“Places of Honor Among You” (Didache): Apostles, Prophets, Teachers, Bishops, and Deacons

The Didache (“The Teaching”) addresses Christian communities scattered across, most probably, the region of Syria sometime in the late first or early second century, which is probably the same provenance of the Gospel of Matthew, which was written earlier. The Didache assumes the realities of local communities shaped by shared experiences. They were baptized into a specific community. They ate together at Eucharistic meals. They lived in community as people who walked in the way of Jesus. They received travelling apostles, prophets, and teachers, discerned between frauds and authentic leaders, and were led by a group of bishops and deacons. At the same time, each local community recognized that it was part of a larger network of communities with itinerant ministers. As Thomas O’Loughlin suggests, the slogan “think global, act local” applies but with a twist. “They had to think and act local while thinking and acting global.”[1] The Dicache addresses communities who live in both local and global environments, with settled leaders and itinerant ones.

Both the settled, local leaders and the itinerant ones were honored by the local community. Didache 15:2 says, the “bishops and deacons . . . are the persons who hold a place of honor among you, together with the prophets and teachers.” Honor is given to both groups, whether local or itinerant.  The honor given to extra-local leaders paralleled the honor given to local leaders, the bishops and deacons. The Didache emphasizes the honor due to itinerant leaders because there is a natural suspicion regarding outsiders, and this is why Didache 11:2 insists that faithful communities “receive [them] as the Lord” (see also Didache 11:4 concerning apostles).

Both groups are also tested, that is, before they serve, they are “approved” in some way. Didache 15:1 refers to the bishops and deacons as people “who are honest and have proved (δεδοκιμασμένους) themselves.” In the same way, the itinerant leaders, specifically prophets, are people “examined (δεδοκιμασμένος) and found true” (Didache 11:11). In other words, local communities raised up leaders among them who had been tested by the community, and they also examined all newcomers who came to them “in the name of the Lord” (Didache 12:1).

These leaders, both local and itinerant, received honor within local communities, and they were both examined and approved.

Itinerant Leaders

In 1 Corinthians 12:28, Paul begins by enumerating three gifts, though he continues in the text to name others. “God has appointed in the church,” Paul wrote, “first apostles, second prophets, third teachers.” We also hear something similar in Ephesians 4:11: “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.” Acts 13:1 names several “prophets and teachers,” two of whom (Barnabas and Paul) became “apostles” (Acts 14:14) as they were sent by the church in Antioch to the Gentiles. Consistent with these biblical texts, the Didache seemingly names three kinds of itinerant servants: teachers, apostles, and prophets (chapters 11-13). While the Didache, Acts of the Apostles, and 1 Corinthians name the same leaders, Ephesians elaborates by adding evangelists and perhaps pastors as a separate category from “teachers” (though I am inclined to think of “pastors and teachers” as a single category in Ephesians 4:11, that is, a teaching pastor).


Whatever we might say, the aural nature of these ministries is significant for the earliest Christian communities who lived without written guidelines, a need the Didache supplies. Though what we call the New Testament is circulating in some partial forms early in the second century (the “Four Gospels,” for example, or perhaps a collection of Paul’s epistles) there was no normative collection of these documents into a single book (or codex) for some time to come. Consequently, the church depended upon local and itinerant leaders for teaching, communication, and its sense of unity with other communities of faith. It is no surprise, then, that the teaching function is highlighted in the Didache. Not only do “teachers” teach, but apostles and prophets teach as well (Didache 11:10).

According to Didache 11:3, every itinerant leader (specifically, prophets and apostles) is expected to conform to the “ordinance of the gospel” (τὰ δόγμα τοῦ εὐαγγελίου). The dogma of the gospel might possibly refer to the written Gospels themselves, or, more probably, it refers to the canon of truth that functions as a rule by which Christians walk (cf. Galatians 6:14-16). The “ordinance of the gospel,” as I understand it, is the teaching of the Faith that constitutes the Christian confession, and examples of this are embedded in the New Testament documents themselves. These range from “Jesus is Lord” in 1 Corinthians 12:3 to the summary of the story of Jesus in Peter’s homily at the house of Cornelius in Acts 10:36-43. This is the gospel, and this is what teachers must teach if they are to be welcomed into the community. Teachers must not teach any other gospel but the one that belongs to the dogma, the constitution, or the decrees of the Lord himself.

