Anti-Gnosis: The Plight of the Church
“And as they did not study to have knowledge of God, God delivered them to a worthless mind to do what is not lawful, being filled with all kinds of unrighteousness, wickedness, greediness, and evil. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and meanness. They are gossipers, slanderers, and haters of God. They are insolent, proud, boastful, inventors of evil, and disobeyers of parents. They are without understanding, covenant breakers, without affections, and without mercy. They know the decrees of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do them, but also approve of those who do them.”
Peter writes that judgment must begin with the household of God (1 Peter 4: 17), which means, when salt and light does not pervade a culture where the church is immanent, there is a problem. And the source of that problem stems from within the church. If salt loses its saltiness, of what good is it? And, when light can no longer be distinguished from the darkness around, is it truly light any longer or has its lamp-stand been removed? There is no question that churches are present within communities throughout the United States, most of which proclaim themselves to be Christian. So, where is the salt and light?
It is my fear that three things have taken place. First, many churches that proclaim themselves to be “Christian” are not Christian by any meaningful sense of the term. They have rejected historic Christian Creeds and Confessional statements and have embraced ideas that have been condemned by the Councils of the Christian church going back to the first Century AD. Secondly, many professing Christians are more interested in a promise of heaven than they are interested in what it means to live out an authentic Christian faith. Many assume that they can live however they choose and worship in whatever way they prefer, so long as they have their “Get Out of Hell Free” pass promised by a person who preaches niceties to them on Sunday morning. Third, many Christians have become so busy with life that they presume that knowledge of the things of God is something for pastors and seminary students only. In fact, many are so used to this notion, that they are hostile to the notion that all Christians are commanded to study and learn the things of God.
Psalm 111:2 boldly proclaims, “Great are the works of Yahweh, studied by all who delight in them.” Do you delight in the things that God has done? Then the way you show your delight is by studying them. In fact, it could be argued that you most eagerly study those things in which you most delight. Billy Graham used to say, “If you want to know where a man’s priorities are, just look at his checkbook.” I say, “If you want to know what a man loves, look at those things that most occupy his mind and thought.
Paul writes here in Romans that one of the results of people seeking to worship the creation rather than the creator is that they do not “study to have the knowledge of God.” The Greek word in question here is δοκιμάζω (dokimazo), which conveys the idea of examining something to see whether it is right or true and then drawing conclusions about said things on the basis of what has been tested and examined.
Conceptually, this is a powerful notion. For without such careful and detailed examination, upon what does one base their Christian belief? Too many professing Christians simply claim that faith is enough, but is faith not something that ought to be substantiated? Without examination, how is our faith in God any different than the heathen’s superstitious faith in their totems and idols? Is not faith a conviction (ἕλεγχος — elegchos — the act of presenting evidence as in a court case — Hebrews 11:1) of things that are not seen? Is not the faith that results in praise and glory and honor at the revealing of Christ a faith that is examined (δοκιμάζω — dokimazo — 1 Peter 1:7)? If God tests our hearts (1 Thessalonians 2:4) shall we also not test every spirit (1 John 4:1) — δοκιμάζω (dokimazo)? How can we make a reasoned defense of the faith if we have first not examined what we believe (ἀπολογία — apologia — 1 Peter 3:15)?
Yet, not only do many (if not most) never bother applying their reason to the faith they possess, many pastors seek to dissuade their flock from doing so. Perhaps they feel as if the reasoned examination will detract from the passion of their worship. Perhaps they do not wish to face such questions themselves. Perhaps they too are blindly following the example of a superstitious faith set for them by others. Worse yet, perhaps they feel intimidated at the idea that someone, upon examination, might discover that the faith and practice inculcated at their church might prove fraudulent and empty.
If this is the state of the American church, then why should we be surprised when the world sees our practice as unintelligent, superstitious, undesirable, and irrelevant to life? They reject the salt and light of the church because the church has lost its saltiness and its light has become so dimmed as to be imperceptible from any other expression of religion or faith? The church in the first centuries did not have a vague witness. They boldly proclaimed Christ’s resurrection from the dead and were happy to have their testimony examined by even the most hostile and critical foes. Shall we not do the same? Yet, we cannot, until we are ready to examine the faith we profess. If we do not do so, then the church will continue to fall into the morass of sin that Paul describes in this passage — indeed, do not many of these sins describe the church of our day (envy, strife, deceit, meanness, slander, gossip, etc…).
