Skip to content

Christian distinctiveness

The epistle to Diognetus is perhaps one of the more well known works from among the Apostolic Fathers these days, at least in popular theological discussions. This is due, less to its remarks on the “common silliness and deception and foolishness and pride of the Jews” (4:6 — yikes), than for the chapter that immediately follows it on the nature of Christian distinctiveness in the world. Among popular works in ecclesiology and various sorts of “church and culture” writings, this has been an incredibly popular chapter to quote over the last decade or so. And, interestingly it has been very popular with folks articulating some version of the “church as polis” model for understanding the church-world relationship. I find this interesting, and downright weird, really in that what the author of the epistle puts forth in this chapter seems downright contradictory to the positions he is being used to support.

The chapter starts out by explaining the nature of the distinictiveness of Christians in the world by saying precisely what does not distinguish them: “For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities [Gk: polis] of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric way of life” (5:1-2). Interestingly, for the author of the epistle, Christians are distinct from the world, not on the basis of anything that would commonly be thought of as cultural – language, social customs, alternative political arrangements, origins, etc. are precisely not what make the church distinct from the world. On the contrary, according to the author, Christians participate fully in whatever cultural situation they happen to inhabit: “But while they live both in 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” (5:4).

Here is the point of distinctiveness, according to the author: not that the Christian possesses an alternative cultural reality over against the ones in which they are set, but rather, that, regardless of their cultural setting, they manifest a distinctive character of involvement in it. The author goes on to describe this at length: “They live in their own countries, but only as nonresidents; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign” (5:5). In other words, the distinctiveness of the Christian in the world is lies precisely in their ability to inhabit any cultural situation “as if not” to borrow the Pauline idiom (cf. 1 Cor 7:29-31). Thus, the distinctiveness of the Christian lies not in their cultivation of some sort of alternative habitable culture, but rather in the nonconformed quality of their involvement in whatever culture they happen to reside in. Thus, they marry and have children but do not commit infanticide or adultery (5:6-7); they obey established laws, but transcend them by love (5:10); they love their persecutors (5:11); and on the the list goes.

In other words, the furthest thing from the thought of the epistle is the notion that the church is distinct from the world by virtue of being polis or a culture of its own. Rather the emphasis is constantly on the quality of involvement in the life of the world which the Gospel calls forth. Christians are distinct from the world, not by any sort of cultural or cultic separation from the world, but rather by the form of their life in the world. It is the selflessness of their love for all (5:11) that sets them “apart” not merely from, but precisely for the world.

This bears a striking similarity to John Howard Yoder’s discussion of the nature of the distinction of the church from the world in The Politics of Jesus. Jesus’s message of self-giving love, and his call to reject patterns of power and domination (cf. Luke 22:25ff) envision “a visible structured fellowship, a sober decision guaranteeing that the costs of commitment to the fellowship has been consciously accepted, and a clearly defined life-style distinct from that of the crowd.” However, Yoder goes on to specify precisely what this distinct life-style entails: “This life-style is different, not because of arbitrary rules separating the believer’s behavior from that of ‘normal people,’ but because of the exceptionally normal quality of humanness to which the community is committed.” (emphasis added)

As with the author of the epistle, for Yoder the distinctness of the church from the world emerges precisely at the point of the church’s transformed involvement with the life of the world, an involvement rightly characterized as an “exceptionally normal quality of humanness.” In other words the church is most visible, most distinct precisely at the point that it is the most human, involving itself in the sufferings and sorrows of the world in the pattern of Christ’s kenotic, self-giving love. Thus, as Yoder concludes: “The distinctness is not a cultic or ritual separation, but rather a nonconformed quality of (‘secular’) invovlement in the life of the world” (p. 39 for all quotes).