In the Didache, teachers appear as a general category, inclusive of apostles and prophets, but they may also be distinct but gifted instructors who are able to unpack the “ordinance of the gospel” that leads to “an increase of justice and knowledge of the Lord” for communities (11:2), perhaps leaders who know how to expound the Torah in the light of the exalted Messiah.  Apostles and prophets also teach, but their function is broader, especially for prophets who may lead the liturgy of the assembled community. The Didache does not give us much to work with concerning teachers (only 11:1-2).


The Didache is concerned about the relationship of the apostles and prophets from the global community to the local community. This is indicated by how Didache 11:3 begins with, like many sections in 1 Corinthians (7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12), “now concerning” (περὶ δὲ). This introduces a specific topic that needs attention. The comings and goings of apostles and prophets is something the community must navigate for its own health.

While Didache 11:3 may suggest that “apostles and prophets” (τὼν ἀποστόλων καὶ προπητῶν) are a single group, or perhaps, if we understand “and” (καὶ) as epexegetical, even “apostolic prophets” because nowhere does the Didache list a triology of itinerants (“teachers, apostles, and prophets”), most distinguish between the two groups even though “apostles” are not present in the Didache other than here. Seemingly, this group often appears before local communities, perhaps as missionaries or representatives of other communities. Didache 11:4 calls for their reception just as they would receive the Lord, and there is the expectation that they would only stay a day or two. They bear an honorable title, “Apostles,” and a spiritual authority attaches to that title. They are not part of the Twelve, who constitute a unique group. Rather, they are “people sent,” and we might presume they are sent by other communities. They teach, but they are more than traveling teachers. They probably served as connectors between communities who were sent with some authority to share news, mission, or teaching with other communities. They manifested the unity of the church. The fact that “staying” for any length of time is not an option means their mission is a brief one and their journey as servants to the global church must continue rather than become static. They come, and they go. But they serve with some spiritual authority which communities should receive as the Lord, which means they are not only apostles of a particular community but messengers of the Lord himself.

They are supported in a minimal fashion—daily bread. If they ask for money, they reveal their inauthenticity as “false prophets.” Curiously, they are called “false prophets” rather than as, for example, in 2 Corinthians 11:13 “false apostles.” Perhaps this indicates they are also regarded as prophetic figures themselves, perhaps they are “apostolic prophets.” Their function included teaching, prophesying, and uniting the global church. Whatever the case, we are given little information about them other than: (1) receive them as the Lord, (2) provide for their immediate needs, and (3) reject them if they ask for money. This seems to parallel Jesus’s instruction for the disciples in Luke 9-10 or Matthew 10, and it indicates a radical commitment to poverty in the context of their mission.


The prophet is one who “speaks in the Spirit” (Didache 11:7, 8, 9, 12). There is significant disagreement about what that means. Some think it refers to some sort of ecstasy in their act of prophesying, while others think it refers to speaking in tongues, and others think it refers to dreams or visions shared with the community. We find similar phrases in Revelation 1:10; 4:2; 17:3; 21:10 and the Shepherd of Hermas, Mandates, 11:8-9, both published in the late first or early second centuries. There is something charismatic or visionary about it, that is, it is a gift exercised within the community by the direct action of the Spirit. The community was able to discern an act of “speaking in the Spirit” in some way. While there is also a general sense of speaking “in the Spirit” that is true for all believers who confess “Jesus is Lord” according to 1 Corinthians 12:3, in the Didache “speaking in the Spirit” is a characteristic of prophets alone. It is unclear exactly what that “speaking” entailed in terms of words, language, embodied presence, and/or rhythm. Perhaps their ability to “speak in the Spirit” is what empowers them to give thanks at the Eucharist in their own words (Didache 10:7), and this indicates that prophets sometimes led local communities in their Eucharistic assemblies.

When a prophet comes “speaking in the Spirit,” the prophet’s credibility is presumed. The community does not test or judge the prophet out of respect for the work of God through the Spirit. They do not want to deny the work of the Spirit among them. At the same time, while there is an initial welcome, the prophets will reveal their authenticity by their behavior. Their own actions will approve them or disqualify them. The community will discern who is a false prophet and who is a true one by their behavior. As Jesus said, “by their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:16). In other words, the Didache seeks to put an end to abuses of hospitality on the part of itinerant leaders. In addition, there is an eschatological concern about the appearance of “false prophets” who will turn “sheep” into “wolves” and “love” into “hate” before the “world deceiver” appears (Didache 16:3-4). Consequently, though welcomed, prophets must prove themselves.

The Didache identifies a few specific behaviors that demonstrate the distinction between true and false, and these specifics provide a means of communal discernment.

  1. Prophets who order a meal “in the Spirit” and eat it are false prophets.
  2. Prophets who do not live according to what is taught are false prophets.
  3. Prophets who ask for resources for themselves are false prophets.

