One of the earliest and most persistent dangers to the faith was given the general name ‘Gnosticism’ – from the Greek ‘gnosis’ which means ‘knowledge’. It came to signify the beliefs of those who said they were Christian but claimed to have some secret, inner knowledge which was not revealed to the ordinary believer. It is an obvious temptation in any faith. We all have, as Paul reminds us, different talents which we bring to the church, but if there are those who claim that certain terms can be understood only in certain ways by an elite who know these things, then, should that line be accepted, and should the faithful come to believe that salvation can be had only by acquiring this secret knowledge, or following those who have it, the consequences for those who have the knowledge are obvious. Just about every cult there ever has been proceeds on this basis. We see Paul warning against it in his first letter to Timothy.
It is common enough to see much of modern secular thought on matters of sexuality as having about it something of the Gnostic – although I wonder whether that does not confer on mere hedonism and selfishness a philosophical gloss it fails to deserve. But what are we to make of it when good Christians say that ‘love’ does not mean what we take it to mean, that there is a special religious meaning to it which only those who understand it can understand, and that our modern understanding of ‘love’ is quite at odds with what Jesus preached? That, too, though well-meant, seems to me a dangerous line to take.
Jesus was not a philosopher dealing in fine distinctions – he wanted our yes to be yes and our no to be no. The examples he offers us of love in his parables seem pretty clear, and they exactly resemble what most of us would call love. His own willingness to die for us sinners is the highest form of human love – to lay down your life to save another – when we see men and women do that, we marvel (and wonder if we should have the courage) but we are not separated from it by an impassable gulf. We can provide all the commentaries we like on 1 Corinthians 13, but now, as then, we can understand it because it speaks to what we know of love. There is not some separate category of love which means it looks a lot like hate to the uninitiated. Jesus is pretty clear about a lot of things we fail to do. We fail to love our enemies (for the most part – I think the only person I ever met who comes close to that is our own Chalcedon451), we fail to turn the other cheek or to walk the extra mile. We come up with fine-grained explanations for our failings here. We can even, and do, some up with a variety of ‘love’ which seems to those on the receiving end of it, like its opposite, and justify it by saying we are trying to save the soul of whoever it is we are offering tough love to. But we save no one, the Spirit does.
The difference between spiritual guidance and control can be a thin one sometimes – again it is a theme which resonates throughout the history not only of our faith, but most others. When I look at the figures for church attendance and for ‘belief’ I wonder sometimes how accurate, or even useful, they are. Are we to assume that when church-going was socially desirable, everyone who went was a devout and orthodox believer?
In this short series, I have been trying to survey the Christian waterfront with the question in mind of why it is that our faith has ebbed so much, and why in some areas, we still make converts – and by that I don’t mean Christians changing from one church to another, but bringing in the unchurched. It seems to me that if we speak in terms which imply you either need a PhD in theology, or some secret insight to understand us, you will attract those for whom the idea of being part of a special club is appealing – there’s always a market for elite clubs with initiation rituals and special ceremonies and a language which excludes those outside the club. But we also put off those who, knowing themselves broken and in need of healing, come looking for that love which the Lord said would be the mark of those who truly believed in Him. That love was not some special construct known only to an educated elite, it was something a little girl could know in the arms of her daddy. Unless we can believe like a little child, we shall in no wise inherit the kingdom of Heaven. As adults, we forget that, as so much else that is simple.
The challenge in our society is getting people to encounter Jesus at all. The other challenge then is trusting Him. If people can see from our witness that we do follow what Jesus says, some, at least, will come near. When that happens, they will have an encounter which will change them – we don’t need to tell them to change, or warn them of the fires of hell, or tell them there is some special meaning to words which once initiated they will understand – the Spirit will bring them, as He does all of us, into what it is needful to know for salvation. When the Spirit comes, so does the new man and new woman in Christ Jesus.
My thanks to those who have followed this short series.