by ERIK JOHNSON
You have probably heard about apocryphal, non-canonical gospels or writings about Jesus from antiquity. Their general existence has been popularized by documentaries on National Geographic, CNN, PBS, movies and novels—most notably by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code—and books by scholars such as Bart Ehrman. Rather than bore most readers with the detailed beliefs and origin of these writings, and the groups that used them, I aim to draw out some connections between ancient heretical beliefs and modern tendencies by Christians. In doing so, I hope to share with my fellow Christians the challenge that I have felt while reading through the debates of early Christianity—to embrace Orthodoxy, in its paradoxes and difficulties, and to be wary of slipping into heretical practices.
When reading through the extant writings my initial thoughts were largely dominated by their strangeness, and in more cases than not, their truly absurd claim of connection to the historical Jesus. As historian and former Anglican bishop NT Wright put it “they are akin to finding a document purportedly about Napoleon giving orders to his officers on tactics, but where he discusses nuclear submarines and B52 bombers therein.”
Yet, as we ponder the origins of their beliefs it is actually possible to find scriptural support. Their heretical beliefs were the outcome of the same process that produces all heresy. Namely, it starts with a narrow selective reading of scripture that is then over-emphasized and serves as a tangential point for one’s own desires. Despite the varying level of absurdity of these beliefs, it is at first striking, but ultimately not a mere coincidence that they have modern manifestations both in my own life and the lives of some of my fellow American Christians.
Central to any interpretation of Christian faith is one’s answer to the question that Jesus posed to his disciples, “who do you say that I am?” NYT columnist Ross Douthat, in his book Bad Religion, outlines the way orthodoxy has embraced the paradoxical tension of the character of Jesus in answering that question:
The boast of Christian Orthodoxy, as codified by the councils of the early Church and expounded in the creeds, has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus. Its dogmas and definitions seem to encompass the seeming contradictions in the gospel narratives rather than evading them. Was he God or was he man? Both, says orthodoxy. Is the kingdom he preached something to be lived out in this world or something to be expected in the next? Both. Did he offer a blueprint for moral conduct or a call to spiritual enlightenment? Both. Did he mean to fulfill Judaism among the Jews, or to convert the Gentile world? Both. Was he the bloodied man of sorrows of Mel Gibson; the hippie, lilies-of-the-field of Godspell, or the wise moralist beloved by Victorian liberals? All of them and more…
The goal of the great heresies, on the other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and not contradictory Jesus.
There were roughly two strands of heresy in the early Church: Gnostic and Jewish. The Gnostic (lit. having knowledge in Greek) worldview, in general, held that the material world is irredeemably corrupt rather than inherently good but fallen into sin. Humanity had been imprisoned in the flesh by an evil demigod, often identified with the Jewish God of the OT. The higher, supreme and previously unknown God, however had sent the divine being Jesus to impart saving knowledge to humans of this predicament, teaching them to know their true divine spirit so that they could be liberated from the material world. Gnosticism in its various instances flourished particularly in and around Hellenistic intellectual cities such as Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.
In many ways an antithesis, Jewish strands of Christianity maintained that followers of Jesus should more or less continue to follow the Jewish Law, such as the practice of circumcision, observance of festivals and dietary restrictions, all the while believing that Jesus was the Messiah sent by God for the salvation of the world. They likely believed that the crucifixion of Jesus was an atoning sacrifice for sins, possibly as an end to the Jewish sacrificial system, and some if not most believed in his resurrection. In general, these groups usually held a lower Christology, meaning that they either believed that Jesus, as the Son of God, was only a man, or that he did not preexist with the Father and only became the divine son of God at his baptism or resurrection. Accordingly, most rejected a divine birth by holding that Jesus was not born of a virgin. They apparently used a text very similar to the Gospel of Matthew but without its first two chapters that narrate the virgin birth. Unfortunately we have much less information about these groups, presumably because they were much smaller as they do not get very much attention (especially in comparison to the Gnostic groups) from the Church Fathers who were critical of heretical groups. Though the ancient description of these groups isn’t exactly clear, and at times is contradictory, it appears that some, perhaps the Nazarenes, were more close to orthodoxy in most beliefs, being somewhat similar to modern Messianic Jews who believe orthodox doctrine but integrate Jewish customs into their worship by holding to some Jewish laws and celebrations. Meanwhile, others, such as the Ebionites, rejected more fully Paul’s teachings on the divinity of Jesus and the law’s place for Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus.
