A familiar hymn of a generation ago had Christians joyfully declaring:
This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.1
Not too surprisingly, this hymn became popular when the Western church was in full-scale retreat from all social responsibility. “Don’t polish brass on a sinking ship!” was an injunction declared from many pulpits. Another familiar phrase was, “Isn’t it great how bad things are? It means Jesus is coming back soon!”
Common to such thinking was the belief that this world was itself so corrupted by sin that the believer should disassociate himself from it to maintain his purity. Whether he contemplated the higher realm of glory or the miraculous millennial rule of Christ, such thinking meant a disregard for the cares and concerns of “this world” for what was seen as “spiritual things.” In many Christian circles such thinking is still common. To speak against “spirituality” is taken as “worldly.”
From where did the modern church get its ideas of spirituality? This fundamental concept speaks to how the believer grows in grace. If we have a false idea of spirituality, we will be led to a false understanding of our Christian duty.
This is not a new issue. The nature of spirituality has been a controversial issue in the church since its very beginning. Much of the controversy stems from the importation of prevailing philosophical and religious ideas into the early church. One of those ideas imported into the early church was dualism.
Dualism was common to much of the ancient world. It was a basic philosophic, religious, and scientific idea. (Unlike moderns, the ancients readily admitted that all thought was interrelated.) Dualism was a basic supposition about the nature of reality. Dualism saw all of reality as comprised of two conflicting, irreconcilable dimensions. Idea, form, or spirit was the higher state and pursuit. Matter was assumed to be the inferior, lesser state and human pursuit. (Many ancients held to a tripartite division of body, mind, and soul, but this idea has all the same bad consequences as dualism, so we will focus on dualism.)
Dualism saw man’s problem as this metaphysical conflict, i.e., part of the fundamental nature of reality and existence. This “problem” of matter versus spirit was inherent in the world, hence reflected in man. Man’s problem, according to dualism, was that he was flesh and blood in a physical world. His need (salvation) was then escape from the physical world into the spirit world.
According to Christianity, man’s problem is not metaphysical but moral, i.e., that man is a sinner. The problem that quickly arose in the early church was that men, just as they do now, brought their philosophic ideas and definitions into the church. Then, too, the language of Christianity was easily adapted to Greco-Roman categories of thought. The Bible speaks of flesh (even denying the flesh), spirit, and soul. When these were interpreted in terms of dualistic definitions, bizarre results were immediately apparent.
Why is it that the early church saw the advocacy of extreme self-punishment, self-mutilation such as castration, and the repudiation of pleasure? Why did some repudiate even the institution of marriage as carnal? Why did asceticism so quickly enter the church as the highest form of spirituality?
Dualism’s metaphysical worldview was co-opting Christianity’s moral worldview. If matter is bad, it must be repudiated, and, since human flesh is matter, the spiritual man must repudiate his flesh and all the enjoyment of the material world.
It is important to note that the use of the term dualistic in referring to Christianity’s belief in good and evil is not an accurate one. Christianity’s good and evil are moral distinctions, not a metaphysical division of reality. On the other hand, the Manichaean religion was dualistic because it saw good and evil as originating from two opposing gods by those natures, which made it a metaphysical division.
Another obvious manifestation of dualism in the church was its positive view of spirituality. If the negative view of spirituality was asceticism, its positive view of spirituality was that of contemplation of heaven. This explains the early rise of monasticism with its emphasis on ascetic self-denial and retreat in order to contemplate God. Dualism was a problem in the early church from the beginning. It was the prevailing philosophic lens through which early Christians viewed and misinterpreted the message of Christianity.
The first major heresy to infiltrate the church after the apostolic era was the Gnostic movement of the second century. Gnosticism gets its name from the word gnosis, knowledge. Gnosticism was a belief that true religion and knowledge is based on a secret, intuitive knowledge as the real salvation.
Gnosticism was highly speculative. It spoke of the origin of the universe, the origin of God, of spiritual beings, and of evil, which they viewed in a thoroughly dualistic perspective. Gnosticism came from the conscious blending of Eastern and Western ideas. One of those ideas was Greek dualism. (Dualism was common to much of the ancient religions, but the Greco-Roman understanding has most influenced the church and the West.)
