August 19, 2017

“What the Soul Is in the Body, Christians Are in the World”

Christ, Commodilla Catacomb

By Chaplain Mike

Sometime between about 150 and 225 AD, a writer penned one of most winsome and descriptive commendations of the Christian church ever written. It is called The Epistle to Diognetus.

We are not sure today about its exact date, author, or addressee. It likely fits within the time frame suggested, for it was written to one outside the faith and takes the form of an apology or defense of Christian belief and practice. During the middle and late second century, the Roman state and culture became more aware of the expanding Christian movement. Rumors, suspicions, and attacks against the followers of Jesus increased. At this time, apologists such as Justin Martyr arose to defend the faith.

The text of this epistle was preserved in a single manuscript that was destroyed in 1870 in Strasbourg during the Franco-German War. Fortunately, scholars had made many copies and printed editions had been published before it was lost. It comes to us in twelve parts, but scholars agree that the last two sections do not belong to the original epistle.

I urge you to read the portion that I am posting today carefully. Meditate on these words. This letter contains one of the clearest descriptions from the early history of the church about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, what it means to live as God’s people in this world.

Raising of Lazarus, 3rd century

The Epistle to Diognetus (parts 5, 6)

For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life. This doctrine of theirs has not been discovered by the ingenuity or deep thought of inquisitive men, nor do they put forward a merely human teaching, as some people do. Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land. They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring [i.e. “expose”—commit infanticide]. They share their board with each other, but not their marriage bed. It is true that they are “in the flesh,” but they do not live “according to the flesh.” They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require. They love all men, and by all men are persecuted. They are unknown, and still they are condemned; they are put to death, and yet they are brought to life. They are poor, and yet they make many rich; they are completely destitute, and yet they enjoy complete abundance. They are dishonored, and in their very dishonor are glorified; they are defamed, and are vindicated. They are reviled, and yet they bless; when they are affronted, they still pay due respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; undergoing punishment, they rejoice because they are brought to life. They are treated by the Jews as foreigners and enemies, and are hunted down by the Greeks; and all the time those who hate them find it impossible to justify their enmity.

Fractio Panis Fresco, St. Priscilla Catacomb

To put it simply: What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but does not belong to the body, and Christians dwell in the world, but do not belong to the world. The soul, which is invisible, is kept under guard in the visible body; in the same way, Christians are recognised when they are in the world, but their religion remains unseen. The flesh hates the soul and treats it as an enemy, even though it has suffered no wrong, because it is prevented from enjoying its pleasures; so too the world hates Christians, even though it suffers no wrong at their hands, because they range themselves against its pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and its members; in the same way, Christians love those who hate them. The soul is shut up in the body, and yet itself holds the body together; while Christians are restrained in the world as in a prison, and yet themselves hold the world together. The soul, which is immortal, is housed in a mortal dwelling; while Christians are settled among corruptible things, to wait for the incorruptibility that will be theirs in heaven. The soul, when faring badly as to food and drink, grows better; so too Christians, when punished, day by day increase more and more. It is to no less a post than this that God has ordered them, and they must not try to evade it.

Sources:

The Apostolic Fathers by Michael Holmes

Early Christian Fathers, by Cyril Richardson (at ccel.org)

Comments

  1. Nathan Carpenter says:

    Winsome indeed.

  2. Buford Hollis says:

    “It is to no less a post than this that God has ordered them, and they must not try to evade it.”

    Well I wasn’t gonna post nuthin’, but now I sees I gotta.

  3. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says:

    Those are my favorite bits from that epistle. A couple or so Lents ago, iMonk posted a link to a 40-day Lenten reading plan of the Church Fathers. The Epistle to Diognetus is one of the early readings. Maybe we could re-post that link since Lent starts in less than a week.

  4. You know, in reading that first section, it made me think of Keirkegaard’s Knight of Faith description. I can’t remember which “fake” author he wrote as (de silentio?), but he described someone who was looking for “what makes the knight of faith so special and different?” and the answer is “nothing that you can see or really understand.”

  5. Thanks for this; good stuff for the beginning of Lent. Brings to mind an expansion of Pauline themes.

  6. Awesome post! too bad today’s Christians would rather be the head of the world instead of the soul.

    • I was also struck by this sentence: “Christians are recognised when they are in the world, but their religion remains unseen.” And yet we today continually seek visibility and public “impact.”

      • great insight chaplain!!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Wise Rabbi, you have just summarized the difference between “Fill-in-the-blank done by Christians” and “Christian (TM) Fill-in-the-blank” in one paragraph!

      • Kaboom, kaboom, Chap Mike….so much for yeast in the loaf, eh ???…….. similar thought (which I don’t hear quite so much these days: influence the influencers, those in power are more “worth” going after; another anti-KINGDOM cliche and strategy.