In contrast to asserting the distinction of the church from the world in cultural terms (the church as its own polis or culture) in which the distinction is defined under the auspices of ritual (typically with the Eucharist or Baptism being turned into the cultic boundary between church and world), Yoder and the author of the epistle to Diognetus offer a different vision: one in which the church is distinct from the world, not in terms of cult, but rather in terms of Christ’s own calling of his disciples into kenosis in, with, and for the world. The distinctness of the church, and of the Christian thus comes to be seen, not in terms of the maintenance of boundaries, and the guarding of cultic gates, but rather in the calling to go “outside the camp,” finding the meaning of true discipleship and true Christian distinctiveness in the giving up of all pretensions to security and establishment, learning instead to simply let our power be brought to an end in weakness, in love, and in self-abandonment for the sake of the world for whom Christ died.


  1. Skip Newby wrote:

    Love it Halden.

    Monday, September 26, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Permalink
  2. bruce hamill wrote:

    This is where I think ‘culture’ can be used in narrow and broad senses. Does not Christian involvement, like the Christian mind, need to be ‘cultivated’?

    Monday, September 26, 2011 at 6:46 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    I suppose that would depend on what exactly that is taken to mean.

    Monday, September 26, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Permalink
  4. d stephen long wrote:

    Halden. Doesn’t your interpretation of Yoder’s position require some explanation of why he wrote in 1964 in “Christian Witness to the State” this: “in biblical thought the church is properly a political entity, a polis” (18)? Can you account for these kinds of statements readily available throughout the Yoderian corpus? Perhaps you can, but I would like to see how.

    Tuesday, September 27, 2011 at 4:57 am | Permalink
  5. Yeah, wrt Yoder, I’m wondering how one can have a Body Politics without some sort of political body. Even in your quote from Politics of Jesus, he uses the word “community,” which suggests some sort of distinct group. Not to mention those five practices he discusses in BP are, in his own presentation, distinctive to the community of disciples of Jesus Christ (i.e., church).

    Wouldn’t we also have to acknowledge that the very things mentioned in your third paragraph here are indeed inherently political and cultural, even if the overt intent there is not to form a separate culture? Isn’t their distinct theopolitical identity precisely the result of “their ability to inhabit any cultural situation ‘as if not?’”

    I appreciate Yoder’s low sacramentology and his emphasis on the distinctiveness of the ordinary life of the church – that’s a very important emphasis to me. However, I’m not willing to say that our worship is insignificant or irrelevant to our identity as the church. And none of this – not one bit – precludes the “style of life of which the cross is the culmination” (PoJ, 38) unless elements or styles of worship become a source of power, a way to lord over others. But then, I can’t think of anything that doesn’t potentially fall into that category.

    Tuesday, September 27, 2011 at 6:12 am | Permalink
  6. Ted Grimsrud wrote:

    Halden, I think you have Yoder just about right, here. I don’t read you as implying that the church isn’t political or that the worship life of the church is not crucial (not to mention that nothing in Yoder or what you wrote implies that “our worship is insignificant or irrelevant”). Rather, you are saying (with Yoder) that the distinctiveness of the church is not about boundaries set up by rituals or insider dogmas but by its posture of defenseless servanthood in the wider world (i.e., the polis). The test of authentic worship and doctrine is that they empower this defenseless servanthood.

    But to take such a posture, the church must have some structure, some way to practice mutual accountability, some visible and stable manifestation that certainly would include worship, membership, et al (the things that make a “visible structured fellowship” possible).

    Tuesday, September 27, 2011 at 5:03 pm | Permalink
  7. Ted, forgive me, but in line with multiple previous posts, it does seem that Halden is appropriating Yoder here to argue that the rites of the church’s worship do not distinguish its identity. I simply don’t see why, biblically, the church’s distinctiveness is not in fact about a combination of worship and servanthood. Again, it’s not a distinctiveness to secure itself against the other, but rather from which it operates against the powers that enslave.

    Of course, if I’ve misread Halden on this count, I apologize and would welcome clarification.

    Tuesday, September 27, 2011 at 6:41 pm | Permalink
  8. My take on Yoder is that there are different strands in his thoughts, one tending towards a more separatist strand, and one tendning towards a more reformist one.

    I guess what Yoder and Diognetus shares, is their coming from a movement largely on society´s margins, trying to explain and make reasonable their faith to powerful figures within the main-stream.

