Gnosticism was one of the earliest heresies of the church. It came in different forms and manifested itself in different strands. However, almost all of its forms were characterized by certain common features. First, the gnostics held to a radical dualism: the material world is inferior and was created by an inferior being. Thus, the material creation is considered evil. The non-physical world, the heavenly world, is a sphere of God and of divinity. Salvation from the inferior, material world is gained by knowledge: the initiated know great spiritual secrets hidden from the common people, and this secures for them the path of escape from an inferior, corporeal, earthly existence: "Thus awakened, the pneumatics [the "spiritual"] escape from their fleshly bodies of death and traverse the planetary spheres of hostile demons and are reunited with the deity."1
The two main characteristics of Gnosticism are thus a radical dualism between the material and non-material worlds, and the notion that salvation is by knowledge. Both of these characteristics imply a fervent hostility to history, the sphere of the concrete, material world. Our concern here is not so much with the errors of Gnosticism within the church, but with a broad gnostic approach to the church. To be understood, it must be set in contrast to the Biblical view of the church.
The Visible Covenant Community
In the Bible, the church is the visible covenant community. It begins in the Old Testament in concrete, historical circumstances. We are probably safe to say, in fact, that it begins in the Garden of Eden. It is clearly manifested with the Abrahamic covenant and Old Testament Israel. Israel’s existence was grounded in great divine historic events — the Creation, the calling of Abraham, the Exodus, the great wonders in the wilderness, the conquest of Canaan, and so forth. Central to Israel’s existence was the great redemptive event of the Passover, an annual festival. The divine revelation in terms of which Israel lived was the Torah, the law, communicated from God to Moses, the main points being inscribed on the tables given on Mt. Sinai. Circumcision was a powerfully and painfully physical rite of entrance to the covenant. The entire religion was anchored in God’s great acts in history — actual, concrete, historical circumstances. Religion was imbedded in history.
The Centrality of History
One reason the gnostics were so hostile to the Old Testament was precisely because it was such a historically anchored religion. The goal of Gnosticism is emancipation from history. The church and religion of the Old Testament are intensely historical, and they cannot be understood apart from the realm of history. But what is true of the covenantal church of the Old Testament is equally true of the covenantal church of the New Testament. The inescapably historical rites and ceremonies of the Old Testament were shadows and types that pointed to their fulfillment in Christ. The church in the New Testament — Universal Judaism, in Steve Schlissel’s terms — was anchored in the historical events of the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and session of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christianity is a profoundly historical religion.
Unfortunately, the gnostic spirit was already assaulting the early church, for St. John warns that those who deny that Jesus Christ came in the flesh are anti-christs (2 Jn. 7). This must seem strange to many moderns. They are concerned to defend only the deity of Christ, not His humanity; but both of these Christological facts were at the forefront of people’s thinking in the first century. Gnosticism was too much a danger for Christians to neglect a vigilance in defending Christ’s humanity.
The issue here is simple — if Jesus were not human, He could not save. The humanity of Christ and His great redemptive work in history were central to the New Testament era of the church. Christians united on the first day of the week, not to share secret, esoteric knowledge by which they could be saved and to work toward an escape to the heavens, but to celebrate their crucified and risen Lord by Whom alone they were saved, and by Whom they could act on the present world. They broke bread on almost every occasion, celebrating Christ’s death by symbolically consuming His very flesh and blood. Similarly, in baptism they recognized the reality of cleansing from sin, a sign and seal of the benefits of salvation. The early preachers declared the great acts of the Lord Jesus Christ and the truth of the Old Testament. For them, the church and Faith were immediate historical realities, in contact with the church of the last two millennia. The gnostics could never be a part of this sort of church, because they were hostile to all things physical and historical, to the common Faith of the saints in history; and the church was, if anything, a physical and historical phenomena, the common experience of the people of God.
Today’s Gnostic View of the Church
The main difference between today’s gnostics and those of 2,000 years ago is that, then, most of them were outside the church, while today most of them are inside the church. Or perhaps, most of them are outside the church and have redefined the church in such a way that it virtually becomes meaningless. Part of this problem derives from a misunderstanding and misapplication of the so-called "invisible church."
The early Reformers stressed the notion of the invisible church to disprove the Roman Catholic idea that the true church is identified with the church at Rome. The Reformers countered that God alone knows who is truly regenerate, and that the true church consists of all those dead and alive who are united to Christ. While we would never want to lose this dimension of the church, the notion of an "invisible church" can be quite harmful. As John Murray has noted, there is no clear Biblical warrant for this idea, that is, of the church itself being called "invisible."2 The church certainly has an invisible dimension; but in the Bible, there is no such thing as the invisible church. If we believe that there is an invisible church, in fact, we may feel comfortable in presuming that no manifestation of the church in history is worthy of our commitment and support. We may think that we are "at one" with all of the "true saints" in the earth, and need not be identified with a visible covenant community, filled as it is with sinful "saints" and even more sinful "sinners." We think that the church is we and all the other truly faithful. "The true church is me and all who agree with me."
The Bible knows nothing of this sort of "church." The Bible knows only of churches where God’s people gather together for prayer, hymns, edification, sacraments, charity, preaching, and so forth. The Biblical church is not some sort of Platonic ideal. It is not a perfectionist paradise. No doubt you have heard implicit ecclesiastical perfectionists declare that they could not be a member of any known church because no church is sufficiently "pure." The best answer to this is, "Well if you do find a pure church, please don’t join it, because you’ll spoil everything." The fact is, those who argue thus for the "pure" church are gnostic to the core. One day the Lord will present to Himself a glorious church without spot and wrinkle (Eph. 5:27), but this is a distinctly future phenomenon. The church may be judicially pure, but she is by no means experientially pure.
This makes for a very untidy church. It is a church with problems. Whenever I hear a minister say his church has no problems, I know that either he is a liar or that his church is comatose. Churches that are alive have children being baptized into them, and they have proselytes joining. These new members — not to mention the "veterans" — confront battles and struggles with the world, the flesh, and the Devil. They are members of the church not because they are pure, but because they are impure; they need (all of us need) the ministry of the church. A main role of the elders and members is to assist the saints in the church, to edify them, that is, build them up in the Faith. Thus there is not and can never be the "pure" church, an ecclesiastical utopia. The pristinely pure church is not a church at all.
The Churches of the Biblical Era
Nor may we look back to the churches in the Bible as the Great Golden Ecclesiastical Age. What of the church at Corinth, with such doctrinal division, personal immaturity, and rampant permission of immorality? What of the church of Laodicea, that was so "lukewarm" that God was prepared to vomit the church out of His mouth? What of the church of Thyatira which permitted a false prophetess within the church "to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication" (Rev. 2:20)? And pray tell, what about the churches in Galatia, on the verge of succumbing to the heresy of justification by works? Who can say that these were experientally pure churches? Yet, they were true churches, over which our Lord (and His apostles) lovingly travailed. The idea of the "pure" church is a gnostic abstraction.
In early Christianity, in fact, perhaps the greatest break with the surrounding Hellenic culture was the church itself. It was a concrete, historical phenomenon; it was a visible covenant community with which all true Christians were identified. Later, of course, Rome (as well as some Protestants) perverted the doctrine of the church and turned the church into a divine incarnation, God walking the earth in the form of the church.3 This led to all sorts of tyrannies. We must not, however, allow this heresy to blind our eyes to the reality of the church as God’s visible covenant community. To modern gnostics, though, because the church is not perfect and because it is bound to history, it is not worthy of their attention. As Philip Lee notes, "What the gnostic spirit cannot tolerate is the notion that a historically bound, tangible organization like the church could in any sense be entrusted with ultimate truth."4 There is often even a sense that any connection with historic Christianity is suspect. A prime example is the Disciples of Christ denomination. Of the origins of this denomination, Nathan Hatch observes:
By their appeal to "Bible government," the Christians [Disciples of Christ] removed the issue of power and authority from any concrete application. They opposed all ecclesiastical names not found in the New Testament, advocated the right of the individual unilaterally to withdraw from church membership, and refused to adhere to creeds as tests of fellowship, to undergo theological examinations, or to offer a confession of faith upon joining a church. In short, no human organization could exist that did not spring from the uncoerced will of the individual.5
There is no sense here of the corporate (covenantal) nature of the Faith and church. Every man does that which is right in his own eyes. There is no real obligation in history — obligation to our brothers and sisters and to the Faith itself. The church becomes an abstraction.
