it likely that prophets would decline numerically. Third, bishops presided at the eucharist. If these three situations are true, it is possible to see a gradual movement toward the less charismatic leadership of the bishops. However, Milavec thinks the earlier scholarship is too forceful about drawing distinctions and applying them to a Protestant versus Catholic context (Milavec 2003, 593).
The issue of continuity or discontinuity in theology is a common matter of discussion. We often ask how closely related New Testament theology and practice are to the Old Testament. Milavec asks a related question. To what extent is the organization of the Didache community related to that of a synagogue (Milavec 2003, 594)? Following James Tunstead Burtchaell’s 1992 work, From Synagogue to Church, Milavec draws two conclusions he considers crucial. First, both organizations were led by elders, but in Christianity the term “bishop” was preferred. Second, the organization of the synagogue still existed, but was referred to as “church.” Milavec sees the functionality as continuing without significant interruption (Milavec 2003, 595).
As to support from the community, Milavec finds that the prophets needed this financial support. However, bishops or elders had no such need. They would have been engaged in their livelihood so would be in the position of supporting, not receiving support. The work of leadership would be considered one’s leitourgia - civic service, not a sort of ecclesiastical worshp activity until the third century (Milavec 2003, 596). Milavec is very clear that he considers this a purely administrative role. He emphasizes that in his view, it is unpaid work which is civil and not spiritual in nature (Milavec 2003, 596-597).
The civic nature of the work of bishops, says Milavec, may be further seen in that the leader of liturgy in a synagogue was not an elder, but someone under the guidance of the elders (Milavec 2003, 598. The title was not taken over into Christianity. However, the actual function appears possibly with James in Jerusalem and in the hands of bishops as early as about 110 as described by Ignatius (Milavec 2003, 599). Milavec does admit that the Didache does not spell out the specific duties of elders. It also shows a council of elders who seem to act as a group.
These elders or bishops did clearly have some duties. Milavec, again following Burtchaell, finds financial control as well as making warnings and critiques to those causing disunity (Milavec 2003, 599). He does, however, admit to this being an “educated guess” (Milavec 2003, 600).
The synagogue also had an office which we would call “deacon.” Burtchaell finds the deacon in charge of many of the hands-on, concrete needs of the community. In a large community he may have been the basic essential person in the municipal government (Milavec 2003, 600). This role was brought over into Christianity as the “deacon” (Milavec 2003, 601). Again, Milavec, basing his assertion on Didache 15:1, considers the deacons to be volunteers. Philo suggests that this would be the role of young men in a household, acting in their place as free men (Milavec 2003, 601). Again, Milavec sees the service of the deacons as that of civic functionaries, working to facilitate business and the needs of the assembled community for worship. He takes a collectivist view in everything (Milavec 2003, 602).
Milavec questions whether women served as bishops and deacons in the Didache communities. He concludes since the term used is uniformly the strongly gendered “men” rather than the less gendered “people” he has to allow this as a role solely for men (Milavec 2003, 602). He emphasizes again that he finds women included in the mentors, people baptizing, and leading prayer. Milavec considers that there would have been social barriers to men and women serving together on a council (Milavec 2003, 603). This may have been moderated by the family atmosphere of the community. However, the civic structure could have created considerable tension. However, Milavec’s assertions do not take into account the different relationships often described in other early Christian documents. He does note that it would be more normal for men to care for men and women to care for women (Milavec 2003, 604).
Because bishops and deacons would be selected by the community and have distinct responsibilities, they could certainly face criticism. Milavec considers how the bishops and deacons could function, especially since everyone was to confess failings (Milavec 2003, 605). However, when there is robust local accountability, there tends to be strong and ethical leadership. Milavec makes much of the practice of censure which could lead an erring bishop to return and be readmitted (Milavec 2003, 606).
Milavec notes that the Didache does not specify who might serve as the celebrant in the eucharist. However, most Christian communities have maintained strict specifications (Milavec 2003, 608). Milavec goes on to explain that in the Roman church there is a presupposition that everything has been done the same way since institution in the apostolic age (Milavec 2003, 609). His opinion is that people have relied on this presupposition even when it is contradicted by facts. A central problem in this regard is whether only bishops would consecrate the eucharist and whether the bishops were in a direct descent from the apostles (Milavec 2003, 610). Milavec notes that the consecration of the eucharist and the office of bishop do not seem inextricably linked in the New Testament. In the time of Tertullian, moving into the third century, it seems that although the norm was for a leader of the community to perform the consecration, it was not always required (Milavec 2003, 611). Milavec concludes that the head of the household where the Christian group met would likely be the celebrant. This person may well have been a bishop but it is nowhere required. The Didache does not make any indication of ordination (Milavec 2003, 613). The development of a clearly ordained and heirarchical priesthood can be traced to the third century but not clearly before that. Milavec cautions against imposing views on the community when they may be anachronisms (Milavec 2003, 614).
Clayton Jefferd, in 1989, suggested “that the Didache was a training manual designed specifically for the training of new elders (Milavec 2003, 615). Milavec considers the claims briefly. If this claim of Jefferds is true, the Didache would rightly be understood as building on the model of the organization of a synagogue. A significant problem with Jefferds’ thesis is that the word “elder” is absent from the Didache (Milavec 2003, 616). However, there are many second person plural statements which could well be addressed to elders. These statements give guidance in many areas which would seem the realm of elders. Counter to this, the instructions to treat prophets as high priests and to give them offerings seems to conflict with the idea of an elder-led organizational structure (Milavec 2003, 616). Milavec also observes that the novices are told to participate in the same disciplines as the elders or bishops. This, in Milavec’s opinion, is in conflict with the theory that the Didache is intended to train elders. He therefore rejects Jefferds’ analysis (Milavec 2003, 617).