      • I was especially struck by that sentence also. “They love all men” also especially struck me. This picture of Christians is virtually unknown to us today, is it not?

        I follow Jesus and try to love all men. Religionists who try to tell me who and what issues to vote for or against, who think I should oppose and even hate certain people because of their political views, sexual orientation or whatever and who think I should believe exactly as they do on every detail (and they don’t even agree among themselves on these details) are sometimes difficult to love. Hearing and reading the vitriol and hatred that pours out of their mouths and pens on some issues, especially issues having to do with abortion and LGBTs makes me ask how these people can possibly follow the same Jesus I do. Nor do my friends who are not Christians understand this. They tend to think that most Christians are mean, nasty and very political.

        I remember someone once wrote that the kind of religion that God accepts as pure and faultless is looking after widows and orphans and keeping ourselves from being polluted by the world. Someone else wrote that God desires mercy. Obviously, those are ancient, mysterious, secret writings. Nowhere do I find in such writings that God is pleased with pouring out contempt and hatred on those we disagree with, be it politically or religiously. No way does that look like Jesus.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          My writing partner (the burned-out country preacher) tells me that in his denomination, pastors’ widows routinely have to eat out of dumpsters.

          Think about that the next time Correct Theology is being parsed letter-for-letter and Anathemas are flying.

  7. ‘For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or customs.’

    so can we agree to separate, once and for all, our faith from out nation? and while we’re at it, can we PLEASE stop with all of the kitschy christianese jargon and euphemisms? can we just talk to people? normally? can we finally do away with ‘trunk or treat’?

    ‘They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.’

    again, is this not a clarion espousal for christians within the north american evangelical empire to separate, as far as east is from west, our faith from our nation!?!

    ‘so too the world hates Christians, even though it suffers no wrong at their hands’

    oh how i wish this were still true.

    great post! it seems to me that the early christians understood the difference between agreeing with someone and accepting them. one does not have to agree with another in order to accept and love them. duh! isn’t that what loving one’s enemy would look like!?!

    man have we strayed!!

    • Jason asks:

      > is this not a clarion espousal for christians within the north american evangelical empire to separate, as far as east is from west, our faith from our nation!?! <

      We should not suppose we are at all worthy in God's sight because we are Americans or Canadians. But we should strive hardest to make America a better place, because we are here and have more opportunity to do good among our neighbors than among far-away strangers. We should care as much and pray as fervently for the welfare of distant souls as nearby ones, of course.

      What does 'trunk or treat' mean?

      • oh dude, i can’t believe you have never heard of that! maybe it’s just around here, but every halloween many, many christians refuse to participate in neighborhood trick or treating and hold “trunk or treating” in their church parking lot instead! kids go from trunk to trunk asking for candy! it’s UN-REAL!!!!!

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Best comeback I ever heard to the expression “trunk or treat”:

          “Gimme candy or I’ll lock you in my trunk!”

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          P.S. The original Internet Monk had a LOT of things to say about the Christianese response to Halloween — Trunk or Treat, Hell Houses, whatever. They should get reprinted as “IMonk Classics” around that time of year.

          P.P.S. When he was hosting an afternoon talk show on KBRT-AM in the Eighties, Rich Buhler used to say he could tell when October 1st had rolled around when he started getting all the “Is Halloween Satanic?” phone-ins. Regular as clockwork, every year.

      • It means: if you don’t give me candy tonight, the back of your car is gonna get egged.

      • and i just remembered, sometimes, instead of christian themed candy, they pass out tracks to one another!!

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      and while we’re at it, can we PLEASE stop with all of the kitschy christianese jargon and euphemisms? can we just talk to people? normally? can we finally do away with ‘trunk or treat’?

      And Hell Houses?
      And Tribulation Trails?
      And “Just like fill-in-the-blank, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”?

  8. Tastey, tastey historical stuff; this is meat and solid good. Thanks Chap Mike and others, I’ll share the link to the early church fathers with friends as we approach lent. Blesssings on all at the IMONK table.

    GregR

  9. Many Christians I’ve come across have their own peculiar form of speech. It always makes me feel less spiritual, less knowledgeable, less than. I wonder if that’s the point? To lift them up in conversation with all their “Christianese”?

    I know some too that only run in certain circles because they need to be around other Christians. You know, only going to that one lady in the checkout line because she’s a Christian. Or, calling that plumber because he’s a Christian. Or finding that massage therapist who is a Christian, so you can talk about Jesus to someone who knows Him.

    God forbid we talk to someone about regular stuff sometimes.

    And God forbid we be the salt and light in front of and around those who don’t know Him.

    That’s my mini rant for the day.

