Christian lives, as described in the Epistle to Diognetus

The Epistle to Diognetus is an early Christian document (about which very little is known) that offers a fascinating and attractive perspective on the early Christian community.

English translations are freely available on the internet at sites such Early Christian Writings, but the translation generally feels rather old-fashioned. The Greek text of some of the most well-known words (from chapter 5 of the Epistle) is included in Rodney Whitacre’s valuable book, A Patristic Greek  Reader. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007). Whitacre provides his own rendering of the Greek text (on p. 211), which seems to me to me to be particularly clear and readable. I share Whitacre’s translation here in the hope that it will encourage some to read and to reflect further on these ancient words. For these words appear to me to be particularly significant for the Christian church in the twenty-first century.

5.1 Christians are differentiated from the rest of humanity neither by land, nor by language, nor by clothing. 5.2 For nowhere do they live in their own cities, nor use some peculiar language, nor practice an odd life. 5.3 Not, of course, by some thought and reflection of inquisitive people has such knowledge of theirs been found, nor have they cared for human doctrine, as [have] some. 5.4 Rather, dwelling in both Greek and non-Greek cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and following the local customs in clothing, food, and the rest of life, they demonstrate the amazing and undeniably remarkable character of their citizenship. 5.5 They live in their own native countries, but as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and yet they endure everything as foreigners; every foreign [country] is their native country, and every native country is foreign. 5.6 They marry as all [do], they have children, but they do not expose their offspring. 5.7 They set a common table, but not a [common] bed. 5.8 They find themselves [to be] in the flesh, but they do not live according to the flesh. 5.9 They remain upon earth, but they have their citizenship in heaven. 5.10 They obey the set laws, and in their own lives they surpass the laws. 5.11 They love all, and yet are persecuted by all. 5.12 They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and yet they are brought to life. 5.13 They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they lack everything, and yet they abound in everything. 5.14 They are dishonored, and yet they are glorified in their dishonor; they are slandered, and yet they are vindicated. 5.15 They are reviled, and yet they bless; they are insulted, and yet they honor. 5.16 Although doing good, they are punished as evil; being punished, they rejoice as those who are being brought to life. 5.17 They are fought against as foreigners by Jews, and they are persecuted by Greeks, and those who hate [them] are not able to say the reason for their hostility.

In particular, note the following characteristics of the Christian community, as presented in the Epistle:

  1. Christians are found living among various people groups;
  2. Christians do not make themselves stand out by dress, speech, or peculiar practices;
  3. Christians do not follow some human philosophy;
  4. Christians are noticed because of their character;
  5. Christians are good citizens, but do not regard any nation as their ultimate place of belonging;
  6. Christians are characterised by the way in which they treat their families.
  7. Christians show open hospitality, yet protect the sanctity of marriage;
  8. Christians are law-abiding, but seek to live by a higher standard than the law of the land.
  9. Christians are frequently marginalised, yet respond to abuse with love.
  10. Christians are a mystery to those who despise them.

Any Christian reading these words will feel, perhaps, like me, both stirred by the model that is presented and also overwhelmed with a sense of falling far short of the model.

We should not imagine that the early Christian community was perfect. In fact, the portrayal of the early Church in Scripture, in Acts, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians, for example, indicates that there were many problems. Yet, perhaps it would be good for modern churches to aspire to a reputation in their communities along the lines of these words from the Epistle to Diognetus.