    I have largely finally come to the feeling that Yoder is a bit boring. I think we need more revolution and anarchy than Yoder´s work allows for.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 12:27 am | Permalink
  9. d stephen long wrote:

    I wonder if Yoder was thinking with Irenaeus in that beautiful quote you noted: “This life-style is different, not because of arbitrary rules separating the believer’s behavior from that of ‘normal people,’ but because of the exceptionally normal quality of humanness to which the community is committed.” It reminds me of Irenaeus statement, “The glory of God is a man fully alive,” which I take is a Christological reference, but one which is also anthropological as well.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 5:12 am | Permalink
  10. Halden, is there not a potential false dichotomy between worship and servanthood here? I’m not accusing; I’m genuinely wondering. Why is our worship not itself a form of mission? Isn’t his practice of the Eucharist partly what got Romero killed, for example? This is to take nothing away from the visible church being found in servanthood, a point with which I fully agree. I’m just not so sure we can say “servanthood, not worship,” which you seem to indicate here.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 5:41 am | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    A brief strafing run at some of the comments here.

    In regard to Yoder’s use of “polis,” I did some reading around in his corpus and as far as I can tell Yoder makes pretty clear that when he speaks of the church as polis he is speaking generally about the fact that the church is not apolitical. Thus in Body Politics: “…it means the orderly way in which they live together and make decisions, the way they structure their common life” (n.5 p.81, see also p. vii). A similar statement is found in The War of the Lamb, p. 169.

    Moreover, one of the other elements that Yoder regularly makes clear in these contexts is precisely the same point I was making in the post, namely that the distinctiveness of the church is not cultic or ritual, but rather political in the sense of the church’s call to servanthood (also on p. 18 of Christian Witness to the State).

    At any rate, I think Yoder’s use of polis language for the church functions rather minimally as a claim that the community of disciples is not apolitical, but rather is truly political in that it is called to follow the politics of Jesus. It does not seem to be operating in the same way that some others use it to argue that the church’s distinction from the world is found in the alternative culture its rituals and practices generate, and thus his regular claims that the distinctiveness of the church from the world is not ritual or cultic, but rather lies in servanthood.

    Now of course this is not to say that the church does not have rituals or is not a visible community. As Ted rightly notes about what I’m saying, I’m obviously not saying that the church is not a sociologically visible community, but rather, that its distinctiveness does not lie in the fact that it is a social-cultural body, but rather in the character of cruciform life to which Jesus calls it in and for the world. This again seems to me to be the thought operative in the epistle to Diognetus.

    As to Brad’s comment about about worship, its interesting that you ask about a possible false dichotomy between worship and servanthood after previously saying that the church’s distinctiveness is “about a combination of worship and servanthood.” I thought that comment odd because it seemed to me to be making that very same sort of dichotomy (as if these are two realities that could be “combined”). For my part I wasn’t setting worship against servanthood, but rather trying to understand worship precisely in terms of cruciform servanthood rather than in terms of cult. I take this to be in line with Paul’s statements in Romans 12: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” This of course is followed by a discussion of the form of servanthood to which Christians are called, both to one another and to the world. Thus I’m not at all saying “servanthood not worship.” What I’m saying is servanthood as worship and worship as servanthood all the way down.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  12. I don’t think there’s a problem in what I said, Halden, since I’m using “dichotomy” to mean not merely distinguishing between ideas but pitting them against each other.

    Why could the church’s distinctiveness not be in part because of its object and manner of worship and the content of its proclamation in such worship? It simply escapes me why you’re criticizing what you are here, unless it’s a matter of semantics. Your penultimate paragraph here just doesn’t make sense to me. If the church is a social-cultural body, then of course its distinctiveness does not lie in that fact since there are other such bodies. Its distinctiveness lies in what type of body it is: both its nature – Spirit-indwelled and uniquely called – and in its worship and servanthood bound together. I don’t see how a claim that the servanthood alone is distinctive is a tenable one, either biblically or empirically.