If the prophets do (1) and (3) for the sake of others rather than themselves, then this confirms their authenticity. In other words, the prophet is for others rather than for self. The prophet is kenotic; the prophet is conformed to the mystery of the gospel in the self-giving nature of Jesus himself. When prophets act out of self-interest, then the community discerns their inauthenticity. Their behavior and teaching must match up and reflect the realities of gospel cruciformity. Interestingly, these criteria indicate that not only was prayer and teaching part of the function of the prophet but also charity. In contrast, any prophet who uses their gift to demand money for themselves is a false prophet. The Shepherd of Hermas also noted this problem in Mandates, 11:12, and Jesus rebuked the church in Thyatira for harboring the prophetess he called Jezebel despite her behavior and teaching identified her as a false prophet. In the Didache, as in the Shepherd and Revelation, discernment is necessary.

When Others Want to Settle Locally

Didache 12:1 says, “Let everyone who comes in the name of the Lord be received.” The question is whether this a group distinct from the teachers, prophets, and apostles, or is this a general comment on other visitors, perhaps non-charismatic ones, who arrive in the community as unknown persons. Most interpreters prefer the latter option because, in part, Didache 13:1 resumes the discussion of prophets and what to do when they want to settle. There is a distinction between the group in chapter 12 who wants to settle and the prophets in chapter 13 who want to settle.

When someone comes to the community and wants to settle and participate in it, the Didache provides some guidelines. The community must exercise discernment and “be on guard against” those who would abuse their generosity.

  1. Prove (δοκιμάσαντες) them in order to discern their intent.
  2. If they are transient, help them for two or three days but no more.
  3. If they want to settle with the community,
  4. let them work a craft,
  5. but if they have no craft, discern how to help without burdening the community.
  6. If they do not cooperate, they are unacceptably “using Christ to make a living.”

The Didache expects people to work for their living rather than interminably living off the generosity of others in the community.

But what if a prophet or itinerant teacher wants to settle? Didache 13 states that prophets and “true teachers” deserve food, “just as a worker does.” When the community discerns that these prophets and teachers are authentic by their conformity to the gospel and the truth of their teaching, the community must support them with the firstfruits of their produce, herds, and flocks. Didache 13:7 instructs the community to “take the firstfruits of money and clothing and whatever [else] you own, as you think best and give them according to the commandment,” which is probably an allusion to Matthew 10:10 (cf. Luke 10:7). These are sacred offerings as if offered to high priests and the obligation to share is analogous to tithing in the Mosaic covenant by which priests were supported. In essence, they are sacred sacrifices for the good of the community because the community is enriched by the presence of authentic prophets and true teachers.

The Didache envisions a situation where prophets and teachers may visit, stay for a few days to teach and lead the community, and then leave for other places. But it also envisions a situation where these prophets and teachers may settle in a community, serve that community, and work alongside its bishops and deacons. In other words, prophets and teachers are not always itinerant, but—we may suppose—they are nevertheless remain global leaders as gifted prophets and teachers.

Lessons for the Contemporary Church

First, the community of faith must practice discernment. While always remaining open to the work of the Spirit, including listening to those who “speak in the Spirit,” there is a sense of approvedness that is applied by the community. The central tests are (1) a life consistent with their teaching, (2) the content of teaching conforms “the ordinance (or dogma) of the church,” which is cruciformity, and (3) the for-otherness of their teaching, practices, and lifestyle.

Second, though discernment is necessary, the community must submit to the authentic prophets and teachers that come to them. They are to be welcomed “as the Lord.” This is not said of everyone. For example, those who come “in the name of the Lord” in chapter 12 are welcomed but the phrase “as the Lord” is only applied to teachers, prophets, and apostles (Didache 11:2-4). The community is called to receive, support, and submit to these itinerant ministers of the cross. In part, this means the local community should listen to and learn from the global community as their authority from the Lord is recognized in the context of the universal church.

Third, the Didache expects a mutually enriching relationship between local and itinerant leaders. Chapter 15 seamlessly connects both sets. They have each “proved” (δεδοκιμασμένους) themselves, shown themselves honest, and eschewed greed. Local and global leaders are formed by the same character, though their gifts are distinct and different. The bishops and deacons, at a local level, “perform (λειτουργοῦσι) the functions of prophets and teachers” and they are elected by the local community through a show of hands (a vote; Χειροτονήσατε). The bishops and deacons, therefore, do not abdicate their local function to the prophets and teachers but serve alongside of them in the community. They perform or participate, in some sense, in the same ministry and deserve the same honor. Bishops are overseers of the flock and preside over its communal functions while the deacons are servants within and for the community; their focus is local. But they also receive global, itinerant leaders who enrich the life of the local community. At the same time, the itinerant leaders honor the local leaders, even though they are not themselves charismatics or people who have the ability to “speak in the Spirit.”

