Helping Disciples Become Disciplers

A Guide for Cultural Engagement: A Letter from the Early Church

Our cultural moment may feel novel as the modern West is filled with those who constantly cry for justice, love, and dignity. The devotion to these ideals has turned marches and protests into religious experiences, with the creed of the day being tolerance and inclusivity. This new religion is deeply rooted in a secularism that has cultivated a massive following, resulting in nearly 30% of Americans identifying as irreligious.[1]

The ancient world did not have such a large percentage of “nones” but, instead, was filled with pagan worshippers. Despite this difference, the rise of the irreligious in the current secular age and their influence on the culture has forced the church into a moment that looks similar to the early church. Many have argued that we are in a post-Christian moment in the West, yet this label does not accurately describe the culture at large. To be post-Christian would mean that, culturally, the name Jesus, the term “gospel”, and the ideas of sin and repentance would be understood by the majority even if the ideas didn’t lead to practical Christian living. Fifty years ago, the West looked post-Christian, as 90% of Americans identified themselves as Christians.[2] Christian ideals were propagated in the public square by the “silent majority,” but the culture was filled with self-identified Christians who held to heterodox ideas and lived counter to the example of Christ. This is most exemplified by the fact that in this supposed “Christian moment,” the sexual revolution, recreational drug abuse, and abortion on demand began to rise. Fifty years ago, in name, the U.S. was Christian. In practice, it was secular with regular appeals to Christian ideals that were Christian in name only.

While not everyone affirmed Christianity with their mouths and their lives, they at least knew what they were denying during this era because they were familiar with the teachings of the Scriptures. Our modern culture is intrinsically different than the one our grandparents grew up in as the core Christian doctrines and ideals are meaningless to the secularized West; not only do people not affirm the Christian faith, but they don’t even know they are denying it. The ignorance towards Christianity seen today resembles that of the pre-Christian ancient world that was oblivious to the God of the Bible, Jesus as the savior of the world, the vileness of sin, and the necessity of repentance.[3] Similarly, today’s culture lacks this understanding as non-Christians across the United States have demonstrated that secularism guides their moral framework instead of the God of the Bible.

Despite being ignorant of the Christian faith, the current culture affirms objective ideals of acceptance, love, hope, justice, and dignity. Yet, these ideals are practiced subjectively as the secularized religion is obstinate to Christianity, for the secularists revel in self-glorification and despise those who question their right to do as they please. Due to the lack of both intentional discipleship that leads to gospel proclamation and accountability that cultivates holiness, the culture has reverted to an ancient time and acts like the pre-Christian age where sexual immorality ran high and devotion to self was king with no God to live for. The war we face as Christians is not against flesh and blood but against the evil one who looks to devour (Eph 6:12), just as he always has, influencing culture after culture with darkness. Thus, we can turn to the early church to learn how they engaged in their pre-Christian context. In the Letter to Diognetus, we find a simple answer for engaging the anti-Christian world with the gospel, one day at a time.

The Letter to Diognetus

This early church letter from the beginning of the second century was anonymously written by a “disciple of the Apostles.”[4] This author’s title alone helps us see the value of discipleship in the early church, and the letter demonstrates how discipleship permeates all of life. The disciple is writing to an unknown Diognetus, who some claim to be a tutor of the great Marcus Aurelius.[5] But who wrote it and to whom it was written is irrelevant to this article. The letter has significance for us as it demonstrates that by the turn of the first century, Christians understood that if they were to live in a world that was opposed to the Christian faith, they must do so tactfully. What follows are four teachings for living in an anti-Christian, or pre-Christian, age from the disciple of the Apostles.

  1. See the Vanity of Idols

In order for us to rightly live in the world but not be of the world (Jhn 17:14-15), the disciple insists we must see the vanity of idols. He is, of course, talking about the idols used in pagan worship, and when speaking of their futility, he asks rhetorically, “Is not one of them a stone similar to that on which we tread?”[6] Translated across the generations, we can look at the idols of our culture—fame, sex, power, money, and the list goes on and on—and ask of these idols, “Will these things not fade away in the age to come?” Our culture may not have a pantheon of stone idols, but idolatry runs rampant nonetheless. If we are to engage in the cultural moment with integrity and intentionality, we must not succumb to the shine of the age’s idols and intentionally cast them aside, seeing them for what they are. For the disciple and us, this means we remind ourselves that we serve the true and living God who humbled himself and died on the cross on our behalf (Phil 2:1-11). When we daily see how great our God is, we will be able to rightly engage in the world and not become ensnared in its idolatry.

