Are We Unintentional Gnostics?

*We might be Gnostic if:

  1. We find ourselves talking about heaven as an escape from this world, especially if we don’t need a resurrection of our bodies
  2. We think that a happy marriage (or other successful Christian goal) is achieved by attending a special seminar and learning the “secrets”
  3. We think that taking care of this world (ecology) is a waste of time because it is going to hell in a hand basket anyway
  4. We think that the goal is to know about Jesus rather than follow him
  5. We spend all of our time in the New Testament, ignoring the Old Testament

Do you agree that these are good litmus tests for whether Christians have been influenced by Gnosticism?
Do you think most churches in America are influenced by Gnosticism?

*quoted from Rediscovering Jesus: An Introduction to Biblical, Religious, and Cultural Perspectives on Christ, p. 171. See my complete review of the book here.

Reflections after an Extra Spiritual Week

The school where I teach just had their Spiritual Emphasis Week.  The week’s purpose is pretty clearly outlined in the title.  It is meant to be a week where the entire school attempts to slow down and draw close to God.

As a Bible teacher at a Christian school it is safe to assume that I am a fan of Christian education.  If I could afford it, I would want my future children to attend a Christian school.  Both my husband and I went to Christian/College Prep high schools, and we were both very blessed by the experience

But after this week I am starting to see some of the limits of Christian education.  And the limitation is mainly one of identity.

Our school is not a confessional school, which means you do not have to be a Christian in order to attend.  I think this is actually a good thing.  It provides a very interesting challenge in my classroom that I believe on the whole has been both very rewarding for the students and for me.  My class is unapologetically confessional, but since it is a classroom environment I am able to weave my confession into a conversation.  I am able to show my students that even though this is my confession it is okay to disagree with me.  My classroom is clearly not the church and there is no possible way to confuse it with one.  My classroom, put maybe too simply, is the world.

But the lines between the church and the world start to blur when we go to chapel on Thursday.  Chapel consists of the liturgical acts of worship, prayer, and reading scripture.  A message is preached and some kind of a response to the homily is expected.  This would be a wonderful thing if the school was actually a church.

The church consists of a community of believers who come together once a week to celebrate the same confession: Jesus is king.  The church by its very nature crosses boundaries of age, race, and socio-economic status.  The church is a sanctuary, a safe place for those who may have taken a beating during the week, and have come to hear God’s word read over their lives.  This word acts as both a balm and a fire so that they may then go out and be witnesses to the world once again.  This is what my church is to me, and while I love my school where I teach, it will never be able to do this.  Because a Christian school is not and can never be a church.

Chapel on Thursdays is structured like a church service.  It is structured as a confessional act.  But what happens when you bring non-confessors into a confessional environment?  Should we really be surprised when they don’t join us in a celebration that they do not even recognize?

This is why Spiritual Emphasis Week is traditionally a very hard week for me.  I feel like the worst Bible teacher in all of history because after almost every chapel I don’t feel like I have celebrated with my family.  I feel a little beaten up.  I look across the aisle and see students sleeping in their chairs or making a bee line for the bathroom.  I can handle this for one hour, once a week, but after four chapels my spirit has usually been broken.  Again, I’m not saying that I blame the students or that I’m surprised when teenagers act like teenagers.  But four consecutive chapels at a Christian school make one thing abundantly clear.  We will always become frustrated when we try to force the world to act like the church.

Churches: Walk by the Spirit

There is no true Christian church without the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. Churches should be communities that are sensitive and responsive to the promptings of the Spirit. Unfortunately, many churches are actually self-reliant communities who ultimately trust in the best practices of church growth and profit.

The Spirit leads churches to slow and consistent discipleship . . .
     not to flashes of growth fueled by shallow conversions.

The Spirit prompts communities to serve creatively & surprisingly . . .
     not to slavishly follow strategic plans drafted to ensure growth & stability.

The Spirit guides church leaders to form their members in the image of Jesus . . .
     not in the image of the prevailing cultural-ideal (like the American Dream). 

Spirit-less churches are communities devoid of Jesus and His Kingdom-priorities. They are an experiment in spiritual futility, lacking the equipping power of God for transformation and ministry. In the end, they are nothing more than another business competing in the marketplace of religious consumerism.

Baptism: A Change of Allegiances

“In baptism, a human individual is transferred from the world to the church. The world registers a loss in loyalty; the church registers an advance in loyalty. . . . Because of this shift, baptism marks a definite realignment of power. . . . If the church grows through the initiation of one member at a time, it seemingly shrinks through an equivalent but opposite process. The world attempts to regain its lost members, to secure its former loyalties, and to establish its earlier power. In this way, baptism is an overtly political act. Like the burning of draft cards, baptism declares a switched identity, a refusal to be one thing and a determination to be something else.”

– Crag Hovey, To Share in the Body
(quoted by Richard Beck in The Slavery of Death, p. 81)

Cultivating Identity: Americans and the Church

Are we better at making loyal Americans or committed Christians? As a local pastor and a high-school teacher, this is a question that regularly haunts me. The answer seems obvious: we live and contribute to a socio-religious system that is highly effective at churning out people committed to the American nation-state yet much less effective at creating Christians who feel a deep and abiding sense of loyalty to the global and historic Christian community.

I think this task – instilling an instinct of identity and belonging to the Christian community – is one of the most important roles of the church. This is a particularly acute need in a post-Christendom society which is increasingly confused over the relationship between national and religious loyalties. The scriptures are clear: Christians have been adopted into a new family, united into the corporate body of Christ, and have had their citizenship transferred into a new Kingdom. The church is an alternative polis which exists as an outpost of Resurrection amidst a world of Death.

How might we go about fostering this sense of identity among our church members and youth? Here are a few modest suggestions:

#1 – Teach church history, recognizing its importance for our community.
History is extremely important for creating a sense of identity and loyalty, which is why we almost universally teach it to our youth. However, there is an alarming disconnect between many Christians and the basic history of their community. Here is a prediction: an 18 year-old who graduates high school with many years of training in US History and almost none in church history will be a more loyal American than Christian.

#2 – Give more honor towards those called to ministry or missionary work.
This contradicts the Protestant emphasis on the “priesthood of the believers” and call to minister in the workplace (both truths which I support), but I believe we lack a proper respect for those who enter into ministry or the mission field. Those who choose to sacrifice their lives for the nation (entering into military service, etc) are seen as heroes, while those who choose to enter the ministry or mission field are often met with skepticism and caution (“but you won’t make any money” … “I guess he/she couldn’t hold down a real job”). 

#3 –  Shift the emphasis of our language about conversion from the individual to the social.
Our language of conversion is individualistic, focused on beliefs, and future-orientated, when it should be social, focused on a new lifestyle (discipleship), and celebrating the present reality of the Kingdom. Instead of asking people to convert by agreeing to a few propositions or deciding their preferred destination for the afterlife, let’s call people to take their place in God’s story and join His community. (See this recent post from Michelle Mikeska: Evangelicals and the Moment of Conversion)

#4 – Follow and appreciate the liturgical calendar.
Calendars, like history, are also highly effective at creating an integrated society. Churches and families who follow the rhythms of the liturgical calendar (Advent, Lent, etc) and celebrate/remember the feast days of the Saints will find themselves more connected to the historical and global Christian community.

Do you agree or disagree? Are there any other practices which might be helpful in cultivating a sense of identity and belonging to the Christian community?