    You are clearly precluding cult and ritual (however defined) from the cruciform life. I simply don’t understand that dichotomy, or why you think it’s justified, particularly since cult and ritual are not inherently “separating.” Your argument here does not suggest worship and servanthood as reciprocally conditioning, or even as one and the same; you are, with your eschewal of cult and ritual as distinctive, collapsing worship into service as a mark of the church. I just don’t buy it. And I write this as someone active in a Mennonite church.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Well it looks like your problem is really with Romans 12 then (and, less importantly of course, with Yoder as I’ve pointed out). Because for Paul it is precisely offering our bodies as a living sacrifice, in service to one another and to the world that is our service of worship. To say nothing of Col 2:16ff, or the entire book of Hebrews in which cult is set precisely against the supremacy of Christ and his call.

    Really the problem here is that you are conflating worship with cult while I (following Paul and Yoder) am contesting the notion that true worship is to be understood cultically. And thus you seem to think that means I’m setting “worship” against “servanthood” when in reality I’m simply trying to think worship in terms cruciform servanthood as I see the NT doing, with Rom 12 being one of the clearest examples thereof. I can’t find any examples in the NT where cult or ritual is held up as an example of what makes the church distinctive.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink
  14. My apologies, Halden. I didn’t realize you and Paul were so tight, or that Paul’s writings alone (or Hebrews, for that matter) act as our definitive authority for ecclesial identity and practice, or that I was so thoroughly unbiblical. But then, even if we stay with Paul, I’d think 1 Cor 12-14 make pretty clear that there are distinctive cultic aspects to Christian worship and life that are to be practiced, of course, in the servant manner you’re rightly championing here.

    I’m not conflating worship with cult, as I’ve clearly indicated above, but neither am I precluding cult from worship (and servanthood) as you seem to do. That’s the difference in our approaches, it seems. When I read various scriptures to be critiquing cult, they’re usually referring to particular kinds of idolatrous cultic forms, or cultic practices that belie the corrupt everyday life of the community. I don’t see Scripture saying that cultic/ritual aspects of worship are inherently evil and are to be rejected. And if they are, then why did you admit above that the church has rituals?

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    Well I definitely try to stay tight with Paul, I consider him a major homey. And so too with the rest of the Scriptures. And I never said that any certain segment of the Scriptures alone had a bearing on the question, I just didn’t know that I was supposed to mention absolutely everything that there is in the Scriptures in one comment, so yeah, sorry for not doing that, apparently.

    Your citation of 1 Cor 12-14 is also very telling, actually, as it is one of the other Scriptures I was thinking of. There the problem, once again is not a mater of cult or ritual, but of love, of servanthood. There they are maintaining the ritual aspects of the church’s gathering, and yet all of that is of no weight for Paul, to the point that he says they are not really even having the Lord’s Supper, because they exclude the poor. If anything that further goes to my point about the nature of worship.

    And again, to repeat a consistently ignored point, I’m not saying that the church does not have rituals (nor did I ever say that such things are “inherently evil and to be rejected” — strawman much?), but only, that what makes the church distinctive is its messianic calling to cruciform love and service. Not sure why that’s such a stumbling block.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink
  16. Halden, I was merely commenting on your rather overboard characterization of my position. Enough said.

    I obviously have no disagreement with you on the point of 1 Cor 12-14; I was merely observing that it appeared there were indeed important cultic practices unique to the church as indicated in that passage.

    I’ve obviously not ignored your point, since I mentioned it above. And I’ve not put up a strawman at all, considering you just wrote that in Hebrews “cult is set precisely against the supremacy of Christ and his call.” If it’s set against Christ, is it not evil and to be rejected?

    Your point is a stumbling block, as I’ve already stated here multiple times, not because it advocates for a community distinguished by cruciform love and service, but because you apparently refuse to include its manner and content of worship within that cruciform life. Yes, presenting our bodies as living sacrifices is our act of worship, but does Paul say it is exclusively our act of worship, that worship cannot include other practices of contemplation, thanksgiving, praise, etc? Do we really learn nothing from our practices of worship? Are we really not habitualized in any way, by the power of the Holy Spirit, through how we worship and through the content of the proclamation? Is our “cultic” worship really so incidental?

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink
  17. Halden wrote:

    Nothing I said was overboard. But whatever.

