16-6-10 Dogmatism and Legalism
The early brethren clearly had a firm and vital grasp on essential doctrine. But this lead them into the danger of saying that we are saved by knowledge alone, and this ended up with the perversions of Gnosticism- whereby intellectual knowledge became paramount rather than behaviour. And we run this very same risk. We also see that the early church so valued true knowledge that they sought to codify Christian Truth into creeds. These then became used as a test of orthodoxy, and the result was that instead of being men and women charged with glad tidings, the Christians became arrogant and legalistic and argumentative. I am not against the fact that any church has a statement of faith. But one can only be concerned at the way some of us have added and added to these documents, making their further credal points into tests of fellowship and weapons for aggression. It was exactly because of this that the church which once attracted others to it by its warm love and unity, became famous for its division and strife. The emperor Julian came to observe: "No wild beasts are so dangerous to men as Christians are to one another". And so the 'church' only grew by political machinations and even forced conversions.
The writings of the 2nd and 3rd centuries seem to almost revel in vicious and condemnatory language. The Apocalypse of Peter seems to delight in describing the punishment to come upon those Christians who practiced abortion- their children would supposedly confront them in ‘hell’, tormenting them and torturing the breasts of their mothers. It was as if the ‘Christian’ community decided that it was perfectly acceptable to vent the anger that is within all of us through vicious condemnation of those whose positions they didn’t agree with. And surely there are similarities and warnings here for our own communities. For there’s no reason to think that a delight and glory in judgmentalism isn’t growing amongst us. Perhaps one of the reasons for apostate Christianity choosing to misunderstand ‘hell’ [hades] as a place of punishment rather than simply the grave, was this desire to justify a vent for human anger against others, delighting in painting as awful a picture as possible of others’ condemnation. Psychologically this appears to have been the reason why false doctrine about hell / hades / the grave was adopted.
It is no accident that when the early church gave up seeking to convert the Jews, apostacy set in big time. The church came to change its creeds in order to establish the Christian claims in opposition to those of the Jews- rather than, in the spirit of Paul, seeking to be Jews to the Jew that they might win the Jews. And we too, in parts, have given up [pretty well] seeking to convert this world, and looked inwards rather than outwards. This has also resulted in an ever-increasing desire to codify God’s Truth, the covenant of grace, and then to yet further sub-divide against those of our number who cannot 100% subscribe to the new additions. Let’s remember that we as a community started [and start] where the early brethren were on the day of Pentecost. We have the same basic Gospel. The same love of its glorious propositions, and the same desire to gladly testify to it, rigorously argue for it, persuade others of it…and yet we are tempted to let it go just the same way as the 1st and 2nd century believers did- into endless codifying of it, aggressive and self-justifying argument with it, heaping condemnation upon those who can’t agree with us… and this could likewise lead to the Truth being lost by our very efforts to preserve it. To preserve it, preach it. This is the undoubted message of the 1st century. What happened then in the 1st century can happen now. A handful of ordinary men and women, with everything against them, walked out against the wind and turned their world upside down for Christ. This, to me at least, is the insistent challenge and inspiration that cannot end. It is easy to tire of being a misfit in a generation going in a different direction to that which we have chosen. And yet in considering our first century brethren we have the human inspiration to carry on. We face the same problems, but in essence we have the same means for success available to us. It is possible that our community could mushroom as did theirs. We have the same Gospel. There is no hint that God simply enabled things to spread more in those days than in ours. He earnestly wishes the salvation of men and women through His Son, then as much as now. So we are driven to the hard conclusion: that it depends upon us, as to whether we will truly follow the pattern of our early brethren in their experience of the Gospel of the Kingdom and the changing, saving power and person of Jesus.
The early Christian community was above all a witnessing community. Personal testimony, the example of radically transformed lives, heroic sacrifices… all this combined to enable the rapid growth of the church. The community was comprised of first generation converts, who spread the word with all the insistence, urgency and persuasion of those in first love with the Father and Son. But as time went on, the community inevitably began to inbreed, internal debates and issues assumed more importance than the vital task of saving others. We’ve commented how women were at the forefront of spreading the message through the social networks and households they were part of. The freedom and dignity afforded to women was a major attraction of Christianity. And yet it wasn’t long before the anonymous Didascalia Apostolorum was warning women not to preach, lest “The Gentiles… hear the word of God not fittingly spoken… all the more in that it is spoken to them by a woman… she [the female preacher] shall incur a heavy judgment for sin” (1). I saw this history repeat itself amongst a group of Russian speaking sisters, who were some of the most dynamic preachers I was ever privileged to know in the 20th century. They baptized a few hundred people in the remote towns in which they lived; and then, were informed that women who baptized others were liable to condemnation at the judgment, and their baptisms weren’t valid as they were performed by women. And so the amazing spread of the Gospel in that area came to a standstill. Ramsay MacMullen likewise concluded that the mass gatherings and evangelization of the first century soon ceased, and the focus of Christian preaching was increasingly upon raising children in the faith rather than on actively propagating it to non-believers (2). And we obviously ask ourselves, whether in our personal and collective lives, we’ve not fallen into the same overall pattern. Where is our initial post-conversion enthusiasm to spread the word to all? Do we still have it? Where did it go? And all too often, communities and ecclesias go through that same sad cycle. And yet that cycle isn’t inevitable; history doesn’t inevitably repeat itself. It remains written for our learning, that we might break the mould and even invert the cycle.
(1) R. Hugh Connoly, ed., Didascalia Apostolorum (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992) pp. 132,133.
(2) Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing The Roman Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).
“If I believed what you Christians believed I would crawl across England on my hands and knees, if need be, to tell men about it”