Rejection of the material world
The Gnostic rejection of the material world was rooted in their dualistic separation of the supreme spiritual god revealed by Jesus, and the lower creator god that ruled the material world. Pulling mainly from the teachings of Paul and the Gospel of John, they emphasized that in Jesus “was life, and that life was the light of men” that shines in the darkness. Before Jesus however, “No one had ever seen God, but God the one and only, who is at the Father’s side, [had] made him known.” Similarly Matthew and Luke share the saying “All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Some went even further to conclude that when Jesus taught that the Jewish religious leaders were from this earth below while he was from his Father above, that their Father (the very god of the Hebrews) was the devil who was “a murderer from the beginning…the father of lies.”
In regards to our humanity, under the lesser material god we were previously “dead…in following the ways of this world and the ruler of the kingdom of the air…[but] by grace [we are] saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the comparable riches of his grace…” Having been enlightened of the enslavement of their souls to the material world, the Gnostics longed for their liberation from this world into the next.
Though modern Christians would not forge a dualistic view of the universe based on the beliefs that the Jewish God is evil or that there exists a higher more supreme god, there is a harrowing propensity for Christians (at least in America) to focus on their future in heaven at the expense of life’s existence on earth. As a rationale for their longings they can point to Paul and also even Peter’s teaching:
Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory (Phil 3:20a)
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. (2 Peter 3:10-13)
In emphasizing a Christian’s citizenship in heaven, Paul is writing contextually as a Roman citizen to fellow citizens in a city that was an eastern Roman colony located among mainly non-citizens. First he is stressing that a Christian’s citizenship is even superior to any earthly identity such as the relatively limited Roman citizenship. However, Paul’s exhortations in the rest of the chapter and book suggest that he is also calling the Philippian Christians to be ambassadors of the heavenly kingdom, representing it with their Godly actions and extending the heavenly empire as they were similarly doing for Rome.
As Christians we do believe that this world as it is will not last forever, and we look forward to our final home where peace and righteousness reigns. Yet that does not negate for us the fundamental reality of our one human family and the requirement by Jesus and Paul to live in peace with others; peace that is necessarily proactive rather than escapist. This message is woven throughout Scripture; for instance, from the prophet Jeremiah we find a sharp exhortation to live fully even when not fully at home. After Israel was sacked in the 6th century BC and the Jews were carried off by their enemies to captivity in Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah challenged them to “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce…seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:5-7)
Similar encouragement and imagery is expressed beautifully in a recent song by The Porter’s Gate:
Your labor is not in vain
Though the ground underneath you is cursed and stained
Your planting and reaping are never the same
Your labor is not in vain
The houses you labored to build
Will finally with laughter and joy be filled
The serpent that hurts and destroys will be killed
And all that is broken be healed
I am with you, I am with you (x2)
For I have called you, called you by name
Your labor is not in vain.
It is however not wrong to long for the full consummation of God’s redemption, as one of Paul’s greatest passages on new life in the spirit of Christ vs the old life of the flesh declares that
“the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8:22-23)
Further, in the Psalms we find many instances declaring emphatically that creation will rejoice in joy when God’s good judgement runs its course:
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.
I, like fellow Christians and non-Christians alike, am deeply sad at the despairing violence and pain in our world, left often only with the words of liturgical prayer “Christ have mercy”. Contrast these sorrows with the glorious hope we have in Christ, and it is not hard for a Christian to become cynical and to “give up” on this world.