    • I think the point with “christianeze” is to be visiblly and noticably set apart, to be (quite literally) a ‘peculiar’ people; this understanding of being ‘set apart’ is polar opposite to the points of this post, where the differences are very real, but not pushed to the surface to be noticed and “marveled at” or something. Sanctifying Jesus as LORD would seem to be a better reason to have a hope that distinguishes, IMO.

      • @greg: good point, bringing in the ‘peculiar’ people and whole set apart bit. i think the christian’s ‘peculiarity’ comes about as a result of this: whereas the world labors and strives to be distinct, different, fashionable, en vogue, etc. etc., the christian appears peculiar because he or she does not similarly strive. it is precisely a lack of striving to distinguish ones self from others that makes the christian appear ‘peculiar’ to the world.

        Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it.
        Soren Kierkegaard

        most christians pursue God with such breathless haste that they hurry past Him.
        me

        • very well said

          Cease striving and know that I am GOD…..I WILL BE EXALTED among the nations……
          maybe a little of the first leads to the second ???

        • “most christians pursue God with such breathless haste that they hurry past Him.
          me ”

          Nice one!

      • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says:

        Sometimes it’s just a part of traveling in certain Christian circles. Jargon is a part of all communities where people have shared experience. Here’s a few examples: Catholics tend to talk about their “conversion story” while Evangelicals tend to talk about their “testimony.” Baptists tend say “Lord’s Supper” while Anglicans tend to say “Eucharist.” Catholics often refer to Mary as “our Lady” while Orthodox often refer to her by the theological term “Theotokos.” And of all those terms, non-Christians could figure out some of that from context, but the only word/phrase that would be part of their normal vocabulary would be “testimony” but with a totally different meaning. Is that Christianese? Maybe, but not just to be intentionally different. It’s just part of being in those circles.

        • @isaac: i truly appreciate the sense of measured thought and reflection in your response, and i think that the points that you make are valid and definitely worthwhile. however, i am still going to maintain that “christianeze” has got to go! NOW! it leads to things like this:

          have you ever noticed that with a lot of pastors, that they could be speaking totally normally, totally normal, but THEN, when they say the name God, their voices drop, they draw the name out, they start breathing different, their posture changes, and then BOOM! as quickly as it came it’s gone and it’s back to normal. what in the hell is that?!? it’s weird.

          our normalcy is where it’s at. what did oscar wilde say:

          ‘ “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” ‘

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Sometimes it’s just a part of traveling in certain Christian circles. Jargon is a part of all communities where people have shared experience.

          i.e. a Technical Language with terminology outside the norm.

          But beware of that Technical Language becoming a Mystery Language, an Inner Mystery only an Inner Ring of those privileged with the Correct Gnosis are allowed to use or understand.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I know some too that only run in certain circles because they need to be around other Christians. You know, only going to that one lady in the checkout line because she’s a Christian. Or, calling that plumber because he’s a Christian. Or finding that massage therapist who is a Christian, so you can talk about Jesus to someone who knows Him.

      “And you’ll only drink milk
      If it comes from a Christian Cow…”
      — Steve Taylor, “Guilty by Association”

      My writing partner pastors two churches. The smaller of the two (around a dozen strong and the youngest is Sixty-something) is dying. He tells me NOBODY in that church knows ANYONE outside of that church. Period. No outside friends, no outside acquaintances, no outside interests or activities. This is normally called “a completely closed system”.

  10. Wonderful post. What some do in the name of Christianity makes the Angels weep.

  11. ‘This doctrine of theirs has not been discovered by the ingenuity or deep thought of inquisitive men’

    do you guys think that we maybe think this thing to death too much?

    i’m just sayin’.

  12. You put it in the wrong spot!

  13. One more Mike says:

    I like the way this is written in the pattern of the beatitudes; written early enough to “transcribe” the oral tradition of the early church. A good look back at our common ancestry and a gauge of how far we’ve diverged. Thanks for this post CM, much here to contemplate.

  14. Is anyone bothered by the way the author uses “flesh” and “body” interchangeably? When the Apostle Paul talked about “the flesh” he meant much more than just the physical body.
    Christians, as I read the New Testament, are not body-soul dualists; after all we are going to spend eternity in resurrected _bodies_.
    This excerpt seems more rooted more in platonism than in Judaism and New Testament Christianity.

    • I, too, was bothered the body-soul dualism, but that’s why this epistle is not Holy Scripture. It’s not 100% sound for teaching in the Church, but it may be well be sound for other purposes.

      The Early Church adopted many attitudes that tended to regard bodily desires and pleasures as somehow sub-par. They made these distinctions because they were members of their respective cultures. They, like us, tried to understand the Gospel and had to embrace it imperfectly, as best as they knew how.

      I think it’s important to carry the ideas in tension. The Bible does highly commend celibacy, for instance, and seems to suggest that regular fasting and confession of sins are both good ideas. Self-denial can be good for you, but it can also turn you into a windbag.