Evangelical Questions: Is this a Gnostic Church?
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about Gnosticism. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
We are just going to jump right in with this week’s verse Col 2:8-9:
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, which are based on human tradition and the spiritual forces of the world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity dwells in bodily form.
Okay, normally I don’t exegete passages for you, that’s not what we’re doing here, but I do feel like a little guidance is helpful here in order for you to understand where we’re going. Paul’s statement here in Col 2 is kind of weird if you don’t understand what’s happening in the background. He makes this statement that you shouldn’t be deceived by human philosophy and traditions. Okay. And then if you don’t know what he’s doing it seems as if he makes a strange left turn by adding in the reminder that Christ had a body. No one would blame you if you read that passage and wondered if the pages got stuck together or something. It’s odd on the face of it.
But what Paul is doing here is addressing Gnosticism. What is Gnosticism, why should you care, and what does it have to do with Evangelicals?
Gnosticism is a philosophy that covers many things, and we only have time to talk about 1 part of it. The Gnostics believed that it really only matters that you get the correct knowledge in your head. Thinking correctly and having knowledge is not just the most important thing, it’s everything – to the degree that the world which exists outside of the invisible things going on in your head just don’t matter. The only things that really matter are things you can think about – things you do with your actual physical body have nothing to do with it, they certainly don’t need to be regulated, and something that’s just pointless to worry about. If thinking in your head is everything….then the things that happen outside of your head are nothing. There was a very specific version of this in Paul’s day that he’s fighting against – and that idea was that Jesus either didn’t have a body, or maybe he only appeared to have a body. In this view, Jesus had obtained enough knowledge that he was able to be body-less because of his advanced knowledge. And someone with that much knowledge shouldn’t even be bothered with a body – it distracts from the really important thing, knowledge in your mind. So when Paul says, “Hey, don’t get distracted by this philosophy, Jesus actually had a body,” he is responding to this issue.
So, what does this have to do with our conversation about Evangelicals? As you know, Evangelicals reject the idea that anyone can choose to accept ordinances done on their behalf after the person has died because of their view that the afterlife is a binary between Heaven and Hell. But that’s only the first part of why they get confused about proxy ordinances. Gnosticism is the other reason why.
To Evangelicals having a body is not considered a gift, it’s not something they even think about all that much. They tend toward a kind of dualism that says belief is more important than behavior. What you think in your head is more important than what you actually do with your body. Now, to be fair, most people don’t study philosophy, and probably couldn’t tell you much about Gnosticism, but you can see the impact it has on their faith in the way they don’t value doing good works in the same way that we would in our church, or they don’t think baptism is important – it’s a nice thing, but accepting baptism is not really required for entrance into Heaven. They’re happily less restrictive on clothing, language, substances, and more because as long as you’re believing the correct things, it doesn’t really matter all that much if your physical body is allowed to do other things. So even though most of them won’t know the word “gnostic” they live in a system greatly influenced by it. The theologically trained folks know what it is – and they understand that Gnosticism is a bad thing. In that world, it is a legitimate and devastating blow to call someone out for being “too gnostic.” So it’s not like the leaders and theologically educated folks are embracing the idea that your body dosn’t even matter, but to preach about that doesn’t really go very far in that world. What you wear doesn’t matter, what you say or where you go doesn’t matter, what you do doesn’t matter – as long as you say the right things.
Okay, why should you care about any of this….It is a fair question for those outside our faith to ask why proxy work is how it has to be. If they can set aside the idea that there are no chances after death to believe (which is hard for them to set aside) they still get stuck on exactly why it requires a person who still has a physical body to get baptized, for example, on their behalf. Couldn’t God just accept their confession of faith after death? Why involve the people who are alive today and have bodies? This truly makes no sense to them. They might bring up the thief on the cross to whom Jesus spoke and said, “today you will be with me in paradise.” No baptism, no proxy work for that guy was required in what Jesus said. Though to be fair, Jesus was a bit busy at the moment when this conversation was taking place.
So, if you’re having a conversation about proxy work with an Evangelical this concept of Gnosticism is in the background, even if either one of you know it. So, what do you do?
Well, one interesting way to address this is to wonder with them: Why was it important that Jesus had a body through which he suffered greatly? Couldn’t God have just decided to forgive the sins of anyone who would come to the correct cognitive beliefs about their sin? They will probably tell you that God could have done that – but he didn’t. Why was it important to Paul that Jesus had a real body when he did his proxy work for us?
The other piece that comes up here is something I want to be really careful and kind with. There is a piece of Gnosticism – and especially the kind that is at the heart of modern-day evangelicalism – that says not only is knowledge important, but MY version of knowledge is the most important. For example, the key to salvation in the Evangelical world is that each person makes a “personal profession of faith in Christ.” And that is good. We believe that too – no one can decide about Christ for you, you have to decide for yourself. But from there, the Evangelical faces some different challenges. If MY personal salvation is based on MY own thinking – then everything can be. And there’s no one to tell me otherwise. If I don’t like what my pastor teaches, I go find a pastor who teaches what I like. When I get mad at him – or when he’s too old or not cool enough – I can go find another one. No one gets the final word but me. They’re not being self-centered or egotistical about this – its a theological expression for them and they feel the great responsibility of having to decide every single thing in their own head. There is no authority. No prophet. The first time I heard the phrase, “the authority of God was taken from the Earth,” I remember being confused because I had been so indoctrinated in the idea that God really wanted us to figure everything out on our own. In the Evangelical way of thinking that’s not seen God’s authority being taken – but that the very concept of authority doesn’t matter anymore. It’s postmodernism – the author is dead, and with him the concept of authority. You yourself have to be your own authority. Shoot, today in our Western culture we don’t even like the idea of saying that someone who has spent decades studying is an “authority” when I person can spend 5 min on Google and piece together a loud opinion. Evangelicals aren’t just up against this in our culture, they’re up against it as part of their faith system.
If you’re thinking ahead, you can already see how this same dilemma causes them to reject having a Prophet. They DO value prophets – they just value the ones who they can read and not see. The ones who lived so long ago they couldn’t possibly understand life today. Having a living prophet – another way to say that is to say we have a human Prophet who lives in a human body – feels much more dangerous to them than reading dead Prophets who are now disembodied.
That’s a lot of philosophy for today. So I’m not going to go on too much longer. But I hope this has helped you see how these differences play out. And really, if anything, I want you to recognize the goodness of the water you’re swimming in but probably don’t even realize.
Next week, I don’t remember what we’re doing, but in 2 weeks we’re talking about polygamy. So that’ll be fun. See you next time.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.