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Decoding the Bible

What makes Christians distinct?

By Sandra Beardsall

What makes Christians distinct? How might you know one if you met one? In the second century, somewhere in the Greek-speaking world, an anonymous Christian author (probably male) set out to answer those questions in a document we now call the Epistle to Diognetus. The writer knew the task would be a challenge. Christians “do not live apart in separate cities, speak any special dialect, nor practise any eccentric way of life,” he noted. Rather, they live like “resident aliens” on the earth, obeying the laws of the land, but recognizing that their true citizenship lies elsewhere — in “the heavens.”

However, says the Diognetus author, within their dual loyalty, Christians go beyond the morals of the nation: “They obey the prescribed laws, but in their own private lives they transcend the laws.” He gives examples: Christians do not abandon unwanted infants by exposing them to the elements to die (a practice of the time); they do not sleep with the spouses of others; they repay slander with blessings. In fact, he writes, warming to his theme, Christians are to the world as the soul is to the body. “Such is the high post of duty in which God has placed them, and it is their moral duty not to shrink from it.”

A sociologist might tell us that it is common for marginal groups to set high moral standards for their members in order to avoid ridicule or persecution. But the Diognetus author assigns another reason for his call to Christians to transcend the laws of the land. The source of this high moral calling, he states, is that an incredible mystery has been entrusted to Christians: the knowledge that God sent to earth a messenger of salvation who was God’s own self.  For the author of Diognetus, knowing this amazing mystery — that God has entered human life in human form — immediately sets the moral bar higher for Christians.

The text of the Epistle to Diognetus disappeared in the ancient world. We know it today only because in about 1435, a young Italian student of Greek found a copy of it being used as fish-wrapping paper in a Constantinople market.

Meanwhile, back in the second century, probably around the same time as the unknown Diognetus author, another writer was pondering Christian distinctiveness. He was Justin, commonly known as “Justin Martyr” because tradition holds that he died for his faith at the hands of the state. Unlike the Diognetus author, Justin Martyr became famous for his efforts to explain the Christian faith using the philosophical language and concepts of his era.

The wisdom and insight of the ancient Greek philosophers impressed Justin deeply, and this led him to a conundrum. Justin believed in the necessity to confess Jesus Christ as saviour. Yet these Greek philosophers had done nothing of the sort. Not only had they lived several centuries before Jesus was born, but they had not even been followers of Jesus’ God. Were they therefore condemned? They were wise. How could they be damned? Justin decided that since Jesus is the Word or “reason” (in Greek, Logos) in whom “the whole human race partakes . . . those who live according to reason are Christians, even though they are counted as atheists.” According to Justin, the wise receive their morality from God, whether they acknowledge it or not.

These two ancient authors, Anonymous and Justin Martyr, point to a dilemma that lies at the heart of Christianity. Most Christians would hope that their encounter with Jesus Christ changes them in some good way: that it helps them to act with integrity and wisdom, to make a difference in the world. That is the claim of the Diognetus author. But Christians, in their dual citizenship of earth and heaven, are also deeply affected by non-Christians. With Justin, Christians might say they have gained too much from non-Christians — morally, intellectually and spiritually — to dismiss them as the “unsaved.”

The United Church’s 1997 statement on ecumenism, Mending the World, invites us into this struggle. God, it says, calls the church to “discern and celebrate God’s Spirit in people of other religions and ideologies.” The statement then links these “others” with moral living. It affirms: “We believe that God yearns for the healing of all creation, and calls the Church to share that yearning by joining now with other persons of good will in the search for justice, wholeness and love.”

Perhaps, then, we need to pose the question another way, keeping the insights of both Diognetus and Justin in view. Perhaps we need to ask: can we be at once distinctively Christian and wholly open to the “other”? If we can, how might we live?

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