A Kingdom Perspective
To combat such despair and an “escapist gospel”, I would point to what is in my opinion the central theme of the Synoptic Gospels: the Kingdom of God. It appears that the announcement of the present and coming Kingdom was at the forefront of Jesus’s message and his raison d’etre.
In the midst of 19th century Victorian era historical criticism that often resulted in reducing Jesus to a moral teacher or an invention of the early Church, Albert Schweitzer in the early 20th century did much to eventually set the search for the historical Jesus back on track. Though going too far in his literalist reading, he argued that Jesus in his own conviction was a Jewish apocalyptic prophet announcing the end of the world. Critics both at the crucifixion and now, such as Bart Ehrman, would argue that Jesus’s apocalyptic Kingdom announcement turned out to be empty, failing at the cross. In order to assess the success of Jesus we must first understand that the Jewish apocalyptic prophets both in the ancient past with Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Isaiah, and those of Jesus’ day, such as the Essenes, did not envision the literal destruction of the world at the time when God would restore and renew their covenant and hopes. Rather they used cosmic language to ascribe theological significance to social-political events—namely the end of exile, the age to come and the new covenant.
Jesus, as the Jewish Messiah, saw himself as being the spearhead in the Jewish longing for God’s justice, knowledge and peace that would overthrow the systems of injustice and bring a new world order. Jesus’s message drew on the hopes of many passages of the Old Testament, one of which being:
then a throne shall be established in steadfast love
in the tent of David,
and on it shall sit in faithfulness
a ruler who seeks justice
and is swift to do what is right.
Ultimately, the early Church came to believe that the present Kingdom of God was not going to be physical in the usual sense. The ubiquitous continuation of injustice and pain made it clear that the Kingdom had not arrived in the manner that many expected, yet the earth shattering event of the resurrection cast a new light on Jesus and his message of the Kingdom that they then believed was sprouting.
So how should our thinking about the Kingdom direct our actions to faithfully following Christ?
First, as is characteristic of orthodoxy’s insistence on following Jesus even when paradoxical, it is certainly true that there is tension in the “already but not yet” reality of God’s Kingdom.
On one hand you have Jesus’ saying in John 18:36 that “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting”. This descriptive should not be understood in the extreme as though his kingdom is wholly separate and in heaven, or the future only. Rather Jesus is rejecting the pattern of kingdoms of this world that we know too well. Contemporarily he was likely criticizing some strands of Jewish Kingdom hopes such as the Zealots that pushed for violent revolution, or the Essenes who had escaped to the hills and were waiting for God to act decisively on their behalf. Jesus elsewhere makes this clear:
But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)
Looking now at Paul, he is correct in his platonic description that the “kingdom of God is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost.” (Romans 14:17). However, as Paul unpacks Isaiah and the other prophets in Romans, he knows that such a reality is only true because Jesus, as the physical word of God, went out from God and planted a new, and expanded people of God. Appropriately, in his 4th century masterpiece written against Arianism, On the Incarnation,St. Athanasius elegantly develops how it was only proper that the same word that made the physical creation in the first place was the one to redeem it.
Finally, as Christians who do not hold the creator god to be inferior, we believe that creation is a good thing. Yes, new creation will be even better. But it is very sad to see Christians either consumed with their private lives and escaping from society, or taking an aloof stance towards the environment, often spitefully for their disdain for those that reject belief in God and worship the creation rather than the creator. As is always the case, acting out of bitterness or self-righteousness does not produce right thinking or actions. Instead we need to embrace the stewarding role we have in caring for the environment, remembering that God said that what He created was good and gave charge to our first parents to care for and give order to creation. We need to take responsibility and heed the call of our leaders to first repent of our past, and then work to prevent abuse to our environment that is an injustice to the poor, our children and not least of all God.
