False Teachings and the Early Church
In addition to our weekly blog pieces, Crown & Cross publishes a semesterly print issue, a compilation of 9 to 12 pieces based around a singular theme. Since these pieces represent some of our best work, we want to give them greater circulation. So, starting this semester, our blog will post a new piece each Wednesday as individual essays in a thematic series. This semester’s weekly series will be titled “The Great Commission,” the theme of our most recent print issue. Below is the seventh of ten installments.
In 1945, two farmers were digging around the caves of Jabal al-Tārif in Upper Egypt when they came across a large earthenware jar. Inside were thirteen papyrus codices, leather-bound and worn out by time. The two farmers, not realizing the significance of what they had found, planned to sell the codices. A series of disagreements landed the artifacts, instead, in the possession of a local priest and eventually a history scholar. 1 Suspecting these codices had historical value, he sent them to the Coptic Museum in Egypt where they were translated, making the fifty-two texts they contained accessible to the world today. 2
The two farmers had not unearthed some mundane leather books. Rather, they had found a key guide to Gnosticism, a collection of beliefs in the first few centuries of the Common Era that combined Christian values with the existence of a demiurge below God and an emphasis on striving for gnosis, or ultimate knowledge. Before the discovery of the codices, Gnosticism was primarily known through the writings of its opponents that provided a highly one-sided perspective. 3 Gnostic practices and beliefs also varied significantly across regions and peoples. Their common belief in a lesser god, however, placed Gnostics under the criticism of the early Christians and many modern Christian historians, who mostly agreed that the two had little to do with each other.
The discovery of the codices changed the mainstream view on Gnosticism, revealing that it derived many of its beliefs from Christianity. The Apocrypha of John and the Book of Thomas, for example, laid out supposed teachings by Jesus—the former details Jesus’ giving knowledge to the apostle John, and the early Gnostics took it as a message about the importance of searching for knowledge 4 Nevertheless, the codices did not change the fact that Gnosticism was not in line with Christ’s teachings as they contained many false beliefs, such as the existence of other divine figures. They made it clear, though, that most Gnostics evolved from new Christians, who took these texts as truth along with the rest of the Bible.
Gnosticism was one of the best-known and most widespread early false Christian belief systems, but it was far from the only one. A related belief system originated with Marcion, the son of a bishop in the early 2nd century. Marcion rejected the Old Testament, claiming that the forgiving and merciful God that Jesus speaks about must be different from the one who rained judgment and condemnation on thousands. 5 Another false interpretation that expanded in the 3rd century, Arianism, claimed that Jesus did not always exist and was subordinate to God. Arianism gained a large following but was viewed as false by others, including the Catholic Church, who declared it a heresy at the Council of Nicea in AD 325, one of the early Ecumenical councils that standardized the religion. 6
Many other false belief systems and misinterpretations of Jesus’ words were born in first four centuries of the Church’s history. The majority were a result of the rapid spread of Christianity and the difficulty for new believers to fully understand and live according to the Word. After all, Christianity posed challenges for people of all backgrounds—Jews were reluctant to stop following the rules from the Mosaic Law that had become part of their culture and lifestyle. Many pagans or Gentiles wanted to continue their ceremonies dedicated to false gods.
The early disciples, as original progenitors of the Great Commission, understood the difficulty of spreading the Word to different cultures and regions with high potential for rejection or misinterpretation. But difficulty did not preclude the disciples from acting, and they took the precaution to ensure to the best of their abilities that all the new believers truly understood God’s word, warning them against dangerous false teachings.
The apostle Paul’s journeys are the epitome of the Great Commission. He took Jesus’ final words 7 to heart and traveled to major cities across the Roman Empire where Christianity could spread to a vast number of people. At each of these locations, Paul planted a church, staying long enough to establish a strong foundation in the gospel, before traveling to another city, as he wanted to spread the Word to as many places as possible. The initial church would establish churches in nearby areas, each of which would also establish churches to spread the gospel—an exponential effect. Paul understood, however, the importance of staying in contact with the believers of each city, sending letters with words of encouragement, creating guidelines on proper practices, and answering any questions.