Various Gnostic groups held to different ideas, but there were three basic to Gnosticism. First, it was held that the Supreme Being is unknowable and unnamable. He can only be known by the beings that emanate from him. Second, there was the realm of matter, a place of darkness, chaos, and emptiness. Third, in between the unknowable Supreme Being and the corrupt material world there were various spirit beings that emanated from the Supreme Being or from other emanations.
The further the generation of these spirit beings from the Supreme Being, the more imperfect they were assumed to be. In other words, the closer these spirits came to the “lower” realm of matter, the more evil they became. The Jehovah of the Old Testament was viewed, because of His role as creator of matter, as in some way associated with evil.
Gnosticism became a significant heresy in the church of the second century. Its false, dualistic spirituality created a theological justification for blaming the God of the Old Testament for evil because He had created matter. One group of Gnostics was the Ophites (ophis means serpent). The Ophites regarded the Jehovah of the Old Testament as the source of man’s spiritual life. However, they saw the prohibition against eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Eden as intended to keep man from true gnosis (knowledge) and confined to a material realm. In other words, they believed Satan was telling the truth and that challenging the Creator-God as per his suggestion was the source of true gnosis. The serpent was seen as the liberator of mankind! The worst characters of the Old Testament were held in high esteem as those who understood the true struggle. Jesus was said to be the agent of Jehovah, so some Ophites required members to curse Jesus Christ.
These Ophites saw the betrayal by Judas as done with the best of motives. One group, called Cainites, developed a spurious gospel called “The Gospel of Judas.” Referred to by Irenaeus in the second century, it was long lost until a later Coptic (Egyptian) copy was found and published in 2006. In December of 2006 U.S. News and World Report had a cover story that heaped sympathy on the ancient Gnostics, which it called “the other Christians” who had been harshly denounced by the orthodox.
The dualistic metaphysics of the Gnostics led to extremes. On the one hand it led to self-punishment (asceticism) as a mark of personal holiness. On the other hand, it also led to conscious immorality as contempt for the flesh and the moral laws, seen as inferior because they were meant to regulate a material world.
There are several references in the New Testament that are very likely references to the early emergence of Gnostic ideas. In Acts 8 Simon had, before his conversion, claimed to be “some great one,” a possible reference to a claim that he was an emanation or spirit in the Gnostic sense. Paul notes the tendency to strange doctrines in the churches of Asia Minor, which became a major center of Gnosticism. First Timothy 6:20 refers to false gnosis, or “science falsely so called.” Colossians 2:18, 23 refers to the worship of angels. Since the Jews never worshipped angels, this likely refers to the mythological Gnostic spirit emanations. The same passage also refers to men who were “intruding into things he hath not seen,” a possible reference to the speculations of Gnosticism and to the neglecting of the body, a dualistic tendency. First Timothy 1:4 refers to “fables and endless genealogies,” which would certainly describe the convoluted mythical history of the spirit world that Gnosticism created.
One very interesting reference is in Revelation 2:6, 15. Christ twice says he hates the Nicolaitanes. These Nicolaitanes, and the false teachers of Jude 11, are thought to have shared the common Gnostic traits of believing the Hebraic faith was the work of evil spirits and contempt for the law expressed by gross immoralities.
Marcion and Dispensationalism
One Gnostic leader who had a profound effect on Christianity was Marcion of Sinope. It is important to understand how profoundly even a heretic can impact the church, its history, and theology. Marcion accepted the Gnostic mythological history of eternity past. He taught that Jehovah was an evil God because He had created matter. Moreover, He had compounded His evil by giving the law, which tied men to the mundane life and observances of this physical existence. The Jews, said Marcion, were the chosen people of this evil God of law, justice, and hate. Marcion rejected all the Hebrew Scriptures (he only accepted part of Luke and select passages from Paul) and called its God a failure because His Messiah had not come. He completely separated Jesus from the Creator God of Genesis.