How will Christ be pleased with the playacting that many supposed Christian churches practice week in and week out when the faith therein is never tested? On what basis will Christ say, “well done,” if there is no basis for that statement other than one’s personal preferences? Indeed, many will be expecting to hear the words, “well done,” yet will only hear, “I never knew you.” If the church will not repent of its foolishness, then the lamp-stand will be removed and Christ will spit them out of his mouth. To be ignorant in the church is one thing if one is a new believer. To be ignorant in the church, though one has been in the church for years, is lazy. But to be opposed to the careful examination of the things of God is the work of antichrists (1 John 2:18-19) and should be condemned with the strongest language — indeed, they are preaching a gospel of another kind than what is plainly taught in Scripture (Galatians 1:6-10).
A Spirit of Wisdom and Revelation
“Because of this, and hearing of your faith in the Lord Jesus and the love you have toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, making remembrance of you in my prayers in order that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory, would give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.”
For what does Paul pray when he gives thanks for the Ephesian church? His prayer is that God would give to the the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of God. This does not so much seem to be a matter of the Holy Spirit (hence we have not capitalized the noun, plus there is no definite article); they already have the Holy Spirit as he is the one who converted them and made them believers in the first place. No, it is so that they would have a spirit of wisdom and that they would have a spirit of revelation.
We have already discussed wisdom at length, but this is just one more reminder of the importance that the Bible places upon wisdom as well as the source of that wisdom, which is the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9:10). You can have no authentic wisdom if you do not first approach God with fear and reverence. As the psalmist states, nothing but sin results from the lives of those who do not fear God.
“Transgression utters to the wicked in the depth of his heart;
there is no dread of God before his eyes.”
(Psalm 36:2 — verse 1 in English translations)
The second thing for which Paul prays is for a spirit of revelation. We often think of revelation — ἀποκάλυψις (apokalupsis) in the Greek — in terms of the Revelation of Jesus to John that closes our Canon. Because of that, we often only think of revelation in terms of end times things. To be fair, Paul does use this term in such a way (cf. Romans 8:19; 2 Thessalonians 1:7), but he also uses it to speak of God’s revelation to him (Galatians 1:12), and in terms of the full revealing of the Gospel (Romans 16:25). That seems to be the context in which he is using the term here — in other words, that God would more and more reveal to their understandings the magnificent outworking of His Gospel.
Don’t miss the clarification at the end of the verse, though. Paul is praying for the spirit of revelation for the Ephesian church, but that such revelation always be in the knowledge of God. Indeed, how important this principle is, for anything received or held without the knowledge of God is in vain and worthless. As I look around at the evangelical world today, it strikes me at just how often knowledge of God is downplayed. As a result, this generation is without fear of the Lord even in the bodies that proclaim themselves to be churches (for many are not!). Paul makes it abundantly clear that knowledge, to be of any value, must first and foremost be of God. Plenty of people have knowledge of the world but the world is passing away. The things of God are eternal.
Ignorance and Vague Generalities
Of the tools at the devil’s disposal, it would seem that ignorance and vague generalities are most commonly in his hands in the landscape of the American church. Here is not simply an indictment of the unbelieving culture at large, for who should expect them to know all of the details of our Christian faith apart from an academic curiosity, but my indictment is against professing Christians who have been lulled into the false notion that they need not bother themselves with knowing the details of our most holy faith. Herein is the site of the devil’s great activity.
I read a recent set of surveys that stated that the majority of the church-goers polled could not name all four Gospels, let alone all of the Ten Commandments. Even fewer were able to name all of the books of the Old and New Testaments, let alone in order. How does one find a word in the dictionary if one does not know the order of the letters of the alphabet? How will you find a reference in Micah or Jude if you do not know where in the Bible to look? How will you know whether an idea is right or wrong if you don’t understand the basic grammar and vocabulary that is being used to communicate it? And when a bad idea is being introduced from the pulpit, how with the believer know the error if the believer does not know the details of the theology he professes?
The devil has lulled people into a sense of security within their pews and he has convinced pastors and church leaders that the most important thing in church is to keep people happy (and in most cases, entertained). Even seminaries have taken this tact, putting more emphasis on practical theology and classes in church growth than in Biblical knowledge and understanding. It would seem that a clear exposition of the Biblical text is about as unwelcome as active application to life even though such is what is most lacking in most church-goers lives. “Does it work?” tends to be asked long before the question, “Is it true?”
