Spiritual Formation + Community

Fidelity & the Early Church

A Second Century letter (the epistle to Diognetus) describes the manner of the early Christians. Living in a secular environment, the early church practiced fidelity to God in the face of great persecution, fidelity to others within and outside their own community, and fidelity to place—they understood their position in society, sought the good of their cities and land and yet lived powerfully intent on their true and eternal Place.

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign. And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through… Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives… Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything.

The early believers were sojourners and strangers in a foreign land. From all appearances—dress, work, neighborhood, music preferences—they were of the world. Yet by all true measures—character, spirituality, marriage and family—they were “other-worldly.” They knew their place in the world because they new that their true Place would be opened up through death and glory. It’s not a paradox that they lived powerful, rooted lives among the world while looking forward to their eternal home. One cannot live and commit properly here without having first belonged to a much greater Nation. They loved those in the world because they no longer needed others and the world to provide them with a comfortable, safe lifestyle.

The unknown author continues:

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven.

May this be true of us Christians today. May our lives be marked by formation in Christ and fidelity to God, people and place. May we not be loiterers—wasting time in a space while waiting for something better. May we not be tourists—consuming the resources of the city/land and then letting others clean up for us. May we not be permanent residents—believing this life and world is all there is, demanding every human need be met through its current resources.

Instead, may we be sojourners—travelers on a journey, purposeful voyagers pitching a tent and caring for the land along the way Home. (Notice how the 2nd Century description is of a whole community, not of a band of individuals living parallel lives but gathering occasionally out of formality.) We all live and work and raise our families amidst a particular people and must use wisdom to receive, redeem and reject the various aspects of its culture. But when we understand our eternal Place, it brings value, meaning and sobriety to our temporary space, and then, and only then, can we live with “other-worldly” power.

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