Today at services there was a message about gnosticism, an issue that I have written about from time to time in a variety of ways, examining its status as a fundamental heresy, as an aspect of contemporary music and culture, and as springing from commonly held but not necessarily commonly examined attitudes about the material world . Yet at its core, gnosticism is not about logic, but rather it is about a certain constellation of attitudes about the body and spirit, and a certain focus of the head and the heart, that makes it impossible to follow God’s ways or to act in ways that increase one’s virtue and character. It is only if one rejects gnosticism that one can even approach the sort of maturity and virtue that is expected of Christian believers. What I would like today is talk about the side of gnosticism that does not get as much attention, and that is the way that it perverts the very chance to gain understanding by redirecting people’s focus to their own feelings and their own supposed secret understanding. In doing so, I hope to make it clear that the threat of gnosticism is not only far more serious than is commonly understood, but that its danger comes from unexpected directions that are often not recognized.
When the Bible speaks of the unredeemed head and heart, there is not much that is said that is flattering to either. Concerning the unredeemed heart, the prophet Jeremiah was given a message, which is at least partly familiar, about the sort of heart that is praised by God and the sort of heart that is not, in Jeremiah 17:5-10, which reads: “Thus says the Lord: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the Lord. For he shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when good comes, but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, in a salt land which is not inhabited. Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, and whose hope is the Lord. For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, which spreads out its roots by the river, and will not fear when heat comes; but its leaf will be green, and will not be anxious in the year of drought, nor will cease from yielding fruit. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it? I, the Lord, search the heart, I test the mind, even to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings.””
This passage contrasts the heart of the unredeemed, who reject God’s ways, and those who trust in God. The blessings that are promised to those who trust in God mirror Psalm 1 and Revelation 21, promising a firm and settled place by the rivers of clear water, rooted in the New Jerusalem, having received eternal life and a place of dignity in the Kingdom of God. For those who reject God’s ways, there is the promise that they will dwell in the wilderness and not see when good comes. Yet holding to Gnostic beliefs makes the believer’s heart the judge of what is right or wrong, what visions to accept, what view of one’s life and one’s spiritual state is true. And at least as often as the heart may deceive people into believing that they are far more righteous than they really are, by giving justifications for doing badly, the heart also deceives us into believing that we are too far gone in sin, too lost and too corrupted by the flesh for God to help us. It is this despair that keeps people enslaved to wickedness, or that makes them prey to changing belief systems to leave their old communities of family and faith behind in the belief that they will never have a clean slate and never be forgiven in the eyes of others, never return to a state of grace where they may live honorable lives with reputations for moral probity and excellence of conduct, and never have the respect of their peers. We have to do a better job of counteracting this feeling of despair and fatalism that leads people to continue in sin because they lack the trust in our ability to show them grace and mercy. We must do a better job of showing God’s grace to others, for many people languish in despair who could be, if they saw God’s grace through our actions, the most passionate and enthusiastic models of changed lives that would demonstrate to the world God’s desire to take what is broken and make it glorious and whole. Yet if we never allow what is broken to be mended, the world will never be able to see what God is trying to accomplish in us.
What the Bible has to say about the unredeemed mind is scarcely more positive. Even though Romans 1:18-21 was not written originally with gnosticism specifically in mind, what it has to say demonstrates clearly some of the key flaws of Gnostic thought as it relates to the mind: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
In attacking the goodness of the created world, and in viewing God as evil because He created the physical world as a supposed prison for spirits, Gnostic thinkers throughout history have cut themselves off from the chance to learn about the nature of God and His divine attributes through what can be inferred from the material world. There are plenty of people who fall into the camp of materialism and deny the importance of anything spiritual and focus only on what is physical, such as many scientists in our contemporary world, but the opposite problem is equally serious and destructive to one’s ability to understand God’s purposes. When God created the physical world and its plant and animal and human life, He saw that it was good. The fact that it was temporary, or the fact that it was tangible, did not in any way make it evil. What was not good was first the loneliness that Adam faced in not having an equal partner until God created Eve from his ribs, and in the futility and loss that entered into the world through sin, leading to death and the sort of fallen aspects of life that we see in our world, in the evil that people do to others and to themselves, evils from which none of us are exempt. Yet the rebellion of mankind against the ways of God did not make what God created evil, it just made what we have done with ourselves and with our world evil by not following His ways. Gnostics seek to blame God for the troubles of the flesh, rather than to recognize our own corrupt natures that need to be redeemed from outside of ourselves.