Yet what does the Bible expect of us on this matter? To Aaron and his sons, God instructs:
“You are to make a distinction between the holy and between the profane, between the ceremonially unclean and the ceremonially clean. You are to instruct the Sons of Israel in all the laws which Yahweh spoke to them by the hand of Moses.”
It should be noted that while God is directly giving this rule to the Levitical priests, as the people began to be dispersed into exile, it is a task subsumed by the Rabbi in a local community—a role that is arguably the forerunner for the Christian understanding of a pastor. In addition, since in the Christian era there is a priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5,9), the task of instructing others in the things that God has taught falls squarely upon our shoulders. This would apply not only within the context of the church where the pastor and elders are to be the teachers of the people, but also in the homes where the father is to be the primary teacher of his family. Since there are levels of authority described in this model, it is worth noting that the Father’s job is two-fold. It is first to study himself so that he can teach his family how to distinguish between the holy and the profane and secondly, to study so that he can ensure that the pastor is teaching doctrine consistent with what the Scriptures present. Not too that this principle applies not only to what his family may learn in church, but it applies to what his family learns in every aspect of their educational process (hence the difficulty with educating children in the secular, state-run school system).
Many object saying that faith is primarily about a relationship with God, not about facts, propositions, and doctrines as revealed in the Bible, thus seeking to justify some degree of ignorance in the faith. It is agreed that faith in Jesus Christ is about a relationship, but note that every relationship in which we engage is one where there are ideas, facts, and propositions that are known about the one in which we are in relationship. In fact, the deeper the relationship, the more we tend to know about the individual. The facts do not make the relationship, but without these facts, no true and lasting relationship will exist. Note too, the way that God speaks of the connection between knowledge and obedience through Moses:
“You stand here with me and I will speak to you in all of the commandment and the prescriptions and judgments which you shall learn that they may obey in the land which I give them to inherit.”
Moses and the leaders must learn these things (with the aim of teaching them) so that the people will put into practice the command of God in the Promised Land.
The assumption, though, that is being made is that knowledge of the law yields obedience. On one level, there is the obvious principle that you cannot obey the things you do not know. Yet, Hosea builds this idea further:
My people are ruined for they are without knowledge. For as you refuse to accept knowledge; I will refuse to accept you from being my priest. You forgot the Torah of your God, so I will also forget your sons.
Notice the comment that is being made. When there is a lack of knowledge amongst the people it is not simply because it is unavailable, but it is because the people have chosen to reject the knowledge of God as it is presented to them. And as the people reject the Law of God, so too, God turns away from his people. The principle is that it is not as if God has not made his word known to his people, but that they have chosen to set their minds and hearts on other things, being satisfied with only a passing knowledge of what God teaches.
It has been my contention for some time that the relationship that the majority of American Christians have with God is one-sided and unfocused. We tend to focus our praise of God on what he has done for us through his Son, Jesus Christ. Certainly, this is a right and a proper thing for us to do and, especially for a new believer, this is something that is tangible in their lives. At the same time, we ought not stop there. Our aim should be to worship God for who he is and for his great excellencies of character.
When I was courting the woman who would become my wife, much of our relationship revolved around the special things that we did together. At the same time, as our relationship grew, the love was built less on our common activities and more on loving the person for who she happened to be. In married life, this is an essential transition, not because the common activities cease, but because those long romantic evenings tend to become more spread out during the activity of life and raising a family. Yet, after thirteen years of marriage, our love is deeper and richer than it was when we were first courting.
In terms of our relationship with God, it works in the same fashion. Early in our Christian walk, often the passion of our love for God is built on those “mountaintop” experiences that we have, yet as the Christian walk progresses, often those mountaintops seem to become further apart. If our faith is built solely on our experience of God and not on our knowledge of God, then the Christian life often becomes a pursuit of the next mountaintop. Yet, maturing takes sanctification and sanctification takes place most commonly in the valleys of life. David relates his time in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4) as a place of darkness where he cannot see God at work. Yet it is the knowledge of God’s character as the shepherd and that the rod and staff are yet in the shepherd’s hand that gives him courage and is the basis of his trust. It is the knowledge that keeps the sheep from panic and flight.
