Critical Contextualization in the Early Church


Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus. While there is disagreement as to when this epistle was written we know it was quite early. Some place it back to around 130AD. Some place it closer to 200AD. I personally think that the parts of the epistle noting the newness of Christianity does suggest that it is an early document. However, the self-description of the unknown writer as being a disciple (“mathetes”) of the apostles does not necessitate an early date. Regardless, this is a very early understanding and apology of the Christian faith. However, I would like to look a part of this letter from the aspect of contextualization of faith. I believe Chapter 5 describes nicely what some would call “Critical Contextualization.”

 CHAPTER 5 For Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practice an extraordinary kind of life. Nor again do they possess any invention discovered by any intelligence or study of ingenious men, nor are they masters of any human dogma as some are. But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvelous, and confessedly contradicts expectation. They dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign. They marry like all other men and they beget children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have their meals in common, but not their wives. They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they live not after the flesh. Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and they surpass the laws in their own lives. They love all men, and they are persecuted by all. They are ignored, and yet they are condemned. They are put to death, and yet they are endued with life. They are in beggary, and yet they make many rich. They are in want of all things, and yet they abound in all things. They are dishonored, and yet they are glorified in their dishonor. They are evil spoken of, and yet they are vindicated. They are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and they respect. Doing good they are punished as evil-doers; being punished they rejoice, as if they were thereby quickened by life. War is waged against them as aliens by the Jews, and persecution is carried on against them by the Greeks, and yet those that hate them cannot tell the reason of their hostility. (Lightfoot & Harmer, 1891 translation)

What does this passage say about how Christians lived (culturally) at that time… or at least how they perceived themselves to live?

A. They were culturally similar to those around them. Christians:           

  • Were not distinguishable from the populace in locality (no ghettoization or cloistering)           
  • Were not distinguishable in speech (used the local dialects)           
  • Were not distinguishable in customs (carried out normal lives like those around them)           
  • Were similar to others in dress           
  • Were similar to others in food           
  • Were similar in “other arrangements of life”           
  • Lived lives as responsible citizens of their respective countries and communities           
  • Married and raised families like others           
  • Obeyed local and regional laws

B. They also had cultural differences. Christians:           

  • Saw themselves as sojourners, strangers wherever they live… citizens of heaven            
  • Did not do things such as infanticide or sexual infidelity,            
  • Sought to not just obey local laws, but to surpass them.            
  • Blessed, respected, and loved others, and rejoiced in the face of persecution

Elsewhere in the epistle other differences are shown such as their rejection of idols. However, it is pretty clear that the early Christians felt that true Christianity was lived out in the culture around them. They appeared to follow a “critical contextualization”:           

  1. That which is clearly evil in the culture (based on Christ and the apostles) is rejected           
  2. That which is virtuous in the culture is followed, and even surpassed          
  3. That which is not clearly evil becomes part of the culture of the local Christians         
  4. Love is the guide in areas of doubt

I believe as missionaries and as Christians, we see a desire to separate ourselves from the culture around us on one side and another tendency to be culturally indistinguishable from the surrounding culture. I believe this early church writing clearly has something here for us today.

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