Let us pray in the words that our Lord taught us to pray,
thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Docetism: A rejection of the suffering of Jesus
As a rather interesting outcome of the rejection of the material world, within Gnostic teaching there was a branch called Docetism that taught that Jesus only appeared to be human, being in reality fully a divine spirit. Without a physical body, Jesus did not actually suffer on the cross, if he was there at all, nor did he suffer in daily life. Rather, he basically floated a few feet above the ground. Naturally, those that held this belief found little impetus to suffer in the flesh. Irenaeus, a prominent 2nd century critic of heresies, distinguishes the contrast:
Wherefore the Church does in every place, because of that love which she cherishes towards God, send forward, throughout all time, a multitude of martyrs to the Father; while all others not only have nothing of this kind to point to among themselves, but even maintain that such witness-bearing is not at all necessary… For the Church alone sustains with purity the reproach of those who suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake, and endure all sorts of punishments, and are put to death because of the love which they bear to God, and their confession of His Son.
As a less severe example, but equally distinguishable, some Docetics avoided conflict with the popular Roman religious practices by giving into its demands and even being willing to renounce their faith when push came to shove. Eusebius recounts that Basilides, an early 2nd century Docetic teacher, taught that “the eating of meat offered to idols and the unguarded renunciation of the faith in times of persecution were matters of indifference.”
As a final example, in the early second century during the persecution of Emperor Trajan, Ignatius the bishop of Antioch was fed to the beasts in his old age. The Church in Antioch was third only to Jerusalem and Rome in its importance, having been founded by Peter and Paul with Ignatius having been a student of John the apostle. During his journey to the Coliseum, Ignatius managed to send out seven letters to Churches, encouraging them among other things to maintain unity and obedience to Church officials in response to the nascent docetic heresy. Pressed on both sides by Roman persecution and a heretical escape to suffering, Ignatius embraced his martyrdom as an opportunity to be a witness to the sufferings of Christ and the hope of the Resurrection, while obtaining in his mind the fullness of Christian discipleship. In his letter to the Trallians, he states
“And if, as some atheists (I mean unbelievers) say, his [Jesus] suffering was a sham (it’s really they who are a sham!), why, then, am I a prisoner? Why do I want to fight with wild beasts? In that case I shall die to no purpose…Flee, then, these wicked offshoots which produce deadly fruit…They are none of the Father’s planting. For had they been, they would have shown themselves branches of the cross, and borne immortal fruit. It is through the cross, by his suffering, that he summons you who are his members. A head cannot be born without limbs, since God stands for unity. It is his nature.” (Ignatius, To the Trallians, 10-11)
Against such heretical escapes, we must actually take heed the challenge of Jesus, embracing the real and various sufferings that come with following him in carrying a cross.
Personally, the most pressing challenge for Christians to suffering is the recognition, powerfully articulated by St. Teresa of Avila in her prayer “Christ Has No Body”, that we as the Church are Christ’s body here on earth. As Christ’s body we are called to be an instrument of healing in painful situations. For thus was in the truest and simplest sense the underlying theme of his life, death and resurrection—to bring healing to our pain, our hate, our shame, our sin, our rebellion, our brokenness. As a testament specifically to the physical ministry of healing that we as members of his kingdom are called to, Jesus recounted what was taking place to John’s questioning disciples:
When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Pope Francis has offered a good practical analogy by challenging the Church to be “a field hospital”. This correctly couples the truth that our lives here now on earth are transitory with the instruction and example from our Lord to being truly present in the world’s suffering. No, we are not called to build physical buildings and castles in the sand that will last forever by our own power, but we are supposed to treat those around us as if they will, because they will.
Knowledge as the door to salvation
Obtaining a form of saving esoteric knowledge was central to Gnostic teachings. Though forms of ancient Gnostic knowledge are not found among Christians so much as in new age movements and fantasies, there is a propensity for Christians to reduce the message of Christianity to believing in and knowing Jesus to obtain salvation.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus famously declares that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life, and further prays: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” (John 17:3) Finally Jesus powerfully declares “Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32, see also John 1:12; 3:16, 3:36, 6:47, 11:25, 20:31).
Knowledge of, and belief in Jesus, are certainly of great importance to one’s spiritual journey. However, faith is much more than our head knowledge, as is made clear in both the immediate surrounding text and the larger Gospel narratives understanding of the words “to believe” and “knowing”.