    And yeah it is set against the supremacy of Christ and his call in Hebrews (literarily speaking, I thought that would be pretty obvious), precisely in that it is merely a shadow of the true reality which is Christ and his call. Insofar as it is set up as something alongside Christ and his call, it is turned into something else altogether, and it is precisely at that point that the NT authors relativize it in favor of Christ’s call to cruciformity.

    But anyway, my fundamental point remains the same, and has not been substantively challenged by anything you’ve said: Namely that according to the NT (and echoed by Yoder and the epistle to Diognetus as pointed to in the post) what makes the church distinctive is its call to cruciform servanthood, not its rituals as such. If you have some stuff to mention from the Scriptures that claim that what makes the church distinctive in the world is in fact its ritual/cult, as I asked for before, I’d be happy to see it. But you haven’t really provided anything along those lines.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Permalink
  18. Halden wrote:

    Brad, hey sorry if anything here came across as rude. I probably shouldn’t have let myself get sucked in again. I’ve tried to state my position as succinctly as possible, which as far as I can tell is the position of the NT and something I saw when I was reading the epistle to Diognetus and Yoder this week.

    Maybe in lieu of multiplying these sorts of repetitive discussions, now that you have your own blog, you can use it sometimes to write up more fully how you would articulate your own positions on stuff like this when my posts bring stuff up like this for you. Just a thought, it might provide a way for you to state your opinions more fully and open up a way for less repetitive discussions.

    Also, Steve, nice to see you commenting again, I hope things are going well for you these days.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 2:34 pm | Permalink
  19. Hill wrote:

    It’s not clear to me why you post on this blog, Brad. I say that out of sympathy.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink
  20. d stephen long wrote:

    Thanks Halden. All is well here. I’m finally done with commuting; my wife and I now live in Milwaukee. It has been too long since I hung out with the CSK folk. I just published a theological commentary on Hebrews. It began with lectures in Eugene four years back. I am interested in your interpretation on Hebrews. I tried to argue that Catholics and Protestants have an inclination to read it differently. (Some) Catholics, following Vanhoye, read it as providing a circular argument where the heart of the sermon in Christ’s high priesthood and his sacrifice in Hebrews 9. (Some) Protestants read it through an Aristotelian rhetorical threefold structure that emphasizes the Word and exhortation. That overstates the case, but it does have some merit. Like you I want to be a biblical theologian, but I think I’m less confident that I can get directly to the Word of God as I think you seem to suggest.

    I also think you may be right about Yoder and how he uses ‘polis.’ Obviously the church is polis for Yoder, but the key question is how. What does that mean? Does it include ‘boundaries’ like doctrine, worship along with ethics, or is it primarily ethical? I’m unsure. As you know — Yoderians are divided on this. I think Paul Martens’ work will need to be discussed in future debates about this.

    All the best.

    Thursday, September 29, 2011 at 5:41 am | Permalink
  21. Doug Harink wrote:

    Halden, I wonder if some form of cultural unlearning, and some form of counter-cultural learning, is necessary to live ‘as if not’. And would that not imply an alternative set of rituals–e.g. baptism, eucharist and hymn-singing rather than flag-waving and national anthems?

    Saturday, October 1, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink
  22. Though it’s usually not necessary, I figured I better read Mathetes for myself before commenting. Now that I have, Youch! your right HD, old Matty is hard on the Hebes eh? Maybe I shouldn’t have read this epistle on Rosh Hashanah, I just got done rinsing the blood out of the brisket 3 times and snipping the foreskin off of my 9th grandchild before heading out to pray the stations of the cross at Saint Huberts with my new rosary blessed at the shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe! However, he seems to be describing you folks at COSK to a ‘T’ (except for the matching sweating vests). I wonder though, would Matty’s ‘Ideal’ Christians join the protesters on Wall street? Should Christians today? Obliged.

    (P.s., i am wondering how Matty would have responded to Herbert Marcuse’s assertion that, “…there is a kind of craziness you need if you are going to work in a revolutionary way within a repressive society without being crushed by it. But this form of madness cannot be produced by psychiatry. It is a madness of the logos and is highly rational. It involves insight into the basic ills of society and analysis of the ways and means at your disposal for changing things.”).

    Saturday, October 1, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site