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.

Quotes and Notes on Early Christian Missions

Emperor Julian the Apostate
Emperor Julian the Apostate. Image via Wikipedia

Some notes from Stephen Neill‘s book, “A History of Christian Missions,” regarding early missions:

A.  Neill speaks of three things that occurred in the first century that radically affected the expansion of the church.

1.  The first was the realization the Jesus was not going to return quickly. After a fairly frenzied attempt to evangelize in the early part of Acts, by the 13thchapter of acts, it was recognized that “a steady programme of expansion thoughout the world” was appropriate.

2. Second, there was clear evidence from both God and circumstances, that salvation was not for Jews alone. Rather, it was available to all peoples.

3.  Third, the destruction of Jerusalem (70AD) made Christianity a religion without a center. Despite the high regard given places such as Rome, Jerusalem, Constantinople, or Canterbury, Christianity is not burdened with a Mecca. Christianity has no single home nor a home culture. (20-21)

I think these lessons need to be remembered today. Effective Christian missions comes from recognizing that we don’t know when Christ will return so we need to plan both short-term and long-term strategies for mission. Christian missions is not Jewish missions, or Western missions. Contextualizing the message to all cultures and all people is needed. Christian missions and the Christian church has no center except Christ.

B.  Quote:

 “… owing to Luke’s predilection for Paul, we know a great deal more about Paul than we know about anyone else. He tends to dominate the scene, and we are inclined to think of him as the typical missionary. In point of fact the picture is far more complex than that. We have to think of a great many full-time missionaries moving rapidly in many directions, and also of that mass of unprofessional missionaries, already alluded to, through whose witness churches were coming into being all over the place, unorganized, independent, yet acutely aware of their status as the new Israel and of their fellowship with all other believers in the world.” (26)

C.  One reason for this growth was the perceived morality of the Christians. Many non-Christians desired that (ethical living was a goal of Stoics, and Romans extolled living a life of virtue), but few seemed to achieve it like the Christians did (understanding, of course, that Christians were human and often failed as well). Also, Christians were known for their charitable work. This was an area that impressed many non-Christians. Emperor Julian (the Apostate), certainly no friend of Christianity, wrote:

Atheism (I.E. Christian faith) has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar, and that the godless Galilaeans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well, while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.” (37-38)

A very loosely related article (but one I like) is on The Importance of Historical Theology

von Harnack on Early Church Missions

Tertullian, Early Church Father and Christian Apologist.  Image via Wikipedia

The following is a great quote from “Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries” by Adolph von Harnack (1851-1930), from 1908 translated edition.  This quote is from Volume 3, chapter 1 (section 366-369).  The broader passage and related passages are available at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (see

Passage emphasizes the role of the common people in the early church as “missionaries”. We have tended to fall into the trap of celebrity. We focus on “heroes of the faith” and connect great works of God to “great people”. The church has been built on the foundation of Christ (and the twelve) but is built up from building blocks of very ordinary (yet extraordinary) followers of Christ.

“The most numerous and successful missionaries of the Christian religion were not the regular teachers but Christians themselves, in virtue of their loyalty and courage. How little we hear of the former and their results! How much we hear of the effects produced by the latter! Above all, every confessor and martyr was a missionary; he not merely confirmed the faith of those who were already won, but also enlisted new members by his testimony and his death. Over and again this result is noted in the Acts of the martyrs, though it would lead us too far afield to recapitulate such tales. While they lay in prison, while they stood before the judge, on the road to execution, and by means of the execution itself, they won people for the faith. Ay, and even after death. One contemporary document (cp. Euseb. vi. 5) describes how Potamiæna, an Alexandrian martyr during the reign of Septimius Severus, appeared immediately after death even to non-Christians in the city, and how they were converted by this vision. This is by no means incredible. The executions of the martyrs (legally carried out, of course) must have made an impression which startled and stirred wide circles of people, suggesting to their minds the question: Who is to blame, the condemned person or the judge?  Looking at the earnestness, the readiness for sacrifice, and the steadfastness of these Christians, people found it difficult to think that they were to blame. Thus it was by no means an empty phrase, when Tertullian and others like him asserted that the blood of Christians was a seed.

Nevertheless, it was not merely the confessors and martyrs who were missionaries. It was characteristic of this religion that everyone who seriously confessed the faith proved of service to its propaganda. Christians are to “let their light shine, that pagans may see their good works and glorify the Father in heaven.” If this dominated all their life, and if they lived according to the precepts of their religion, they could not be hidden at all; by their very mode of living they could not fail to preach their faith plainly and audibly. Then there was the conviction that the day of judgment was at hand, and that they were debtors to the heathen. Furthermore, so far from narrowing Christianity, the exclusiveness of the gospel was a powerful aid in promoting its mission, owing to the sharp dilemma which it involved.

We cannot hesitate to believe that the great mission of Christianity was in reality accomplished by means of informal missionaries. Justin says so quite explicitly. What won him over was the impression made by the moral life which he found among Christians in general. How this life stood apart from that of pagans even in the ordinary round of the day, how it had to be or ought to be a constant declaration of the gospel—all this is vividly portrayed by Tertullian in the passage where he adjures his wife not to marry a pagan husband after he is dead (ad Uxor., II. iv.-vi.). We may safely assume, too, that women did play a leading role in the spread of this religion (see below, Book IV. Chap. II.). But it is impossible to see in any one class of people inside the church the chief agents of the Christian propaganda.”