How are Christians called to live a distinctive way of life in the world around them? What does it mean to be “in the world” but not “of the world”? How can we love the people around us when they do not respect us or our way of life? This selection from the Epistle to Diognetus, one of the most inspiring writings from the earliest days of the Church, offers a powerful answer.
Diognetus is an anonymous letter written around the middle of the second century (circa A.D. 150), when Christians had spread out and were living in cities across the ancient world. Diognetus shows that what makes us distinctive is not our language or clothing — not our outward appearance — but the moral life we live in families and in community. There is a profound paradox here: As Christians, we live in every city, but our true home is in heaven. We invest and give ourselves to those around us, but we belong to Christ. We are able to love even when we are hated.
The letter uses the analogy of the soul in the body to show how Christians are actually the soul of the world — they are the ones who hold things together by their godly way of life. We are not only called to live our lives “in the world,” but we are called to love the world and bring Christ into the world, through the way we live and witness. Just as Christ suffered when he loved the world, we too are called to be ready to suffer — even the loss of our lives — as we give witness to the world that Christ died to redeem.
The Epistle to Diognetus, 5-6
For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life. The teaching of theirs has not been discovered by the thought and reflection of ingenious people, nor do they promote any human doctrine, as some do. But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food and other aspects of life, at the same time they demonstrate the remarkable and admittedly unusual character of their own citizenship.
They live in their own countries, but only as non-residents; they participate in everything as citizens and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.
They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life. They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything. They are dishonored, yet they are glorified in their dishonor; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life.
In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians throughout the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but it is not of the body; likewise, Christians dwell in the world but are not of the world. The flesh hates the soul and wages war against it, even though it has suffered no wrong, because it is hindered from indulging in its pleasures; so also the world hates the Christians, even though it has suffered no wrong, because they set themselves against its pleasures.
The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and its members, and Christians love those who hate them. The soul is locked up in the body, but it holds the body together; and though Christians are detained in the world as if in a prison, they in fact hold the world together. The soul, which is immortal, lives in a mortal dwelling; similarly, Christians live as strangers amid perishable things while awaiting the imperishable in heaven.
The soul, when poorly treated with respect to food and drink, becomes all the better; and so Christians, when punished, daily increase more and more. Such is the important position to which God has appointed them, and it is not right for them to decline it.
This translation is from Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers in English, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 295-96