We know this because we still have many of Paul’s letters today, which make up almost a third of the New Testament—Philippians, Thessalonians, Corinthians, and Galatians were addressed to churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, and Galatia respectively, all of which Paul helped establish. Each letter reveals information to us about the early church and the initial spread of Christianity. Paul’s earliest letter is 1 Thessalonians, written from Corinth in AD 51 to the Thessalonian church in upper Greece. Paul visited Thessalonica during his second missionary journey but left the church in the apostle Timothy’s hands while he went on to Athens and other cities. After hearing Timothy’s reports, Paul, as a mentor to Timothy, wrote to the church to continue communication.8 Most of the letter is encouragement, but it also contains guidelines on the proper way to live and love one another. Paul ends the letter, for example, by encouraging the Thessalonians to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” 8 While this advice is specific to the Thessalonians, his overall encouraging mindset blends into his other letters as well.
Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Paul’s other letters are structured in similar manners, beginning with a greeting and thanksgiving and ending with a prayer. More importantly, they all provide reassurance and clarification, as new believers from all cities needed encouragement and answers to their questions about faith. Colossians is perhaps the most critical of Paul’s letters, as he addresses a problem within the Colossian church that many modern theologians think to be Gnosticism based upon both Paul’s stylistic choices and the nature of the issues in the letter. 9 Paul has not been to Colossae, a city in Asia Minor east of Ephesus, but has probably been told about issues in the church by Epaphras, and writes with the intention of defeating all Gnostic thought. 10
Paul begins his letter to the Colossian Church with a typical introduction, prayer, and thanksgiving. His prayer contains an indirect reference to Gnostic thoughts, however, when he prays that the Colossian church “may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding;” if, as is suspected, the Colossians are being subjected to Gnostic teachings, Paul’s curious word choices of “knowledge” and “wisdom” were meant to imply that everyone can achieve wisdom through Christ and do not need Gnostic knowledge to reach salvation.
The rest of Colossians is filled with both subtle and direct warnings against the false teachings of Gnosticism. After the prayer, Paul writes about the preeminence of Christ, clarifying His ultimate glory and timelessness:
For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things were created through Him and for Him… He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything He might be preeminent. 11
This passage affirms Jesus’ role as God and His eternal existence, above all things, which is valuable and reassuring to all readers, but especially to Gnostics, as they believe in Jesus’ temporality and another deity below Him. Paul’s next sentence, which declares that in Jesus “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” further confirms the divinity of Jesus, and that of God the Father.
By chapter two, Paul addresses the false teachings more directly, but with encouragement as well, by asking that their hearts be lifted up to reach Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” 12 This directly contradicts the Gnostic belief of needing another source of wisdom to reach salvation. He then writes, “[s]ee to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” 13This is also a direct critique of Gnosticism, as “the elemental spirits” and the one who “takes you captive by philosophy” are clear tenets of false belief. Paul also explicitly states that he writes “in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit.” 14 Here, Paul not only makes it clear that he is addressing a false teaching but also that he is with the Church. This is the role that we must take in relation to new believers—to be there with them, if not physically then spiritually.
There are many more instances throughout Colossians that function as defenses against Gnosticism, but it is important to recognize that the approach Paul takes goes by encouragement rather than criticism. Gnosticism was a very real threat for new believers at the time, as it was supported by texts attributed to Jesus and elevated a certain group of people (those with gnosis) above others, allowing Gnosticism to appeal to people’s desires for superiority. But, as Paul shows us, Christianity can defend itself against any false teachings, and he demonstrates how we should approach helping new believers through encouragement. Paul does not start his letter with criticisms; he begins with his personal walk with God and addresses the false beliefs in a more subtle, less outrightly critical manner.
Paul’s letters are a guide for us in terms of how to spread the gospel and how to prevent larger problems and heresies from arising. Gnosticism, Marconianism, and other false beliefs did become popular and took people away from the truth, but many of these cases arose because the religion spread without someone to help new believers interpret the Bible or understand the faith, as the apostle Paul did. If Paul had not kept in touch with his churches, it is possible that we would not be practicing the Lord’s Supper at all or at least properly, since the only clarification of communion occurs in 1 Corinthians; 15 Gnostic thought might have dominated all of Asia Minor and beyond; Jews and Gentiles may have formed two distinct groups of Christians; and the Church may have fallen apart.