A similar formulation of believe in Jesus followed immediately by salvation is found in one of Paul’s most famous passages: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)
Rather than being an altogether new path to salvation, Paul places belief in Jesus as the culmination of past and present longings for God by quoting from the Old Testament and stating; “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.” In confronting the dilemma of how those who have never received knowledge of Jesus can believe and thus be saved, he quotes from Psalm 19; answering that through the majesty of God’s creation, the gospel truth has already been heard throughout the world.
Contrary to Gnostic teaching, Jesus did not come to a world that was hitherto without the knowledge of God. Even Paul, the favorite among Gnostics, while speaking at Athens, in the heart of pre-Christian (and non-Jewish) wisdom, acknowledges the sincerity of his listeners towards truth by granting that God had till then looked over their ignorance of the fuller truth. As such, Jesus is a not an altogether new concept but the fulfillment of all their best and truest longings.
Given the tension between the impetus by Jesus for us to make disciples across the world, the sovereign love and justice of God, and the ministry of His Spirit that proceeds our evangelical efforts; where is the line that determines who is a disciple? If knowledge of Jesus is a criteria, where, if at all, is there overlap between “knowing Jesus” explicitly coupled with oral confession, and knowing Jesus implicitly in one’s heart and soul even if the mind’s conception does not know the New Testament vocabulary?
I believe it is necessary to reject a liberal form of relativism towards all beliefs. I believe wholeheartedly that a deep heart knowledge of one’s sin and need for God’s forgiveness is characteristic of knowing God (and therefore Jesus). Though at times I would like to say “to hell with it all” towards God or organized religion, I know the devil I have been and what I would become without God’s grace through Jesus made new to me each morning in both a spiritual and physical sense.
I have further come to terms with the reality that it is possible to reject God’s grace and lordship in Jesus either explicitly or internally. As much as I long for Jesus to be King in the hearts of my friends and those around me, both for their own good and for that of our aching world as I perceive it, I must trust God that he is King and that he cares for them much more than I do. Though knowledge of Jesus is important, the spirit works in ways I cannot see and the borders of God’s grace I cannot fully perceive.
In regards to historical truth, I don’t want to be arguing about what happened 2000 years ago, especially if it is unhelpful or detracts from our ongoing personal and societal problems today. Yet, we know that truth really does matter both personally and for society, as anyone who follows the news or social media can attest to. As such, serious historical and theological study done in humility and charity should be encouraged.
So yes we should absolutely preach the Gospel, in both word and action, simply because we believe it to be the Gospel, i.e. good news. But we should be weary of a bigoted form of elitism towards non-Christians that was characteristic of Gnostic groups which looked down upon the ordinary, unenlightened Christians because they knew only a simple minded version of Jesus and the Gospel. No, we do not have to be tolerant to a ridiculous degree and affirm every ideology under the sun. We can judge and question, but we must do so out of sincerity and humility. We must also realize that we cannot change the hearts of people by impressing knowledge on them. It is the Spirit of truth that convicts one of sin and righteousness, the battle inside one’s heart is not something we can directly touch.
For an expert’s opinion on this matter, consider what the Catholic Catechism (CC) and leading evangelical pastor Tim Keller say. Both stress the singular saving nature of Christ.
all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body: Basing itself on Scripture and Tradition, the Council teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is the mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. (CC 846)
salvation must be through grace and faith in Christ (Tim Keller)
And that those who reject the Gospel or the Church will not be saved.
Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it or to remain in it. (CC 846)
(stated positively) Christians believe that it is those who admit their weakness and need for a savior who get salvation. (Tim Keller)
Yet God is bigger than our understandings, and his pursuit of us through Jesus and the Holy Spirit is much more than a message of knowledge that must be received. He is the one who searches hearts and his love and justice will run its course according to His perfect wisdom.
Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation. (CC 847, LG 16 )
The Catholic Church recognizes in other religions that search, among shadows and images, for the God who is unknown yet near since he gives life and breath and all things and wants all men to be saved. Thus, the Church considers all goodness and truth found in these religions as “a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life.” (CC 843, LG 16)
God is always fair and just in all his dealings. What it [the Bible] doesn’t directly tell us is exactly how both [necessity of faith in Jesus and God’s justice] of those things can be true together. I don’t think it is insurmountable. Just because I can’t see a way doesn’t prove there cannot be any such way. If we have a God big enough to deserve being called God, then we have a God big enough to reconcile both justice and love. (Tim Keller)
Finally as Christians we have to face the reality that following Jesus is much more than something that happens in the head but what one believes in their heart, and then what one does with their hands and speaks with their words. We must be challenged by the prophet Micah, Jesus’ and Paul’s words that
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Cor 5:10)
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven…Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’ (Matthew 7:21-23)
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. (Matthew 25:31-46)
I believe a helpful way for Christians to approach this paradigm between knowledge and action is the fundamental concept of Paul that new life in Christ is all about being adopted into the new creation established in Jesus and then having the mind of Christ.
Ultimately for Christians we believe that “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” The tension between longing for such, and patiently living in the present, is summed up poetically in Josh Garrel’s song Further Along, the opening lines being:
Further along we’ll know all about it,
Further along we’ll understand why.
So cheer up my brothers, live in the sunshine.
We’ll understand this all by and by.
In the aftermath of the crucifixion and resurrection, some Jewish Christians continued to believe it necessary to follow the mosaic-law, thereby maintaining a barrier of cultural separation between Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Jesus. Though extra-biblical witness to such groups is very limited, references to this tension in the early Church can be find in the New Testament. Paul narrates a portion of the conflict in Galatians 2 and comments on it in 1 Corinthians 8, while in Acts chapters 11, 15, and 21, the narrative shows that though there was agreement between Peter, Paul, James, and the Jerusalem Church on not requiring gentiles to fully follow the Jewish Law, there was still Jewish Christians in and around Jerusalem who were “zealous for the law”.
Equivalents of modern heretical tendencies are less comparable to the Jewish Christian movements of the early Church. A generalized similarity of ill practice worth criticizing is however any hint of xenophobia by Christians today. Judaism does in its theology have specific charges towards social communal purity. However, tribalism was not and is not the end goal of the Mosaic Law or the Hebrew scriptures. A complete reading of the text tells of a narrative that begins with a people set aside by God to be a light and kingdom of priests to the nations, but always points towards and ends with all the nations forming a new, redeemed people of God. During the time of Jesus, many Jewish people were looking forward to this new worldwide kingdom, but believed that the oppressive forces around them (mainly Rome and Hellenistic culture) would be judged and they would be vindicated. Jesus however saw instead that the prophesized new people of God, which explicitly included the nations, was forming around himself. Rather than fight the Romans, as the Messiah he fought the battle against Evil itself. He took on the judgement in the stead of those that would accept his kingdom message—while they that would reject his message of peace would continue on their path towards judgement.
Without going into more details here of the relation between the Mosaic Law, Jesus, and the teachings of Paul, I find it rather clear that any form of racial tribalism, or us vs. them mentality, runs against the teachings of both Jesus and Paul. Jesus was chastised by the elite for healing, spending time, and eating with the outcasts, foreigners and sinners. A primary historical reason for his crucifixion was his rejection of the nationalistic agenda of his day in favor of a community centered on himself and formed from the nations. Paul emphatically states that:
there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Ephesians 2:14-18)
Certainly we must follow Jesus in his incarnational lifestyle by actively stepping out of our comfort zones and loving those “other” than us. However, like all aspects of orthodoxy, there is a correct balance within the tension. We should not stop cherishing our own traditions in favor of solely appreciating those of others. Both Jesus and Paul showed respect for Jewish traditions even if they reformed them in some ways. Accordingly, there is room to both enjoy your own cultural heritage while also learning about and appreciating the common humanity that gives rise to another’s traditions.
