“Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives…
Here’s part of a letter sent to someone named Diognetus in the 2nd century. We don’t know who wrote it. My guess is that it was a Christian pastor who was trying to explain Christians to a local ruler who was persecuting (or considering persecuting) the Christians. I love how it captures the idea of living as “aliens and strangers.” As one who lived in a foreign country, I appreciate the sentence, “Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country.”
One difficulty I have with the letter, however, is that it makes Christians out to be perfect. This is especially true if you read the rest of the letter. It talks about how Christians are always persecuted, but always cheerfully give away all that they have. Did it really happen that way? I doubt it. I’m no church history expert, but I believe this tendency towards “perfectionism” was indicative of the theology at the time. The church had few resources for articulating how Christians can be called to a radically new life, and yet not walk in that new life with complete perfection.
You see, after the apostles died, the church began to drift from the New Testament teaching of salvation by grace. But before we judge them too harshly, let’s think why this could have happened. When the letter was written, Christians were persecuted because under the charge of being immoral and a threat to the empire. We’re probably on safe ground to assume that when the pastors look at their church they found—low and behold—immorality. Greek culture was horrifically immoral at the time, and people probably didn’t change immediately. So, basically we have internal (the actual immorality) and external (the perceived gross immorality) factors that make it tempting to obscure the idea of grace as central to the Christian life.
Bottom line, I think we can appreciate the goal toward which this letter points us. But we ought to remember, as Luther says (see top of blog) “The process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, it is the road.”