We recently started a new series about teaching catechisms to children and adults. You may be familiar with catechisms, but if you are not please read the introduction to our series.

We will look at ten of the best-known Christian catechisms so you can familiarize yourself with what each one teaches and which one you might want to teach to your children or in your church. I am a firm believer that teaching the Bible methodically and inductively is the best way to instruct children and adults. Unfortunately, the number of Christians taught that way has diminished greatly in the last few decades. We are now left with a challenge about effectively training children and adults in Christian families and churches.

One possible solution might be using a catechism that fits your family’s or church’s spiritual needs.

Catechisms in the Early Church

We know from the Gospels, Book of Acts, and Apostolic Letters how the early Church taught Christians doctrine and practice. Jesus Christ is the best example of how to teach, followed by His apostles who were led and inspired by the Holy Spirit given to them by Christ. The thousands of people who believed Peter’s preaching on Pentecost were baptized and then “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). They walked “in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit” and multiplied in number (Acts 9:31b). The apostles established churches and selected men to serve as pastors and deacons (1 Timothy 3; Titus ). Their ministry was to teach and train “faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). Their primary training document was the Scripture because it “is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

My own preference for a type of personal catechism through the years has been memorizing Scripture and repeating the verses in a particular order. I usually repeat them upon waking in the morning and before going to bed at night. Any Christian can do something similar. Speaking and praying Scripture is a wonderful way of hearing from God and speaking to God based on absolute Truth – God’s Word. That would be one type of early Church catechism.

The apostles were persecuted for their ministries and most were martyred. They trained men to teach and guide the Christians who lived in many countries. How did they do it? They preached, taught, and wrote:

And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. 2 Timothy 2:2

You can read more about how Jesus Christ, His apostles, the Apostolic Fathers, and Church Fathers did this in our special series:

Jesus Christ gave special gifts to Christian men for the purpose of leading and guiding the Church. The purpose was for preaching the Gospel, making disciples, and leading Christians to be unified around correct doctrine and practice in the Church.

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. Ephesians 4:11-16

We can look to the ministries of the Apostolic Fathers (disciples of the apostles) and Early Church Fathers (disciples of the disciples of the apostles) to see how they preached and taught (evangelists, pastor-teachers) and defended Christianity against spiritual attacks (apologists). One of the methods they used was a type of catechism.

The early church was painfully familiar with the apostasy of professing Christians. Persecution and the continued power of heathen worship practices caused many to lapse and prompted the early church to develop methods of instructing apparent converts before baptism. The period of instruction and catechizing served two purposes: it allowed the candidate (catechumenate) to decide if he still wanted to submit to Christian baptism and gave the church opportunity to discern (as far as human observation can do these kinds of things) the genuineness of his, or her, conversion. Then, after engaging in a period of fasting and prayer with the church, the candidates were baptized. This use of catechisms served as a safeguard for the purity of the church. Men such as Tertullian and Augustine served as catechists within the church. Julian the Apostate (ca. 360) so feared the effectiveness of this enterprise that he closed all Christian schools and places of public literature and forbade the instructing of youth. An Encouragement to Use Catechisms

The earliest catechism of the Church other than the Bible may have been the Didache. It’s also known as the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. Many scholars believe it was written during the 1st century AD. If true, the Didache gives us a fascinating window into how Christians were taught to believe and behave. Athanasius of Alexandria, a 4th century church leader, described the Didache as “appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who with for instruction in the word of goodness” (Festal Letter 39:7).

Teachings in the Didache

The Didache has 16 sections. I’m going to share some of the verses from each section so you can get an idea of what early Christians viewed as important to know and do. You can read the entire Didache from the following translators:

Here are several highlights from the first section. It deals with the “Two Ways.” You will notice that some of the lines are similar to the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels.

