During times of socio-political angst, Christians are often perplexed about how to participate in a secular culture. Whatever we do, or any segment of society for that matter, participation can be challenging. We are sometimes caricatured as SNL’s “Church Lady” or, more viciously, the KKK. And everything in between! This should not surprise us. The era of identity politics is, after all, necessarily the era of broad, sweeping generalizations. And there is often a very fine line between a generalization and a caricature.
So, the question of what the church and the Christian in particular should generally be like may be worth some exploration. To that end, I am hosting a guest blogger. Sadly, you cannot meet him or follow him on Twitter – he died eighteen-hundred years ago. He wrote under a pen name: Mathetes (the Greek word for “disciple”). Here is an excerpt from a letter he wrote to a man named Diognetus in which he described for him what representative Christians were like:
“For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practice an extraordinary kind of life. Nor again do they possess any invention discovered by any intelligence or study of ingenious men, nor are they masters of any human dogma as some are.¹ But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvelous, and confessedly contradicts expectation.
They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like all other men and they beget children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have their meals in common, but not their wives. They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they live not after the flesh. Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and they surpass the laws in their own lives. They love all men, and they are persecuted by all. They are ignored, and yet they are condemned. They are put to death, and yet they are endued with life. They are in beggary, and yet they make many rich. They are in want of all things, and yet they abound in all things. They are dishonored, and yet they are glorified in their dishonor. They are evil spoken of, and yet they are vindicated. They are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and they respect. Doing good they are punished as evil-doers; being punished they rejoice, as if they were thereby quickened by life. War is waged against them as aliens by [some], and persecution is carried on against them by [others], and yet those that hate them cannot tell the reason of their hostility.
In a word, what the soul is in a body, the Christians are in the world. The soul is spread through all the members of the body, and Christians through the diverse cities of the world.”²
He covers a lot of ground! Certainly he cannot have said everything there is to say on the Christian life. And short of the Bible itself, no text is normative for all Christians. To be sure, his description of the Christian is largely passive and does not embrace the more active, exhortational ministry of Christ. But he echoes much that is biblical.
If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, I would invite you to consider this description. What scriptures does it remind you of? What parts best describe you? What parts to you aspire to? Where do you fail? What parts do you work hard to avoid? Why? What if this is what we were generally like? What if we were, as Christians, the light of the world; the salt of the earth, the “soul of the body?”
1 “Master of human dogma” is a reference to either philosophers generally or to gnostics, not to theologians as a whole.
2 Mathetes, The Epistle to Diognetus, 5:1-6:2. This text is Lightfoot’s translation with some minor edits to conform spelling and, in one case, grammar to twenty-first century American usage.