We live as culturally distinct people
Heidi McLane is a (just) retired schoolteacher from Ann Arbor, and I wrote this letter to her because I consider her a peer in Christian ministry.
I’m glad you’re reading this. I’m not certain I would have found the opportunity to share this apart from writing it down and passing it on.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s coming next and all the challenges and opportunities that await, about the energy you have and the confusion that may very well assail you as you move forward. I want you to know I have the utmost confidence in your character, in your noble ambition to shadow God, and in your ability to discern the right path.
The more I think about you, the more I’m compelled to ask myself how we live in the world without being contaminated by it. I wonder what it means for us to live as a culturally distinct people in the heart of our cities. I wonder how we’re meant to be a “light of the world” and a “city on a hill.”
Sometimes Christian people think God wants us to create an entirely separate Christian world inside this one, to retreat from our culture. But this doesn’t make any sense to me. How can we introduce the world to Christ if we’re never involved with it?
Others suggest we’re supposed to transform our world, replacing worldly things with Christian things; or, to take it a step further, to turn worldly things into Christian things. But, again, this seems strange. It puts all the emphasis on “things,” as though our commission to enter the world is simply so we can flaunt our plunder.
Of course we’re not the first people to be asking these questions; nor are we the first people to propose these solutions. The Epistle to Diognetus is one of my favorite ancient documents. We don’t know who wrote it, only that it serves as one of the earliest defenses of Christian character. The author had watched Christians for some time and wrote this letter to commend them to his friend. Whenever I am confronted by the questions I posed earlier, I think back on this letter. It’s great evidence that Christians actually did what Christ commanded us to do, that at least some of our predecessors got it right, and their faithful witness was effective. They didn’t focus on cultural stuff, but on Jesus stuff. They weren’t consumed with fixing everything, only with allowing Christ to fix them.
Here’s the best excerpt:
Christians are not distinguished from the rest of humanity by country, language, or custom. For nowhere do they live in cities of their own, nor do they speak some unusual dialect, nor do they practice an eccentric lifestyle…While they live in both 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. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like everyone else, and have children, but they do not expose their offspring. They share their food but not their wives. They are “in the flesh”, but do not live “according to the flesh”. They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws; indeed in their private lives they transcend the laws. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. They are unknown, yet they are condemned; they are put to death, yet they are brought to life. They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything. They are dishonored, yet they are glorified in their dishonor; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life….Those who hate them are unable to give a reason for their hostility.
Toward the end of his letter, Diognetus’ friend remarks, “In a word, what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world.”
My prayer for you is that your soul prospers, that you experience continuity between the witness of these early Christians and the testimony of your own life.
 Matthew 5.14.
 Lightfoot, J.B., trans., Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, 5.1-17, Accessed June 17, 2014, http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/diognetus-lightfoot.html.
 Ibid., 6.1.