Evangelical Gnosticism

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Some parts of evangelicalism have a hearing impairment. Spiritually. When it comes to hearing the Bible on certain issues.

I think it’s a discipleship and preaching problem. If your entire spiritual life you’ve essentially been taught to view the word “justice” as intimating “justification,” you’re actually going to misunderstand large sections of the Bible. You won’t have categories for an ethical and practical righteousness without “hearing” legalism and works-righteousness. Consequently, you’ll spiritualize those texts, remove them from their context, blunt their ethical force, and feel like you’re doing good “biblical theology” or “Christ-centered preaching” when in fact you’re just not hearing what thus saith the Lord.

Evangelical discipleship can be overly intellectual and overly pietistic. It’s understandable. Evangelicalism from its start with German Pietist influences, renewal movements in British Anglicanism (think the Wesleys and Whitefield), and the revivalist theology of Edwards all coalesce to make evangelicalism a “heart religion.” What matters most is the “personal relationship with God” and the inward piety of close communion with God.

To be fair, all those movements that form historic evangelicalism were necessary. Formality and coldness had crept into Anglicanism and other denominations. Revival was needed in the developing Americas. But the correction became the norm. What should have been a vital improvement added to the spiritual life of the church became the almost exclusive concern of the church. So we get a “heart religion” with no heart when it comes to the embodied lives it touches. This is how evangelicalism could so long allow and even actively commend and support the contradiction of slaveholding and gospel preaching and later the contradiction of Jim Crow and gospel preaching. Evangelicalism has been compromised in this way since the Wesleys and Whitefield and Edwards. Since their ministries, evangelicalism has had centuries of learning to hear poorly. Learning to spiritualize God’s Word such that Christianity has become an almost disembodied faith.

So we end up with a vision of Christianity that lacks any sufficient theology of the body. We end up with an evangelical outlook that includes almost zero systematic and biblical theological reflection on identity, “race,” racism, and so on. We end up with an escapist religion that seldom prepares people to stare the world in the face and to do real good in the world while we make our way home to glory.

What we have in some quarters of Christianity is an “evangelical gnosticism.” Gnostics have been around a long, long time, y’all. We hear so much about “ethnic gnosticism.” We’re told some people, usually African Americans, have hidden knowledge about what it means to be members of that ethnic group, knowledge that outsiders can’t access or comment on. For what it’s worth, though I wouldn’t call it “ethnic gnosticism,” there are some people who act like that. And not just a handful of people either. Update: The reason I would not use the term is because I think other people throw it around to gain permission to speak about things and people they haven’t done the homework on. So, yeah, comment on issues you see in other people’s history, culture and the like, but be well read and at least a little experienced on the things you’re commenting on. Otherwise, “ethnic gnosticism” becomes a cute excuse for displaying ethnic chauvinism, ethnic ignorance, ethnic intolerance, and the like.

But right alongside this “ethnic gnosticism,” and in battle with it for supremacy, is “evangelical gnosticism.” The evangelical gnostic replies to the supposed ethnic gnostic, “All of this body stuff (race, racism, and so on) is evil. What really matters is the spiritual. Be more spiritual, because it very nearly doesn’t matter what you do with the body or to the body—especially if it’s history.” And therein is the heresy. Therein is the blinder that keeps the evangelical gnostic from considering rightly all the biblical instruction about gritty, sweaty, earthly toil in the cause of Christ. It’s evangelical gnosticism that attempts to give “justice” a bad name though the word/idea is all over the Bible. It’s evangelical gnosticism that attempts to rule out Christian ethical duty in favor of “just preaching”—which should not be confused with preaching that is just. By emphasizing this gnostic division evangelical gnostics sever the root of gospel grace from the shoot of gospel sanctification and the fruit of the good gospel works (like doing justice) that glorify God. They bury beneath the soil the entire gospel plant so that bud and flower are hardly ever seen.

But the good life comes from divine wisdom. That wisdom literally comes to us to give “instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity” (Prov. 1:3). Here’s one test to know whether you might be an evangelical gnostic: Did you even realize the Book of Proverbs was divinely inspired in part to teach us how to do justice? From the opening verses to Proverbs 31:8-9, Proverbs’ vision of the good life consistently includes justice among the God-fearing. If you haven’t seen that before or seen the theme of justice throughout the Bible, you may have a hearing impairment caused by evangelical gnostic preaching. In other words, not necessarily nefariously, you have been discipled into understanding only part of everything Jesus commanded. It’s time to begin learning a lot of other things our Lord commanded, too (say, Matt. 23:23). That’s going to require learning to hear better from the Book.

A little while ago I had the privilege of delivering lectures on preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In one lecture we did an overview of Proverbs on justice. If this all sounds new to you, give it a listen. I pray it helps us to hear better and without the gnostic influence.

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