All the leaders, both local and global, hold a place of honor within the church, both local and universal.

Didache (Cody’s Translation)

11. 1Accordingly, receive anyone who comes and teaches (διδάξῃ) you all that has been said above. 2If the teacher (ὁ διδάσκων) himself turns to teaching (διδάσκῃ) another doctrine (διδαχὴν) [which will lead] to destruction, do not listen to him, but [if it will lead] to an increase of justice and knowledge of the Lord, receive him as the Lord.

3In the matter of apostles and prophets (τὼν ἀποστόλων καὶ προπητῶν), act this way, according to the ordinance of the gospel (τὰ δόγμα τοῦ εὐαγγελίου). 4Let every apostle (ἀπόστολος) who comes to you be received as the Lord. 5He shall stay [only] one day, or if need be, another day, too. If he stays three days, he is a false prophet (ψευδοπροφήτης). 6When the apostle (ὁ ἀπόστολος) leaves, let him receive nothing but [enough] bread [to see him through] until he finds lodging. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet (ψευδοπροφήτης). 7Do not test any prophet (προφήτηv) who speaks in spirit (ἐν πνεύματι), and do not judge him, for every [other] sin will be forgiven, but this sin will not be forgiven. 8Not everyone who speaks in spirit (ἐν πνεύματι) is a prophet (προφήτης) but only the one whose behavior is the Lord’s. So the false prophet (ψευδοπροφήτης) and the prophet (προφήτης) will be recognized by their behavior. 9Any prophet (προφήτης) who gives orders for a table [i.e., a meal] in spirit (ἐν πνεύματι) shall not eat of it; if he does, he is a false prophet (ψευδοπροφήτης). 10If any prophet (προφήτης) teaching (διδάσκων) the truth does not do what he teaches (διδάσκει), he is a false prophet (ψευδοπροφήτης). 11No prophet (προφήτης), examined (δεδοκιμασμένος) and found true, who acts for the earthly mystery of the church (ποιῶν εἰς μυστήριον κοσμικὸν ἐκκλησίας) but does not teach (διδάσκων) [others] to do everything that he himself does, shall be judged by you, for his judgment is with God. The ancient prophets (οἱ ἀρχαῖοι προφῆται) acted in the same way. 12You shall not listen to anyone who says in spirit (ἐν πνεύματι), “Give me money, or something,” but if he is asking that something be given for others who are in need, let no one judge him.

12. 1Let everyone who comes in the name of Lord be received, and then, when you have taken stock of him, you will know [what he is like], for you will have right and left perception [i.e, perception of what is good and bad about him]. 2If the person who comes is just passing through on the way to some other place, help him as much as you can, but he shall not stay with you more than two or three days—if that is necessary. 3If he wants to settle in with you, though, and he is a craftsman, let him work and [thus] eat. 4If he has no craft, you shall use your insight to provide a good way for him to avoid living with you as a Christian with nothing to do. 5If he is unwilling to do what that way calls for, he is using Christ to make a living. Be on your guard against people like this.

13. 1Every true prophet (προφήτης) who wants to settle in with you deserves his food. 2In the same way, a true teacher (διδάσκαλος ἀληθινός), too, deserves his food, just as a worker does. 3So when you [sing.] take any firstfruits of what is produced by the wine press and the threshing floor, by cows and by sheep, you [sing.] shall give the firstfruits to the prophets (προφήταις), for they are your [pl.] high priests. 4If, however, you [pl. through verse 4] have no prophet (προφήτην), give [them] to the poor. 5If you [sing. through verses 5-7] make bread, take the firstfruits, and give them according to the commandment. 6Likewise, when you open a jar of wine or oil, take the firstfruits and give them to the prophets (προφήταις). 7Take the firstfruits of money and clothing and whatever [else] you own, as you think best and give them according to the commandment.

15. 1Select, then, for yourselves bishops and deacons (ἐπισκόπους καὶ διακόνους) worthy of the Lord, mild tempered men who are not greedy, who are honest and have proved (δεδοκιμασμένους) themselves, for they too perform (λειτουργοῦσι) the functions of prophets and teachers for you. 2So do not disregard them, for they are the persons who hold a place of honor among you, together with the prophets and teachers.


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