Ideal Church: Letter to Diognetus

Ideal Church

There is no such thing as an ideal church. Well, there used to be one. It was the last perfect church left in the whole world. Everyone treated each other with kindness and respect. No one argued. They all agreed on the music style, the mode of baptism, and the color of the carpet. But then I started attending, and now it has all kinds of problems. Sorry.

Okay, so none of that is true. But what is true is that I love the Church. Not just my church, which I love very much, but the Church – the worldwide body of Christ. I haven’t always loved the Church, and I haven’t always wanted to be a part of it, but I can no longer deny that, despite it’s many flaws, there is nothing greater on the face of the earth than Jesus Christ’s Church. We don’t always get it right. We don’t always follow Jesus well. But we are God’s plan, the way he has chosen to work in the world. For or better or worse, God loves the Church, and is committed to her. And for that reason, the Church is the hope of the world.

As I read about the life of the early church, I’m struck by how widespread the propaganda against her had become. The Romans accused Christians of atheism, cannibalism, and incest. Many able Christian writers and thinkers pled the case of the Church, refuting the false accusations, and demonstrating that Christians were the kind of people Rome should want in its empire. One of these writers was the anonymous person who wrote the Letter to Diognetus.

I’ve already written about some of the treasure I’ve found in this ancient writing, but I wanted to share what this author has to say about life in the early church. He gives us a vision for how an ideal church can live in, and relate to, an antagonistic society. This wisdom is a part of our faith heritage, and can be very instructive for us today.

Every Foreign Land is Their Fatherland

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. …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.-Letter to Diognetus

The earliest Christians understood that their primary citizenship was in heaven. Therefore, they could be a blessing to their local communities, and also maintain a heart for the world. They lived in the world, and they lived for the world. They were, first and foremost, committed to the kingdom of God. They proclaimed Jesus as Lord rather than Caesar, which meant that they were at odds with the political powers of their day. This is what led to the many persecutions that broke out against the Church.

The earliest Christians understood that their primary citizenship was in heaven.
Can the above quote be applied to American Christians today? The early Christians were culturally assimilated, but politically separated. They looked and acted like everyone else (culturally speaking, but morally they were quite distinctive), but they refused to admit that Caesar was the great king. I fear that we have become culturally separated, while at the same time being politically assimilated. In other words, we have it backwards. We have formed our own subculture, but we have also looked to our government as “king” rather than Jesus. The ideal church, however, is one where believers have the same general customs as the wider society, but are not compromising with the political powers that be.

We are not supposed to look to the government for hope (neither are we to look at the government and despair). As disciples of Jesus, we cannot look to anyone but Christ for hope. Nor are we to ever despair, because the One in whom we hope is the One who conquered death. Jesus is the Great King, the King over all the kings of the earth. At the same time, we can’t separate ourselves from our communities. We’re supposed to share in our neighbors’ customs, even in civic duties. We ought to be the best citizens in our nation, without whom our communities would be greatly impoverished.

Their Citizenship is in Heaven

They marry, like everyone else, and they beget children, but they do not cast out their offspring. 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 busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. 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.-Letter to Diognetus

This is how an ideal church would respond to opposition or persecution. They are living examples of what Peter encouraged believers to be in the face of suffering brought on because of their faith in Christ. An ideal church lives out the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his disciples to turn the other cheek and pray for their enemies.

Today the church in America is seen by her adversaries as nothing more than a competing special interest group. Like them, we are trying to use the government to shape the culture as we see fit. We are lobbyists. We are a voting bloc. Whether or not this is an accurate description of the American church, it is close enough to the truth to demand consideration. What would happen if the Church divested itself of political power? Would that make us more, or less, of an ideal church? Would we be better positioned to obey the Sermon on the Mount? Would we have a more Christlike witness in the world? I honestly don’t know, but I think it’s worth deep reflection.

Soul:Body::Christians:The World

What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in 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 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.-Letter to Diognetus

The author betrays his platonic understanding of the body and soul here, but it makes for a fascinating metaphor. In the author’s mind, the body is at war with the soul, but the soul loves the body. In the same way, Jesus taught his disciples that the world would hate them because it hated him first, but he also taught “for God so loved the world….” The ideal church returns hate with love, while at the same time, as the author writes, ranges itself against the pleasures of the world. This is a key point that we would do well to grasp today: the world hates the church because the church stands in opposition to the lusts, desires, pleasures, and ideals the world pursues.

The world hates the church because the church stands in opposition to the lusts, desires, pleasures, and ideals the world pursues.

While I’m not sure about the author’s metaphor, I think the principle holds. The Church is different from the world. That’s how God sees it. Christians are distinct, and they had better, a) act like it; and b) maintain that distinction. For 2,000 years, the point of conflict between the Church and the world has been desire. What we want apart from God is never what God wants for us. One of the Church’s primary tasks is to call the world to desire God, to seek pleasure in him, and to receive the fullness of life from him.

Like I said at the beginning of this essay, there is no such thing as an ideal church. But the author of the Letter to Diognetus has given us a vision for what we are meant to be. In particular, he paints the portrait of an ideal church in the midst of an oppressive, antagonistic culture. As Western culture becomes more post- and anti-Christian, it is imperative that we have a vision for who and what we are called to be. May this ancient letter help us navigate the turbulent waters of our society.

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