Our culture has bought into the model that when they read scripture, the first question they typically ask is, “How does this relate to me?” or “What can I learn from this so I can have a better life?” My contention is that the first question we must always ask is, “What does this passage teach me about God and about His character?” The shift is an important one for two reasons. First, when we are focused only on personal application, we will not tend to read the whole counsel of God, but only focus on those things that can easily be applied to today. Why spend time reading the seemingly endless genealogies of the Bible, for example, if your focus is only on personal application. Yet the Apostle Paul insists that all scripture is both God-breathed and useful to every aspect of the life of the believer (2 Timothy 3:16-17)—even the genealogies! The second problem that arises out of reading the scripture primarily for personal application is that our motivation to study decreases in proportion to the comfort-level of our lives. If everything is going well, we often assume that we have gotten the principles right, so why bother challenging them?
My argument is not that we do not apply scripture to life, indeed, we must. Yet this ought not be where we begin, we ought to begin with a focus on God and then secondarily toward application and his works in our life. And since God is infinite, his word will provide us with infinite depth of reflection on his character to satisfy and strengthen our souls. And when we fail to pursue the character of God, our relationship with Him remains shallow. And when we fail to teach the character of God, the people’s knowledge of Him will be vague at best.
I began this reflection with the impoverished state of the church when it comes to Biblical knowledge. One would expect that if my supposition that Biblical knowledge is directly related to obedience (as the old song goes, “to know, know, know him is to love, love, love him”—and as Jesus states, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” [John 14:15]), the lack of knowledge that exists in the church today would betray a lack of obedience to God’s word in the church today. When one looks at the state of our country, our depraved culture, and the anaemic church in America, my point is made. When you realize that more than three-quarters of the American general public identifies themselves as “Christian” yet at the same time immorality fills our streets and rules our governments, we must conclude that something is horribly amiss.
The solution? It is not more programs or more gimmicks to get people to come to church, nor is it to water down the gospel so that everyone feels comfortable under its teaching. The solution is to combat the tactic that is being employed by the enemy and instruct people in the knowledge of God. Peter reminds us that we are to add knowledge to virtue as we seek to grow in our sanctification, building upon what God has initiated in our life.
A Christian Hierarchy of Values
The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, argued that there was a hierarchy of values in terms of what was worthwhile for individuals and society to pursue. For Aristotle, the highest value was the knowledge of truth for its own sake. Of course, Aristotle was an Empiricist, which means that his real interest in “Truth” has to do with what one can observe with one’s senses or through the use of observational tools. Some might be tempted to simply label this, “science,” but such a label would shortchange both science and Aristotle’s view. Much of science is based on the use of reason built upon basic presuppositions and Aristotle recognized that observation could be applied to things outside of the realm of what we would typically classify as science (metaphysics, for example).
Aristotle’s second value was the discovery of practical knowledge—what Christians and Jews typically refer to as wisdom. This is the kind of knowledge that can guide one to live a life well and skillfully. For Aristotle, this was exemplified in the Four Cardinal Virtues of Greek thought: Justice, Wisdom, Courage, and Moderation. Finally, the value at the bottom of Aristotle’s list was that of learning to be skilled in Technique—what we would refer to as technical or vocational skills. These are the skills by which one would earn a trade.
I began to reflect on these ideas for two reasons. First, I heard a contemporary philosopher argue that our modern culture has turned Aristotle’s hierarchy upside down—that those who our society values the most (based on their paychecks) are those who demonstrate a high degree of skill in technique and those who are valued the least are those whose life is dedicated to the pursuit of truth for truth’s sake. Thus we live in a society where professional athletes, popular musicians and actors, and skillful doctors (again, technique with the surgical instruments) are the wealthiest class and preachers, teachers, and philosophers make up one of the poorest classes in society. The second reason that I began reflecting on this idea is because I happened to be teaching on Augustine’s approach to the Four Cardinal Virtues of the Greeks. Ultimately, Augustine affirmed these virtues as Christian virtues, but only when they were joined by faith, hope, and love—especially love.
Thus, I began asking the question, if I had to construct a hierarchy of values for the Christian life, how do I think that they would be reflected in the Christian life. One might be tempted to begin, as Aristotle begins, with a knowledge of truth for its own sake. Jesus said that his purpose in coming to dwell with men was to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37). God, of course, is the God of truth (Isaiah 65:16) and those who reject God suppress the truth (Romans 1:18). In addition, those who have no knowledge of God (as truth resides in God) destroy themselves (1 Corinthians 1:34). Also, the implication of scripture is that it is the knowledge of God that allows his people to be faithful (Hosea 6:6) and when there is no faithfulness in the land, it is joined by a lack of the knowledge of God (Hosea 4:1).