Marcion had proposed an early form of dispensationalism. At least he was consistent. He saw that separating law and grace implied separate authors of law and grace. According to Marcion, the Jews were the people of an evil god and Gnostic Christians the people of a good god. Jesus Christ was said to be a spiritual, nonmaterial person. (Why? Because matter was said to be evil, so the Gnostics were consistently hostile to the doctrine of the incarnation.)
Marcion’s was an extreme position. But it was not out of line with the dualism of the ancient world. It resembled modern dispensationalism in that it contrasted law and grace, justice and love, and it claimed there were different messages in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. Marcion was excommunicated by his own father, a bishop, but his influence survived. In defending the binding nature and unity of all Scripture, the orthodox began referring to the Hebrew Scriptures as the Old Testament and the Greek as the New Testament. Thereafter, all that had to be done was for distinct shades of meaning to be placed on those artificial designations. “Old” could be construed as “former” or “obsolete.” New could be construed as “different” or “changed.”
Even in churches that consider themselves Reformed and covenantal, there is, more than at any time since Marcion, a built-in assumption of a difference between the Old and New Testaments. The distinction that began as a defense of both has itself reinforced the dispensational assumption of a fundamental difference.
We should note that a man by the name of Appelles modified Marcion’s thought. Appelles believed there was one god with different dispensations for Jews and Gentiles. This form of dispensationalism is still prevalent. The Old and New Testaments are said to represent different paths to salvation.
Dispensationalism, even the softer modern variety, has always led to antinomianism to one degree or another. The law is declared part of the “old plan” and sometimes repudiated as “unspiritual” or even, as in the tradition of the Gnostics, said to be “works of the flesh.” Spirituality then becomes either a subjective, self-defined, otherworldly idea or an exercise in rule-making where “the commandments of men” predominate.
The contempt for Biblical law in favor of a dualistic concept of spirituality has led to a contempt for matter and wealth as unspiritual, a neglect of the doctrine of creation (the modern rise of dispensationalism resulted in a retreat before Darwinism), a Christian gospel with a limited message to the “spiritual man,” the limited applicability of Scripture, Christianity as a retreatist spiritual “out,” and the separation of Christianity from politics, law, family, and vocation. Instead of seeing the Christian life as “Onward Christian Soldiers,” the dualistic church sings “I’m a Poor Wayfaring Stranger” going home “no more to roam.”
Man’s problem is wrongly identified by all forms of dualism. Dualism sees man’s problem as his lack of spirituality (i.e., his tie to this world) rather than his sin. We are not called to be spiritual in this sense. Man is matter by God’s design. Jesus Christ was incarnate in flesh without sin. Our resurrection bodies will be material. We are called to a material life in a very real world. We are not called to be spirits. We are called to obey God in flesh and blood.
In 1 Corinthians 6:20 Paul says, “[G]lorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.” Spirit there means your “breath of life” and refers to your life, your mind, your vitality, not an ethereal spirit. We are to glorify God, therefore, in our bodies, our minds, and with every fiber of energy God has given us.
Modern dualism in the church is not as crude as the ancient Greek dualism, Gnosticism, or Marcionism, but it is still a profoundly unbiblical concept. It is essentially a metaphysical view of man’s problem rather than a moral view. It sees the believer’s problem as being his tie to this world and its cares and seeks a higher, more spiritual, way. But Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, because in Him we have a resolution of our real problem, our sin.
We are made material beings to serve God in a material universe of His creation in terms of His Word. Serving God is not about contemplation or being in tune with some vague concept of otherworldliness. Spirituality in Scripture refers to the Holy Spirit of God, and He does not lead believers to vague contemplation but to conformity to the Word.
Dualism in the Church
The Epistle of Jude warns of false teaching. One of those warnings, in verse 4, was against “ungodly men” who turned the grace of our God into “lasciviousness” (gross immorality). This is an apt description of antinomianism. It uses God’s grace to justify contempt for God’s law. In a dualistic metaphysic, these two things are opposites, but grace and law are not opposites or in any way in conflict or in tension as dualism suggests.