There are at least two ways where Peter and John had to wrestle with the difficulty of authority as it related to the danger of Gnostic thought and supposed hidden or privileged knowledge. These ways may seem to be contrary to us, but each of them represents a path that can lead believers to depart from God’s ways. 2 Peter 1:16-21 provides a warning against the acceptance of Gnostic thought from the direction of individuals cutting themselves off from accountability to the larger body of Christ: “For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts; knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”
Here we see that there is danger to believers through following the cunningly devised fables of men rather than the Word of God. Part of this admonition is not only involving the scriptures themselves, but the fact that the Word of God does not come merely to individuals, but to believers who are a part of God’s family, a community of faith. The fact that scripture does not come from private origin means that those who seek to make their own personal writings or thoughts equal to importance to that of the scriptures are placing themselves where they ought not. Contrary to the behavior of contemporary Gnostics, who seek to claim in vain that the early Church of God, or those who became more Orthodox or Catholic in their thinking, suppressed various authentic Gospels, early believers were rather fair-minded in their belief that scriptures had to possess genuine apostolic content to be worthy of being considered scriptures, a standard of belief that Peter clearly held to, even if he conceded that Paul’s epistles were difficult to understand and easy to twist, later in that same letter. Yet the only way to get Christianity right is to get it right in a larger context of fellow believers, who present opportunities for service, for learning, and for teaching, depending on the gifts that God has given us and the level to which we have developed conspicuous virtues or knowledge that can be shared with others for their edification.
Yet while this direction of threat from Gnostic thought, the threat to the individual believer holding to a mistaken belief that he or she possesses secret knowledge that others do not that requires acceptance on the part of others or the threat of separation from the community of faith, there are threats from the opposite direction that John addresses in 3 John 1:9-12, which reads: “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church. Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God. Demetrius has a good testimony from all, and from the truth itself. And we also bear witness, and you know that our testimony is true.”
Just as there is a threat to community through the privilege of individual believers to receive and promote private understandings of scripture and even different scriptures altogether that seek to raise them up as critics of others, or as judges of the faith once delivered, so too John points out here that there is a threat when leaders desire the preeminence and forget that they too are fellow servants and not lords and masters over their congregations. What Diotrophes did that was so blamable that he attracted a role as opponent of the faith was that in desiring to have authority over a congregation he rejected the authority that was over him, not recognizing that as leaders our authority over others is not absolute, but rather involves recognizing that we too have a Master in heaven, and that we too are accountable for what we believe, and must be receptive to other believers, and not reject others simply because they are not under our chain of command. Writer Alan Knight, in his book Primitive Christianity In Crisis, commented on what he called authoritarian gnosticism, in that knowledge about God or God’s ways was viewed as belonging only to a hierarchy of unaccountable leaders and was kept from ordinary believers. This too is heresy. For it is all believers, after all, who are being trained to be kings and priests, to be expected to be qualified judges of God’s law and applying it to the situations faced within congregations, and expected to study and be able to defend our faith . This cannot be done when people are too afraid to speak up for fear of being put down or thrown out of congregations as Diotrophes did to those who sought to welcome Demas the servant of God.
So, what are we to do then? In part, we are to recognize that we are, thankfully, not the judges of God’s ways or of the scriptures, but are to be learners of those ways, students of His word, and that even when we are hard on ourselves and fall into despair that God is gracious and merciful to forgive. We escape the snare of Gnostic ways by placing our confidence in God, and not in man, and in owning up to our own struggles and our own fallibility. Likewise, we escape the intellectual snare of seeing ourselves as being in a privileged place against others by using what offices and talents and abilities we have to serve others and not lord it over others, and by refusing to believe ourselves to be above accountability to other believers. We are all better off when we can relate to each other, learn from each other, and help build each other up with encouragement and instruction and even just a positive example of how to live our lives in the circumstances we are given. In so doing we show the light that God has given to each other and to the larger world, and so serve for the glory of God, and not turn our focus and glorying into ourselves, where we become a black hole of darkness from which no light can escape, becoming the sort of prison that we accuse God of creating for all flesh because we are not thankful to God for what He has given us, or to others for being accountability partners and fellow disciples of God’s way on a common journey to the Kingdom of God. It is not good that we should be alone; we were created to be a part of families, of congregations, and ultimately of a great Kingdom without end. Let our lives reflect the purposes for which we were made.
 See, for example:
 See, for example: