Discipling Against the Gnostic Temptation

By: Dale M. Coulter
Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Love creation, not the world

I said in the previous post that I was going to offer a follow up blog entry related to the pastoral implications of the Gnostic temptation. In brief, the Gnostic temptation is…

the attraction of an otherworldly kind of existence when faced with the genuine risk of forming unhealthy bonds with aspects of creation that can lead to addictive and destructive behavior that enslaves.

I now want to discuss some of the pastoral issues surrounding the Gnostic temptation. The purpose is to suggest discipleship practices need to be formulated in such a way as to help individuals avoid this temptation. Believers must

  • Learn to love creation rightly
  • Learn to love their bodies rightly
  • Learn the difference between creation and “the world”

A Reminder About Sin and Slavery to Sin

What Paul calls the “flesh” or a sinful nature is simply a condition all humans possess. Early Christians likened the sinful condition to a disease that humans inherent. As a disease, sin points to a fundamental disorder or warping of emotion and desire within the person. Such disordered emotions and desires result in slavery to creation itself.

Slavery is about a relationship in which one thing dominants another. The dominance could be one person over another, but it could also be an inanimate object that dominants. Dominance occurs by forming a relational attachment through emotion and desire. It is because of human emotion and desire that we attribute meaning to someone or something. Consider all the love songs that say something like “I can’t live without you” or “you are my everything.” A relationship becomes enslaving when human emotion and desire attributes more meaning and more importance to the relationship than it should have. The relationship gains exclusive access to the formation of our identity.

Humans become slaves to their jobs, slaves to material goods like clothes, slaves to other humans, etc., because they treat all of these as making them somebody. When we conclude “I cannot be me without this or that,” we have moved into an enslaving relation.

Part of the beauty of the Christian message is that when individuals say, “I cannot be me without Christ,” and thus become “slaves of Christ,” they actually take a step toward freedom from slavery to anything else. Once we say only Christ can tell us who we are and thus the ultimate determiner of our identity, then we can be released from anyone or anything else forming our identity.

Pastoral Issue #1: learning to love creation rightly

There is a reason the Bible denounces the “love” of money rather than money itself. The problem is not money per se, but the way humans relate to money. To love money is to invest more meaning in it than we should. We come to think that money is the way to solve all our problems; money can somehow help us cope with the world in which we live by providing us with the means of constantly altering our external circumstances.

The same is true of other goods like houses, clothes, or even careers. With respect to economic goods like houses and clothes, advertisers are quite good at appealing to emotion and desire in order to “hook” the customer. You deserve this house or you would look good in this power suit.

Both scenarios reveal the risk of misusing creation. The individual can become so emotionally invested in a job, wearing a particular line of clothing, or living in a certain kind of house, that s/he comes to the conclusion “I cannot be me without these things.” In other words, the clothes, job, house, becomes identity forming. I feel good about myself when I wear this.

The Gnostic temptation is to deal with these issues by saying “don’t wear this or don’t wear that,” as though clothing itself is evil or jewelry is “of the devil.” This is the place where pastors must lead carefully. On the one hand, you want to affirm that clothing is good; on the other hand, you want to point out that there is a destructive way of relating to clothing. To break the enslaving relation, some persons will need to fast from buying clothes for a while. The point of the fast is to ask the Spirit to alter one’s relationship to clothes so that one no longer says, “I must have that.” Sermons should be crafted to help believers understand that they don’t need this outfit or that outfit to be somebody. In other words, the pastor is helping them to see that clothes “do not make the man,” i.e., do not ultimately determine who they are.

Pastoral issue #2: learning to love our bodies

Funerals are always difficult experiences, and yet they are a important place where the Gnostic temptation must be resisted. We must resist saying “this is not John; it’s only a shell” as though the body is not part of our identity. The soul is not the real person as opposed to the body. The resurrection reminds us that the body is good and is part of who we are. There are implications about ethnicity and gender here. Will an African-American be an African-American in heaven? Will a woman be a woman? The resurrection tells us that the answer to both must be yes. It is a form of Gnostic Christianity that tells people only their souls matter to God.

Pastoral issue#3: creation and the “world”

The Johannine books (Gospel of John, 1-3 John) give us the language of the “world.” The term can mean creation itself, but it also takes on a negative connotation. When Jesus declares “do not love the world,” the term world denotes a system of life created outside of God. This use of world may be closest to what we mean by culture in which a culture is about a set of values, behaviors, and beliefs. Augustine contrasted the city of God with the city of man because the city of man points toward a way of being in the world and relating to the world. Other NT writers like Paul describe this way of being and relating as being inspired by demonic forces. It also comes as a result of idolatry, which itself is a misguided relationship to creation. To live “in the world” while not being “of the world” is to exist in a way that we are not captive to a culture that is ultimately anti-god. This is not a denial of the goodness of creation, but a recognition of a culture that perpetuates a false (sinful) way of relating to creation.

The challenge for pastors is to help persons discover the false (sinful) ways they relate to creation. The Gnostic temptation is simply for a pastor to say that creation itself is evil rather than face the challenge of showing believers the destructive way of relating to creation fostered by the “world.” So, we should not say capitalism is bad; but we should pronounce judgment on a culture of capitalism that destroys lives by advocating an idolatrous relationship to money, sex, and power. May we all grow up believers “in Christ,” who through the power of the Spirit learn how to use creation properly and thus become witnesses that this is how it should be; that genuine “fun” only occurs when we are rightly related to creation.

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Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Wednesday, August 11th, 2010 at 7:28 am and is filed under Church History, Holistic Formation, Renewal Studies, Spiritual Formation, Spiritual Health, Worldview. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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