  • 1:1 There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways.
  • 1:3 First of all, {thou shalt love the God} that made thee;
  • 1:4 secondly, {thy neighbour as thyself.}
  • 1:10 {If any man give thee a blow on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also,} and thou shalt be perfect;
  • 1:11 {if a man impress thee to go with him, one mile, go with him twain;
  • 1:12 if a man take away thy cloak, give him thy coat also;
  • 1:13 if a man take away from thee that which is thine own, ask it not back,} for neither art thou able.
  • 2:1 And this is the second commandment of the teaching.
  • 2:2 {Thou shalt do no murder, thou shalt not commit adultery,} thou shalt not corrupt boys, thou shalt not commit fornication, {thou shalt not steal,} thou shalt not deal in magic, thou shalt do no sorcery, thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born, {thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods, thou shalt not perjure thyself, thou shalt not bear false witness,} thou shalt not speak evil, thou shalt not cherish a grudge, thou shalt not be double-minded nor double-tongued;
  • 2:3 for the double tongue is a snare of death.
  • 3:1 My child, flee from every evil and everything that resembleth it.
  • 3:2 Be not angry, for anger leadeth to murder, nor jealous nor contentious nor wrathful;
  • 3:3 for of all these things murders are engendered.
  • 4:1 My child, {thou shalt remember him that speaketh unto thee the word of God} night and day, and shalt honour him as the Lord;
  • 4:2 for whencesoever the Lordship speaketh, there is the Lord.
  • 4:17 Thou shalt never forsake the commandments of the Lord;
  • 4:18 but shalt keep those things which thou hast received, neither adding to them nor taking away from them.
  • 4:19 In church thou shalt confess thy transgressions, and shalt not betake thyself to prayer with an evil conscience.
  • 4:20 This is the way of life.
  • 5:1 But the way of death is this.
  • 5:2 First of all, it is evil and full of a curse murders, adulteries, lusts, fornications, thefts, idolatries, magical arts, witchcrafts, plunderings, false witnessings, hypocrisies, doubleness of heart, treachery, pride, malice, stubbornness, covetousness, foul-speaking, jealousy, boldness, exaltation, boastfulness;
  • 5:3 persecutors of good men, hating truth, loving a lie, not perceiving the reward of righteousness, not {cleaving to the good} nor to righteous judgment, wakeful not for that which is good but for that which is evil;
  • 5:4 from whom gentleness and forbearance stand aloof;
  • 5:5 loving vain things, pursuing a recompense, not pitying the poor man, not toiling for him that is oppressed with toil, not recognizing Him that made them, murderers of children, corrupters of the creatures of God, turning away from him that is in want, oppressing him that is afflicted, advocates of the wealthy, unjust judges of the poor, altogether sinful.
  • 5:6 May ye be delivered, my children, from all these things.
  • 6:1 See lest any man lead you astray from this way of righteousness, for he teacheth thee apart from God.
  • 6:2 For if thou art able to bear the whole yoke of the Lord, thou shalt be perfect;
  • 6:3 but if thou art not able, do that which thou art able.
  • 6:4 But concerning eating, bear that which thou art able;
  • 6:5 yet abstain by all means from meat sacrificed to idols;
  • 6:6 for it is the worship of dead gods.

The second section focuses on Church liturgical practices (Chapters 7-10).

