Posted by: Philip Rushton | February 22, 2011

Why 21st Century America Needs 2nd Century Christians

This past week I came across an amazing letter written in the second century. The letter was written to describe Christianity to a pagan leader named Diognetus. It gives us a glimpse into the way Christians were perceived in the ancient world. These Christians were fully immersed in their culture and yet they lived a life that was radically different from others. They gained a reputation for their integrity, generosity, chastity, and love for people of all nations and backgrounds. There is so much in this letter that we need to grasp if we are to truly impact our culture. It reminds us that true outreach and true cultural engagement requires that we practice what we preach. Read and be inspired!

Christians are not distinguished from other men by country, language, nor by the customs which they observe. It is while following the customs of the natives in clothing, food, and the rest of ordinary life that they display to us their wonderful and admittedly striking way of life.

As citizens they participate in everything with others, yet they endure everything as if they were foreigners. Every foreign land is like their homeland to them, and every land of their birth is like a land of strangers. They marry, like everyone else, and they have children, but they do not destroy their offspring. They share a common table, but not a common bed. They exist in the flesh, but they do not live by the flesh. They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. They obey the prescribed laws, all the while surpassing the laws by their lives. They love all men and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned. They are put to death and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich. They lack everything, yet they overflow in everything.

They are dishonored, and yet in their very dishonor they are glorified; they are spoken ill of and yet are justified; they are reviled but bless; they are insulted and repay the insult with honor; they do good, yet are punished as evildoers; when punished, they rejoice as if raised from the dead. They are assailed by the Jews as barbarians; they are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to give any reason for their hatred.

To sum it all up in one word, what the soul is in the body, that is what Christians are in the world.”

Letter to Diognetus, 2nd Century

What can we learn form this as we seek to live for God in our world today?
Do we live in a way that distinguishes us from the rest of the world?
What are Christians known for today?


  1. I think it’s harder today because Christian principles are so ingrained in our culture that even atheists in America have mostly the same principles of compassion and forgivenes that Christians do. So it’s harder to stand out when the differences are going to be so little because of the huge influence of Christianity on our culture.

  2. Hey Bruce,

    It is true that there are some differences today. For one thing the Christian practice of generosity and care for the poor has been institutionalized and secularized. We now have hospitals and so on. So compassion may not be as distinct as it was back then.

    There will be a difference between engaging with a pre-Christian and a post-Christian society. As you point out, part of the reason is that our culture has been shaped by Christian principles. While some people want to attribute the ‘secular’ values of human rights and compassion to the enlightenment, the reality is that they find their roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

    However, I still think there is something we can learn from this letter. I think integrity is a key distinctive that we need to grasp on to. One of the things Christians are criticized for a lot these days is for lacking integrity. We preach a lot about Jesus but we often don’t live it out. Rick Warren said recently that the body of Christ has acted like a large talking head which has had its legs and arms cut off. His point is that Christians are no longer known for how they live but for what they talk about.

  3. Yeah, unfortunately integrity is a big criticism of Christians. I think unity is another big issue.

    How many divisions are there in the church. Not just the whole church body but even in individiual churches. I’ve watched so many friends leave the church (mostly for other churches but sometimes for no church) because of non-theological issues.

    “For unity’s sake, we must never let differences divide us. We must stay focused on what matters most—learning to love each other as Christ has loved us, and fulfilling God’s five purposes for each of us and his church. Conflict is usually a sign that the focus has shifted to less important issues, things the Bible calls “disputable matters.” When we focus on personalities, preferences, interpretations, styles or methods, division always happens.” – Rick Warren

    We can definitely look at the 2nd Century Christians as a good example but I wonder if they were able to do the “easy” divisions the same one’s the secular world in a Judeo-Christian culture has adopted while we’re left with the harder differences.

    Or maybe I’m just cynical. 🙂 Whatever the case being a light on a hilltop is definitely something to strive for!

  4. Thanks Bruce,

    Another challenge that we face, compared to the second century is that we are dealing with a lot of extra “Christian baggage.” What I mean is that the culture at large has some negative associations with the church due to some of the mistakes we have made. This, I think, makes the call to live with integrity even more vital. In many circles today Christianity has a very negative connotation. It is associated with closed-mindedness, fanaticism, etc.

    Also, one of the things I find profound in this letter is that Christians were engaged with culture but not completely tied to it. I think that is important for us in an American context. Sometimes Christianity has become too tied to a certain political philosophy, or a certain aspect of American life. There is an interesting balance that seems to have taken place in the second century. Christians were not divorced from culture but they did not buy into everything the culture was doing either.

  5. Great quote, thanks!

  6. Yeah, that’s a great point about the baggage. I can’t tell you how many youth I’ve talked to about coming to church or accepting Christ and they get hung up on the atrocities of the past. Some true some they just blame Christians for but it doesn’t really matter which is which because they are right, some horrible things have been done in the name of Christ.

    Wish we could just erase all that.

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