Of course, when we use the term church in this context, we do not imply a single sector of the church, like the Roman Catholic, or a single denomination, like the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod, or even a single local church to the exclusion of all others. We are talking about visible covenant communities in concrete locations meeting under Christ’s authority and derivative authority of the elders. This is the church, and it is a historical reality. No single local church or presbytery or denomination monopolizes the church. The church as the visible covenant community is an actual concrete reality wherever the Word of God is truly preached, the sacraments duly administered, the historic Faith carefully maintained.
De-Gnosticizing the Church
If we are to degnosticize the church and restore the Biblical conception of the church, we must, first, see the church as an actual, visible covenant community. It is one of the chief places where God’s covenant work is actualized. An indispensable aspect of the church is its local, concrete assembly — the visible covenant community under the loving authority of elders. This is a leading agency of God’s dealings; it is the place where His covenant is (or should be) honored. This is not a denomination, but a local church. Denominations are not the church, and there is no such identification in the Bible. The church is the visible covenant community, united under Christ’s name. This is the church, an actual, visible, local reality.
We must never, of course, see the church as an institutional monopoly over which bureaucrats preside. In Matthew 18:20 Jesus, in speaking of the church’s authority, states, "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." This reminds us that the simplest believers, the smallest number in unity, are granted authority by God. It is true that this text can be misused by ecclesiastical anarchrists. But this was not in view in Biblical times. Everybody knew in Biblical times that union with the church was a given. In fact, were you not identified with the church, you were not the recipient of divine revelation, because the church is where that revelation was deposited (Rom. 3:2; Rev. 1:11). But within this church, the authority of individual believers was not discounted. There was no democracy, but neither was there an aristocracy or monarchy — except, of course, the monarchy with Christ as Head. Elders were called to rule the flock, but in the spirit of a servant (Lk. 22:24-26), and remembering that every Christian is a priest to God (Rev. 1:6). Even two or three gathering together may act on God’s authority (Mt. 18:19, 20). Members are called to submit to elders (Heb. 13:7, 17), but elders are called to recognize the regal authority and calling of the humblest saints in the church.
Covenanting With the Church
Second, we must bind ourselves to this community. We must not withdraw from the church (Heb. 10:25-26), assuming that we are safely tucked into the Platonic, "invisible church." We must covenant with this community. If there is no sound ekklesia in a geographical area, one of the first things Christians should do is start one. Every Christian should be a part of the visible covenant community, and this means uniting with (or instituting) a local church.
The Imperfections of the Church
Third, we must accept the visible covenant community with all of its weaknesses and imperfections. The church is comprised of people, of sinners (whether saved or lost) who are continually in need of the grace of God. If we feel that we are too good to unite with such a community, what we are really saying is that we are good for nothing but to go to heaven — and perhaps not even heaven! In other words, the imperfections of the church are no excuse for bypassing the church.
Fourth, we must revive a stress on the sacraments as signs and seals of the covenant of grace. Mark this down: a church that dismisses or devalues the sacraments is a church on the way to Gnosticism. The sacraments are visible signs and seals of God’s salvific work, and they are not less spiritual because they are visible. They are essential to the church.
Meeting Actual Needs
Fifth, elders must recognize that church members have real needs that must be met — these are not only theological and intellectual needs, nor merely emotional needs, but physical needs as well. The diaconate is an essential feature of the church, and any church that does not care for the poor, weak, and oppressed within its number is treading the gnostic path. The Faith is for all of life, and the church is for all of life.
Only when we see the church as an objective historical reality and live in terms of that reality can we prevent the dangerous gnostic heresy that threatens the true church.
1. J. D. Douglas, The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, 1974, 1978), 417.
2. John Murray, "The Church: Its Definition in Terms of ‘Visible’ and ‘Invisible’ Invalid," Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh, 1976), 1:234.
3. Christopher Dawson, The Formation of Christendom (New York, 1967), 287.
4. Philip Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics (New York, 1987), 206.
5. Nathan O. Hatch, "The Christian Movement and the Demand for a Theology of the People," in ed., D. G. Hart, Reckoning With the Past (Grand Rapids, 1995), 167.