  1. See the Vanity of Sacrifices and Offerings

As we navigate the world, it is tempting to engage in it without much thought. We can act in a way that recognizes the true God yet worships Him falsely. The disciple identifies that this is what the Jews were doing as they sacrificed to God in the same way the pagans sacrificed to their idols. He writes,

They, on the other hand, by thinking to offer these things to God as if He needed them, might justly reckon it rather an act of folly than of divine worship. For he that made heaven and earth, and all that is there in, and gives to us all the things of which we stand in need, certainly requires none of those things which He Himself bestows on such as think of furnishing them to Him.[7]

Again, the disciple is seeking to draw us back to the cross and to the God we serve. He does so by reminding us that sacrifices are done in vain because the debt of sin has been paid and man is now reconciled to God through the one sacrifice made by the Lord Jesus Christ. Throughout history, man has felt the need for perpetual sacrifices. This need has even been found commonplace in our moment as there are continual calls to sacrifice personal conviction for the sake of tolerance and acceptance. It even goes beyond that as we look at our culture and see individuals sacrificing anything and everything to achieve contentment and success. We often see a trail of bodies when someone reaches the top, figuratively and sometimes literally, only for that person at the top to ask, “Is this all there is?” Tom Brady is a prime example of this. After years of success, he continued to chase the high of winning at the highest level in the NFL. Ultimately, it cost him his family as his wife sadly left him after he returned to the NFL in 2022. As Christians living in a world that is quick to sacrifice all for relatively little gain, we must point to the sacrifice that provides the greatest gain: God Himself.

  1. Live as Sojourners

The first two imperatives from the disciple focus on what Christians ought not to do while interacting in the world: we are not to worship the idols of the age and we are not to make sacrifices. The last two teachings demonstrate how we are to positively live for Christ. The disciple reminds us that “Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens.”[8] Some today have said, “Don’t be so heavenly-minded that you are no earthly good.” The true disciple counters that modern stipulation by identifying that when we are heavenly-minded sojourners, we will be an earthly good. As Christians, we understand where our resting place is, and the disciple is exhorting us to look to the hope we have in heaven as we navigate the current age.

So, how do we practically live this out? First, by remembering the greatness of our God. We do not serve a stone but a true and living God who has done amazing things and promised to do them again. By remembering the majesty of the God we serve, we cultivate confidence to fight in these dark times. Second, by looking at the cross of Christ. As Christians, we must daily remind ourselves of the gospel and the blood that has been shed on our behalf. The sacrifice of Christ gives us the ability to not walk in fear but to walk in power (2 Tim 1:7). Looking to the cross strengthens us as it reminds us the battle has been won. Third, by hoping in the future glory that is ours to inherit. It is easy to be dismayed by the darkness of the age, yet as Christians, we can look forward to the future glory where every tear will be wiped away and death will be no more (Rev 21:4). Our hope in the future glory is a sweet reminder that this place is not our home.

Doing these three things—remembering God’s greatness, looking to the cross, and hoping in our future glory—will aid us in understanding that our lives are not our own and that we get the privilege of being used by God as His workmanship (Eph 2:10). As sojourners in the world, we must recognize that this is not our home, that things will not go our way, but that we serve a God who is faithful and true; thus, we keep moving forward.

  1. Be Godly in the World

The disciple goes on to connect sojourning with godly living in our fourth teaching. As we navigate the world, it does us no good to be present yet hidden. To sojourn through the land is to be present in the land, and while being present, we must live godly lives. When speaking of the mystery of the Christian that sojourns well, the disciple writes, “The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and [loves also] the members; Christians likewise love those that hate them.” He also states, “Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world.”[9] These teachings remind us that the Christian is to be actively present in the word and devoted to godly living. While godliness may not always be understood by the world, they are sure to notice those who have high affection for the King of kings. The current culture, like the culture of the early church, needs Christians to live godly, for this is one of the primary ways we can engage the world with the gospel story. Our lives are often the greatest apologetic we have for the Christian faith, and when we live that out as godly individuals, we will be answering the great question of the secular age, “Does what you believe work?” When we show the world who we are as Christians, we will get the opportunity to tell them whose we are. Our godliness will result in one thing or the other: either those around us will reject us and despise us or they will embrace the gospel we live by. Our job is not to be concerned with how they will react but with how we will react to God’s call on our lives to be holy as He is holy (1 Pet 1:16).

The Letter to Diognetus is a unique piece of Christian history that reminds us to live in a way that always reflects Christ to the world. The pre-Christian moment we are in rejects Christ and His followers and is ignorant to the things of God. To rightly engage in our cultural moment, we must apply the principles from the disciple’s letter that the world may know whose we are. The life we live will be seen by the watching world, so may we live in a godly manner as sojourners recognizing the vanity of idols and the foolishness of sacrifices as we look to Christ who died and gave Himself for us (Gal 2:20).

[1] Gregory A. Smith, “About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults Are Non Religiously Affiliated,” Pew Research (14 December 2021).

[2] Pew Research Center “Modeling the Future of Religion in America,” Pew Research (13 September 2022).

[3] The State of Theology Report

[4] The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus XI, (Ante-Nicene Fathers, 29).

[5] A. Cleveland Cox, “Introduction to The Epistle to Diognetus,” (ANF, 23).

[6] The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus II, (ANF, 25).

[7] The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus III, (ANF, 26).

[8] The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus VI, (ANF, 27).

[9] The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus VI, (ANF, 27).



Additional Resources to Keep Learning...

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Theological Triage

Engaging Culture with Max Jeganathan

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