Finally, inherent in all of the heretical groups was the sin of being schismatic. Now of course these groups certainly thought they held the truth and the rest were wrong. The narrative of orthodoxy vs. heresy is too much to address here, but for our contemporary purposes, those that would call themselves Christians must reflect on their own commitment to the unity of the body of Christ; after all, inaction is an action.
Our disunity is a serious problem as it limits and brings pain to Christ’s body, and is hurting our witness to Christ.The seperation and denominationalism that we expereince is a sin because it refuses to let the Spirit of peace and unity guide us. The type of schismatic sin that we are guilty of is tricky because it is less of a personal sin but rather a corporate one, with individuals contributing to varying degrees and ultimately responsibility is easily scapegoated. But shifting the blame or claiming ignorance is a sin of laziness and pride. To the extent possible we must reach out to seemingly distant members of Christ’s body. In his prayer to the Father Jesus prayed for our unity:
I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23)
Further Paul calls us through love and humility to be unified:
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all…But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:1-6, 15-16)
Make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…(Phil 2:2-5)
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. (Col 3:12-15)
The steps towards unity that have happened in the last century are truly a work of the Spirit. Starting with the Edinburgh Missionary Conference in 1910 and then a letter in 1920 by the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the ecumenical movement came to shape with the World Council of Churches in 1948. Shortly after in the 1960s, Vatican II issued a new call for Christian unity with the Catholic Church reasserting Christian unity as one of its foremost commitments. Since then the deconstruction of century long polemics and the formation of many partnerships has been nothing short of miraculous.
Though there is a great desire to be visibly one, we must of course be weary of relativism and accommodation of heretical beliefs. For this purpose the guiding pillars of the movement have rightfully been a dialogue of truth and a dialogue of love. There are still very difficult obstacles to examine and try to better understand together, with the practical goal of not all converting to one church tradition, or even fusing traditions into a homogenous uniformity. Rather the aim is to obtain true unity within diversity by finding legitimate, complementary understandings of concepts in place of contradictory ones. However, more than just a puzzle of ideas and definitions, the ecumenical effort is also an exchange of Spiritual gifts between the churches. Because “every renewal of the Church is essentially grounded in an increase of fidelity to her own calling,” (being the basis of the movement towards unity), it has been rightfully understand that of utmost importance is for us all to be guided by the spirit and be more fully “converted to Jesus Christ”.
I invite the reader to investigate some of the extraordinary documents that have marked our journey together towards visible unity. On a relational level I would suggest attending a Church service of a different tradition every so often (You don’t have to miss your own church service, just “double-dip,” as my grandma calls it). I would also highly recommend the ecumenically natured Taize prayer, conveniently held at 8pm on Sunday’s in the MIT Chapel. Finally because “prayer is the heart of the ecumenical movement”, which is led by the Holy Spirit, the soul of the church, I encourage you to join in pray for unity, that we would be led by the Spirit towards realizing more fully our bond in Christ.
As followers of Jesus we have to wrestle with the tensions of orthodoxy and avoid the heretical extremes. We don’t place all of our hopes in the election cycle, but nor should we avoid politics by assigning it a place among the non-redeemable. It is not up to us to build God’s kingdom on earth, but God has chosen us as instruments of his redemptive work if we allow him. We don’t worship the trees, but because we worship their creator who gloriously created them and called us to image forth his glory, we need to be good stewards of the earth. We don’t know all the mysteries of God, nor do we have all the answers. Yet, while we partake in life’s journey, we have tasted and seen that the Lord is good—that Jesus is a faithful and true King to which it is only natural to invite others to join in with our joy. We may not be visibly united as Christians, but what unites us is much greater than what divides us, giving us hope and courage for a more visible body of Christ that can better love and serve God and the world. Whether you are a longtime Christian or just curious about Jesus, I encourage you to be challenged anew by Jesus through reading of the Gospels and Epistles, the example of faithful saints who have gone before us, and last but certainly not least, personal prayer.