The opposite of God’s grace is our deserved judgment. The opposite of law is lawlessness, which is what antinomianism always fosters.
Spirituality is not a moral standard, it is a metaphysic. It is a way of viewing reality, or at least part of it. God’s law is a moral standard. The Apostle John does speak of “trying the spirits” in 1 John 4:1–4, which we should look at:
- Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world.
- Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God:
- And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.
- Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.
It is important to note that the spirits here referred to are not a higher being or an ethereal being or state of any kind. “Spirit” here refers to those false teachers who claimed to represent a spirit or power as a prophet. In verse 1 John says these “spirits” were “false prophets” in the world. Verse 4 says they maintained a false confession about Jesus Christ.
The conflict John describes was not between believers and demonic spirits, or demons and the Holy Spirit. The conflict was between the truth of God and error. The conflict was between true confession of Jesus Christ and false teaching about Jesus Christ.
The conflict that Gnosticism accentuated was the difference in the interpretation of the nature of being. The Greco-Roman world had a dualistic worldview while the Bible had a moral worldview. The Greco-Roman world saw spirit or idea as good, and matter as evil. For them, salvation was an escape into spirit or ideas. Such thinking was quick to expropriate the language of Scripture and continues to muddle Christian thought.
The Biblical view saw God as making all things “very good.” The problem the Bible presents is that all things are fallen into sin, a moral rebellion. Salvation is man’s redemption from moral rebellion to a life of service to God and His law-word. In the resurrection, even our bodies will be fully regenerated for an eternity of service. One of the sad evidences of the impact of dualism on the modern church is its de-emphasis on the bodily resurrection of believers; dualistic Christianity sees heaven as a very ethereal place, not a place of bodies, mansions, or a throne.
Gnosticism was repudiated by the end of the second century, though it keeps resurfacing in one form or another. The dualistic error just took on new forms. All these forms had contempt for the doctrine of the physical incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, so it is not too surprising to find that all the early confessions of the Christian church emphasized that doctrine. This is why, much earlier, John warned that the true confession was “Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.”
This same Jesus, incarnate in human flesh, told us in the Great Commission that “[a]ll power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matt. 28:18–20). He did not hesitate to proclaim His authority over this very material earth and its concerns. He, in fact, commissions us to act in terms of His authority in that world, His world. Our realm of responsibility is this earth, and our spiritual efforts (i.e., our efforts in the power of God’s Holy Spirit) are to teach men to acknowledge who Jesus is and act in terms thereof. Part of the Great Commission, remember, is teaching men to observe all things Christ commanded.
John tells us to “try” or “test” men and their teachings to see if they are of God. Not every spiritual teaching is of God. Gnosticism was very spiritual. Christian Science is spiritual (it denies the reality of matter). Demons are entirely spiritual, but evil.
The effects of dualistic spirituality have been profound and have come to full fruit in the modern church. It has led to contempt for the Old Testament and, sometimes tacitly and sometimes expressly, contempt for the God of the Old Testament. Its antinomianism has silenced God as the source of law and ethical absolutes. It has led to a separation of the realms of the sacred and the secular, thereby relegating God’s claims to the former.
It has de-emphasized voting, education, property, capitalization, and business as “worldly affairs” rather then avenues of dominion work. It has led to escapism as supposedly the purest form of Christianity. It has abandoned the Kingdom of God and dominion for a revival of modern forms of asceticism, monasticism, and the contemplation of heaven.
The answer to false dualistic spirituality is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will never lead us to anything other than obedience to the Word. Our standard of spirituality, of sanctification by the Holy Spirit, is thus the Word.
Our calling is as material beings in God’s creation. We are not called to be spirit-like, but to be obedient new creatures in Jesus Christ recalled by our new birth to be conformed to His image. The new image we must have before us is His revelation of His holy will for us, the eternal Word.
The hymn was wrong. This world is our home. Until God takes us out of this material world, we are to see it as our assigned quarters, our arena of activity and service. Any pining for heaven that causes us to neglect our earth-based responsibilities is a dereliction of duty.
1. Copyright 1965 Albert E. Brumley and Sons.