Yet, it seems to me that a higher virtue sets the stage for the knowledge of the Lord. When Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the very Son of God, Jesus’ response is not to congratulate him on that knowledge, saying it was the highest virtue, but Jesus instead said, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah” for this knowledge came from “my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). There are two things that need to be brought out from this verse in light of understanding Christian virtue. First of all, the source of the knowledge of God is God himself, not something gained through a human pursuit—and if something has a source, or a precursor, it ought not be seen as the “highest” virtue. Secondly, Jesus does not say, “virtuous are you,” but he says, “blessed are you.” The Greek word for virtue, ajreth/ (arête), refers to one’s moral excellence or other attributes that make one praiseworthy. Yet, blessedness, maka/rioß (makarios), has to do with one’s internal state as a result of their relationship to God. Thus, Jesus can say, “blessed are you when you are persecuted for my name’s sake…” Similarly, Peter’s blessedness does not come from anything he has done, but because of what has been done to him.
Now, we may be tempted to engage in a discussion of regeneration, but since the purpose of a hierarchy of virtue is to give us something of merit to pursue, such a discussion does not seem to have a place here as regeneration is something that God does in us which in turn precipitates a response of faith and repentance in the believer. Our temptation, too, might be to jump immediately to the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and to Peter’s instructions on how to build up our faith (2 Peter 5-7), but again, these seem to have their source in a virtue that is more primary.
And that brings us to the question, what then does the Bible present as primary? The logical answer seems to be that the highest virtue is the fear of the Lord. We are told in scripture that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of both wisdom (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 9:10) and knowledge (Proverbs 1:7). The fear of the Lord gives life and health not only to the individual believer, but it is also a sign of a healthy church (Acts 9:31). And then, out of the fear of the Lord proceeds the pursuit of the other Christian virtues.
No Nice Christians!
I don’t want any nice Christians in our church! In fact, I don’t want to see nice Christians anywhere in the world! Okay, now that I have your attention, let me explain what I mean. The English word, “nice,” comes from the Latin word “nescire.” Nescire has as its root word, “scio,” which is the verb, “to know.” The “ne” prefix negates the term. Thus, the term “nescire” means “to not know” or “to be ignorant.” When the term originally came into Middle English, it meant the equivalent of “stupid.” Over time, the usage of the term changed from being stupid to being unthreatening (someone who knows nothing is not a threat!) to being pleasant to be around. Slowly, the term continued to change in its usage to the way we use the term today (pleasant or agreeable).
Thus, at least in the original sense of the word, I don’t want to see nice Christians in my congregation or even in the world. I want Christians to know what they believe and why they believe what they believe. I want them to be strong enough in what they do know to stand against those who would challenge their beliefs. In fact, I would argue that part of the reason the American church is in the mess that it is in is because of nice Christians—at least in the original sense of the term.
God speaks of this very thing through the prophet Hosea. In the fourth chapter of Hosea, God begins by lamenting that there is no knowledge of God in the land (Hosea 4:1) and as a result, the people’s lives are filled by swearing, lying, adultery, and bloodshed (Hosea 4:2). And when we get to verse six of the same chapter, God makes a devastating statement: “My people are ruined because they are without knowledge.” In other words, the knowledge of God (understanding that true knowledge comes through a relationship with God—Proverbs 1:7) is what keeps us healthy and whole as God’s people—it prevents us from utter ruin.
But look at what else Hosea records in this verse: “Because you have rejected knowledge, so I reject you from being a priest to me; and because you have forgotten the law of your God, I will also forget your children.” This is covenantal language, as when God makes his promises to his people, he consistently makes them with their posterity (Genesis 12:7; 17:19; Deuteronomy 12:28; Acts 2:39), thus the threat of discipline is not only pronounced against God’s people, but also against the generations that will follow them. In addition, Jesus uses similar language in Matthew 10:32-33, where he says that those who confess him, he will confess before his Father and those who deny him, he too will deny—all connected to the lack of knowledge of Him.
Now, it is fair to say that as Christians, we ought to be pleasant people to be around, but pleasant should not be our goal—loving should. So nice really should not be something that we strive for as an attribute even in the modern usage of the term. More importantly, though, we should strive to be knowledgeable in the things of God. To cite the old King James language, “study to show yourselves approved” (2 Timothy 2:15) because the Scriptures are profitable to prepare you for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Strive never to be nice—be loving, but also be knowledgeable in the Truth so that you will always be prepared to make a reasoned defense of the hope you have within you (1 Peter 3:15).