Of course, these early heresies appeared anyway, and countless others have emerged and flourished since then. Many of the followers of these false beliefs, such as Gnostics and Arians, also identified as Christians, since they shared some of the underlying beliefs of Christianity and derived their own interpretations from the standard. The question then becomes whether it is better not to have heard about Jesus at all or to have heard an erroneous interpretation. On the one hand, if Paul had never spread the gospel, the Gentiles would still be worshipping false gods and the Jews would be denying Jesus’ relation to God. On the other hand, newly converted Christians who succumbed to Gnostic thought would pose a danger to other Christians, who would often be influenced and led away from truth. It is difficult to objectively say which one is better, but we should not have to choose. Through proper discipleship, new believers in Christ can be strengthened to become steadfast Christians, so we do not need to worry about any heresies.
For new believers, being part of a community of believers and understanding the full extent of God’s word is just as important as knowing the basics of Christianity. And for all of us, who have opportunities to spread the gospel every day, Paul should become a source of inspiration. While Gnosticism is not a prevalent philosophy today, the heresies present around us are just as dangerous. As believers, we have a responsibility to ensure that our new brothers and sisters are not merely standing by the door to the kingdom, wavering between entering or running away but are fully a part of the family of God. This means caring about them just as we would care about a family member—keeping them away from anything that might harm their walk with God and providing encouragement and answers to any questions.
The importance of having a mentor or simply a friend who can help us in our walk is not limited to new believers. All of us have moments of strength or weakness, and although we do not have Paul himself to answer our questions, there is always someone with more experience and knowledge of the Bible to whom we can look for answers. Christianity is confusing and complex, especially for new believers. This is one reason why we still read Paul’s writings today—just as the new churches in the first century needed Paul, we need our spiritual leaders, and new believers need a Christian friend for encouragement. In most cases, a new believer may not know any other Christians, so it is our responsibility as the people who shared the faith to keep in touch. We cannot wait for new believers to initiate and ask questions, because they could be reluctant to ask for help or accidentally led down the wrong path. Additionally, we do not have to feel obligated to answer all questions ourselves. Timothy and Epaphras both reached out to Paul when faced with issues beyond their ability to resolve, and heathen wrote letters to them. When faced with more difficult questions, we can direct new believers to our own pastors and spiritual leaders.
Today, there are countless ways to spread the gospel, most of which are much easier than Paul’s travels, which often landed him in jail or near death. But as we can see with Paul, following up and discipleship is just as important as the original conversion, and perhaps far more essential. Luckily, we do not have to go through the hassle of writing and mailing a letter, as Paul did, to keep in touch with someone—sending an email or calling is faster and just as effective. These methods are usually reserved for people with whom we do not interact often; in many other cases, new believers are part of our daily lives—our friends, acquaintances, and coworkers. Checking up on and encouraging their faith can be more casual, such as praying with them, providing suggestions on Bible passages to study, and introducing them to a church or a fellowship group.
There are a many ways to reach out to nonbelievers, ranging from mission trips, to gospel outreaches, to conversations with friends. The form of discipleship and follow-up will vary in each case. In all situations, however, we must remember that the follow up is just as vital as the initial conversion, so we can prevent new believers from being susceptible to false beliefs and welcome them fully into our family.
Tiffany Li (SEAS ’19) has lived in the beautiful state of New Jersey her whole life and is excited to finally be in New York City. She is studying biomedical engineering and still figuring out her life aspirations. She enjoys long walks throughout the city and finding the best bubble tea spots.
- Elaine Pagels. The Gnostic Gospels (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), xiii-xxiii. ↩
- Lance S. Owens, MD., “The Nag Hammadi Library.” The Gnostic Society Library. The Gnosis Archive, accessed 16 Nov 2016. ↩
- E. Glenn Hinson, The Early Church: Origins to the Dawn of the Middle Ages (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 92. ↩
- The Apocryphon According to John, trans. Frederik Wisse, accessed 16 Nov 2016. ↩
- Hinson 91–92. ↩
- Ibid. 204–207. ↩
- Acts 1:8 (ESV): “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” ↩
- Thessalonians 5:16–18. ↩
- J. Hampton Keathly III, “Background on Colossians.,” Bible.org, accessed 16 Nov 2016. ↩
- Colossians 1:7, 2:2. ↩
- Colossians 1:16–18. ↩
- Colossians 2:3. ↩
- Colossians 2:8. ↩
- Colossians 2:4–5. ↩
- 1 Corinthians 11:17–34. ↩