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.