I sat over espresso with a friend this summer. Being passionate about such things, we talked about churches.
He'd just come from a conversation with a mutual friend, the lead pastor of a rural Midwest congregation. The topic of preaching had come up. He'd asked his friend what the goal of his preaching was. After a moment of thought, the pastor replied: "My goal in preaching is for my church to understand the meaning of the text."
We sipped our drinks and picked at the statement a little. To understand the meaning of the text. A good goal. But is it enough? After all, a congregant can understand the text and remain aloof, untouched by the Spirit, disengaged, unchanged, hard of heart.
A listener could get big-headed if a preacher stopped at "understanding the text" … with the same puffy cerebellum that can lead to porch-chair critiques of another man's ministry philosophy.
And there's the rub, Paul, a voice said inside. There's something wrong about it, but it's in you, too.
Bible students or closet Gnostics?
Earlier this year, I sat over a different espresso with Jeff Vanderstelt of Seattle's Soma community.
"I'm convinced" he said "that many of us look at Bible study as self-righteousness. We think that the more we study and preach the bible the more righteous we are. It's a stream of Gnosticism, though—this thought that the more knowledge we have the more spiritual we become."
"Like we'll ascend to some hidden knowledge?" I volunteered, playing off the Gnostic idea.
"Exactly" Jeff said. "You hear people saying, ‘Man, I just need deeper teaching.' And I think What? You have Jesus! Like the Pharisees, we can go to the Scriptures but fail to come to Jesus. People can get to the Scriptures and never get to Jesus."
At what point does my search for scriptural knowledge become a distraction from discipleship? When does my yearning for wisdom conflict with closeness to Christ? How does my well-meaning desire to teach deeply, to understand, depart from the path of discipleship?
I don't know yet.
While best known for heresies related to spirit and matter, the real root of various Gnosticisms' divide with orthodoxy is a character-of-God issue. While the Christian God is a God who reveals, the inverted Gnostic deity keeps cruel secrets. This is why gnosis—"knowledge"—is the path to enlightenment. Truth is for initiates, the select few. Truth is high, humanity is low, and therefore, humanity must ascend.
Wisdom is up there somewhere. Start climbing, kid.
But the Christian story is that God has sent Wisdom among us. He came down. Our key doctrine is not gnosis, it's kenosis—"the emptying". The incarnation is a descent that shames our every attempt at elevation. As a result Christian initiates are the meek, the poor in spirit, the scum of the earth. The lame and the blind.
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