  • 7:1 But concerning baptism, thus shall ye baptize.
  • 7:2 Having first recited all these things, baptize {in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit} in living (running) water.
  • 7:3 But if thou hast not living water, then baptize in other water;
  • 7:4 and if thou art not able in cold, then in warm.
  • 7:5 But if thou hast neither, then pour water on the head thrice in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
  • 7:6 But before the baptism let him that baptizeth and him that is baptized fast, and any others also who are able;
  • 7:7 and thou shalt order him that is baptized to fast a day or two before.
  • 8:1 And let not your fastings be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and the fifth day of the week;
  • 8:2 but do ye keep your fast on the fourth and on the preparation (the sixth) day.
  • 8:3 Neither pray ye {as the hypocrites,} but as the Lord commanded in His Gospel, {thus pray ye.
  • 8:4 Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name;
  • 8:5 Thy kingdom come;
  • 8:6 Thy will be done, as in heaven, so also on earth;
  • 8:7 give us this day our daily bread;
  • 8:8 and forgive us our debt, as we also forgive our debtors;
  • 8:9 and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one;}
  • 8:10 for Thine is the power and the glory for ever and ever.8:11 Three times in the day pray ye so.
  • 9:1 But as touching the eucharistic thanksgiving give ye thanks thus.
  • 9:2 First, as regards the cup:\
  • 9:3 We give Thee thanks, O our Father, for the holy vine of Thy son David, which Thou madest known unto us through Thy Son Jesus;
  • 9:4 Thine is the glory for ever and ever.
  • 10:4 Thou, Almighty Master, didst create all things for Thy name’s sake, and didst give food and drink unto men for enjoyment, that they might render thanks to Thee;
  • 10:5 but didst bestow upon us spiritual food and drink and eternal life through Thy Son.
  • 10:6 Before all things we give Thee thanks that Thou art powerful;
  • 10:7 Thine is the glory for ever and ever.

The third section includes instructions about how to receive traveling apostles and prophets (Chapters 11-15).

  • 11:1 Whosoever therefore shall come and teach you all these things that have been said before, receive him;
  • 11:2 but if the teacher himself be perverted and teach a different doctrine to the destruction thereof, hear him not;
  • 11:3 but if to the increase of righteousness and the knowledge of the Lord, receive him as the Lord.
  • 11:4 But concerning the apostles and prophets, so do ye according to the ordinance of the Gospel.
  • 11:12 Yet not every one that speaketh in the Spirit is a prophet, but only if he have the ways of the Lord.
  • 11:13 From his ways therefore the false prophet and the prophet shall be recognized.
  • 11:14 And no prophet when he ordereth a table in the Spirit shall eat of it;
  • 11:15 otherwise he is a false prophet.
  • 11:16 And every prophet teaching the truth, if he doeth not what he teacheth, is a false prophet.
  • 12:1 But let every one {that cometh in the name of the Lord} be received;
  • 12:2 and then when ye have tested him ye shall know him, for ye shall have understanding on the right hand and on the left.
  • 13:1 But every true prophet desiring to settle among you {is worthy of his food.}
  • 13:2 In like manner a true teacher {is} also {worthy,} like {the workman, of his food.}
  • 13:3 Every firstfruit then of the produce of the wine-vat and of the threshing-floor, of thy oxen and of thy sheep, thou shalt take and give as the firstfruit to the prophets;
  • 13:4 for they are your chief-priests.
  • 14:1 And on the Lord’s own day gather yourselves together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.
  • 15:1 Appoint for yourselves therefore bishops and deacons worthy of the Lord, men who are meek and not lovers of money, and true and approved;
  • 15:2 for unto you they also perform the service of the prophets and teachers.
  • 15:3 Therefore despise them not;
  • 15:4 for they are your honourable men along with the prophets and teachers.

The fourth section is a short apocalypse (Chapter 16).

  • 16:1 {Be watchful} for your life;
  • 16:2 {let your lamps not be quenched and your loins not ungirded, but be ye ready;
  • 16:3 for ye know not the hour in which our Lord cometh.}16:16 {The Lord shall come and all His saints with Him.
  • 16:17 Then shall} the world {see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven.}

Other Early Church Catechisms

Early Church catechisms are also known as ancient Church Orders. They were written by Church leaders in the 2nd thru 5th centuries AD for the purpose of guiding people who came to Christ from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds (especially the Gentile converts). Here are some of the better-known instructional manuals from the early Church.

[This list is for historical purposes. I recommend caution with Church documents written after the Apostolic period.]

The Apostolic Tradition (also known as the Egyptian Church Order)

The Didascalia

The Apostolic Church Order

The Apostolic Constitutions

The Apostolic Canons

The Epitome

The Testament of Our Lord

The Canons of Hippolytus

Sarapion’s Prayers

Next Time

We’ll look at Martin Luther’s Small and Long Catechism in the next part of our series.

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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