Opinion: The Gnostics are back

An ancient heresy, reborn as American fundamentalism, draws Mennonite congregations away from following Jesus

Jan 19, 2015 by

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The God-mission Jesus taught has always faced competing understandings. Within 100 years of Jesus’ resurrection, a powerful belief system known as Gnosticism developed within Christianity and threatened its existence.

Gnosticism means “knowing.” Gnostics believed:

  • God is good; humans are evil. Thus Jesus was fully divine and only appeared human.
  • Salvation is assured by holding the right beliefs about Jesus and his death on the cross. Following the teachings of Jesus is given secondary importance, after one is saved by right beliefs.
  • Only Gnostics had the right beliefs. All others were wrong.
  • Salvation is a spiritual relationship with God. What Jesus did on the cross is far more important than what Jesus taught about how we should live.
  • The ultimate goal of Gnostic faith was to escape from this sinful, human world into a future, spiritual world.

The early church rejected Gnostic heresy. The writer of 1 John responds to the Gnostics: “Anyone who says he loves God and yet hates his neighbor is a liar.” “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” “Whoever claims to know him should walk as Jesus walked.”

Gnosticism has come back to life in American fundamentalism. It takes the heart and soul out of Anabaptist faith as it preaches the importance of right doctrinal beliefs about Jesus while labeling the desire to follow Jesus as salvation by works. Right Christian living is important to fundamentalists, but they tend to define it in terms of personal acts of piety rather than also being peacemakers who work for justice and healing for all humanity.

Fundamentalism pushes the Jesus way of peace aside as it accepts fighting wars in the name of God. It says God’s new way relates to a future reality in heaven. It views the Sermon on the Mount as a description of how we will live in heaven, not how we should live here on earth. Right doctrinal belief is proclaimed as the only right way to think about Jesus and God. This makes it easy to condemn anyone who reads the Bible differently.

Fundamentalism focuses on the divine, sinless nature of Jesus, whom God sent to die so that we might have eternal life in heaven. Strangely missing is the biblical call to live as followers of Jesus, sharing with others the salvation that is ours today (Mark 1:14-15, 2 Cor. 6:2).

Fundamentalism claims all truth is found in the Bible. Thus there is skepticism of scientific, medical or psychological discoveries of truth. Church leadership is primarily male, hierarchical and power-centered rather than resting within the faith community gathered around the scriptures. A Constantinian social and political agenda seeks to gain power in order to legislate a specific morality for all citizens without regard for any religious tradition except their own.

Gnostic fundamentalism is not an evil system, nor are its advocates bad people. Both fundamentalists and Anabaptists quote Scripture to support their beliefs. I simply note that in viewing God, in reading Scripture, in emphasizing right doctrine and in understanding Jesus, there is a distinct difference between fundamentalism and historic Anabaptist understandings of faith and following Jesus.

This fundamentalist view of faith is relatively modern. It emerged within the last century. Yet many Christians, Mennonites included, assume its approach to God, the Bible and Jesus is the only possible faithful understanding. It has become a detour on the journey given by Jesus for the salvation of humanity. Much of Christianity prefers this doctrinal detour over the main highway of following Jesus.

It is heartbreaking when Mennonite congregations embrace fundamentalism. It leads them to question the biblical, Anabaptist beliefs about Jesus, peace and salvation. They then leave the Mennonite church because they think it is no longer faithful to Scripture. It is equally heartbreaking when Mennonite colleges teach these historic Anabaptist principles, only to be criticized for not teaching fundamentalist doctrine.

I urge Mennonites to face honestly the conflicting approaches to God, Jesus, faith, doctrine and mission as seen by Anabaptist and fundamentalist groups within our faith community. If we talk together and listen to each other, we might be able to reaffirm our common commitment to Jesus as Lord. Then we might follow Jesus together, though we might not agree on every detail.

I pray that together we might be the active presence of Jesus in our world, just as Jesus was the living presence of God in his.

Don Blosser is a retired pastor and retired Goshen (Ind.) College New Testament professor.


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