Until the Next World Comes, Christians Hold This World Together

How the early church’s example of public witness helps us avoid the extremes of triumphalism and retreat.

Early on in my reading and study of early Christianity, I was struck by an assertion from an unnamed author writing to a man named Diognetus in the second century. This author, in his Epistle to Diognetus, declared that “what the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world.”

The author was getting at a paradox resting at the heart of our faith: Christians dwell in the world, yet in the beliefs they confess and the virtues they seek to model, they also transcend the things of this world. While Christ and the apostles taught this same principle, the Epistle’s analogy of the soul to the body is compelling. Though existing in a mortal body, Christians are bound for immortality. As the soul holds the body together, they are meant to hold the world together. Their task is to live in a way that makes the world better because of their presence.

Stephen O. Presley, a scholar of early Christianity, articulates this vision wonderfully in Cultural Sanctification: Engaging the World like the Early Church. The book unpacks how early Christians viewed their place in a world that increasingly looks and feels like our own.

In a secular age, the postures and wisdom of early Christian voices can help us reclaim a vision for how to dwell within a society that has no room for religious exclusivity and little desire for transcendent moral reasoning. By exploring and connecting prominent themes of early Christian public witness, Presley channels the analogy presented to Diognetus and amplifies it through the voices of early Christian thinkers.

Active dualism

Presley begins by reminding us that our world is not just suspicious of the church; Christianity is seen as the antagonist. “Christianity,” he writes, “is …

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