Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Some second century advice. . .

I came across a post on the way Christians address the culture and society around them.  It suggested that culture wars is not an apt or even helpful manner for our witness.  Instead, the blogger pointed to an obscure early reference, a late second century letter from an otherwise unknown author named Mathetes to an equally obscure recipient named Diognetus. The letter is an apologetic of sorts, a kind of primer on what set the new Christian sect apart from the pagan religions of the time as well as from Judaism. In a section dedicated to describing the manners of the Christians, Mathetes remarks that “they marry, as do all [others]; they beget children but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed.” 

Gene Veith has also picked up on this post.  The clear point here is that Christians marry like non-Christians but in their marriage they have children and do not destroy them (abortion, abuse?).  They have a common table (hospitality, sharing with the poor and needy) but not a common bed (not promiscuous but faithful in marriage and chaste outside of marriage).  We all get this and it is obvious enough but I am not sure that we practice this or at least practice it deliberately and obviously.  In addition, I am not at all sure that we do so with the charity and hospitality that such witness deserves.

The author, whether Mathetes is a legitimate name or used because it means disciple, is describing the lifestyle of the early Christian community and implying that this lifestyle is its own apologetic.  Perhaps this is what it means in Scripture when it says that those outside the household of the faith noted with what love these Christians love one another.  In any case, it was not ineffective.  Eventually the whole of the Roman Empire gave up its pagan allegiances and became Christian.  A good share of the credit for this lies not with the promotion of a new philosophy or the bare might of the sword but of the new morality and ethic of Christian life, lived imperfectly, to be sure, but not without passion and fervor.  Indeed the great danger today is that Christians do not appear to have much that is distinct except, perhaps, intellectual differences.  Their lives and lifestyles appear, on the surface anyway, to be very similar to non-Christians.  They indulge in the same sins and they do not seem to be captive to much guilt in all of this.  In effect, some Christians have adopted the values and mores of the non-Christian world.  They have baptized these into their own new Christian ethic, in violation to the clear word of Scripture but from a new principle of freedom and love that is said to transcend even that clear word of Scripture. 

Veith suggests:  Isn’t this the same thing Christians are called to do today against the same cultural pressures?  Get married; back then even the Roman pagans did this, and that might change.  But whatever happens, Christians will still practice marriage and cultivate families.  Beget children and do not destroy them; that is,  don’t get abortions. Don’t have “a common bed”; that is, don’t be sexually promiscuous.  But do have “a common table”; that is, be hospitable to all, inviting even non-believers into your home so as to get to know them and so they can get to know you and your faith.

Mark Mitchell says:  While hospitality will not solve every problem (neither will any policy, program, or party), a culture of hospitality will address a variety of issues—care for the infirm, the elderly, and the poor, for example—in creative ways that are simply overlooked or ignored by those who are focused primarily on public policy, court decisions, and protests. One solution looks primarily to the political arena for redress; the other, like the Good Samaritan, takes the wounded traveler and cares for him. Do you want to change the culture? Practice hospitality.

 It may not be true necessarily of Lutherans, though it is not less true for us, that Christians have sought to change the culture through political means.  On the one hand we have the incessant letters of the ELCA Presiding Bishop who addresses every political topic and issue whispered in Washington, though no one seems to be paying much attention to him (not even within his own church body) and on the other hand we have those Christians who want federal and state law to enshrine and enforce the Christian ethic (how is this unlike those who push for sharia law?).  Perhaps this is exactly what we need to hear in the aftermath of an election in which Christian values seem to have been tossed under the bus of expediency.  Mathetes may be just the voice we need to hear...

1 comment:

Paul said...

This raises for me the issue of the domestic church and the lost art of hospitality. Why have all the missional/growth folks not picked up on this? Why have the confessional types likewise mostly ignored it? Surely we have here the biblical pattern for mission and evangelism.