Not long ago, I received an email from a woman who said that a friend of hers “claims to be on an extraordinarily intense spiritual ‘pilgrimage’ of ‘really pressing in to know God intimately’—but this guy has in effect divorced himself from the material world and from all relationships (including his wife and 10 children) which he views as a hindrance to his spiritual growth.”
Gnostics claim to have special knowledge (gnosis is the Greek word for “knowledge”) on how to live the Christian life that is not revealed to “ordinary Christians.”
God’s revelation in Scripture is not good enough or sufficient to give direction on how to live the Christian life. Of course, this refutes what the Bible says when it states that Scripture is “adequate” and equips the Christian “for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). She went on to say that this friend, a farmer, “was putting up hay recently and needed to get it in as they were expecting rain. Before he finished, he remembered that he had scheduled a Bible study, so he left his hay in order to keep the ‘spiritual’ duty. The rain came and the hay was lost, but he felt justified that he had chosen the higher calling.”
A feature of Gnosticism is the belief that there are two separate realms — “one spiritual, the other material. The spiritual realm, created by God, [is] all good; the material realm, created by the demiurge, [is] all evil. Man [needs] to be saved, not from Original Sin, but from enslavement to matter.”1
This leads some Christians not to believe in voting because voting is “of this world,” and as Christians we’re only to be engaged in truly spiritual activities. For the Gnostic, the material world is on a lower plane. Only “spiritual things” are useful and profitable.
[The Gnostics] devised a dualistic cosmology to set against the teachings of the early Christian Church, which, they claimed, were only common deceptions, unsuited for the wise. The truth was esoteric. Only the properly initiated could appreciate it. It belonged to a secret tradition which had come down through certain mystery schools. The truth was, God could never become man. The Gnostic secret is that the spirit is trapped in matter, and to free it, the world must be rejected.2
For the Gnostic, life “must be escaped at any cost.”3 But if there can be no immediate material escape, then a spiritual escape is a good enough substitute. The Gnostic escapes from the responsibilities of history.
For the Christian, history is the realm of decision making, and, therefore, is anti-Gnostic. If we are not responsible for history, then we are not responsible for decision making. Even a casual reading of the Bible will show that our faith is to be lived out in the world so that “fruit” — good works — are manifested for the world to see and for Christians to judge (Matt. 7:15–23). No restrictions are placed on where this fruit is to mature.
One of the central issues that divided gnostics and orthodox Christians in the early Church was their understanding of the relationship between religion and politics. The Church Fathers accepted the political worldliness of the Jewish faith, contending that religion and politics are interconnected and inseparable. The early Puritans and even Jonathan Edwards, following classical Calvinism, would have been clearly orthodox in this regard. The world of politics, of human institutions, was for them an essential locus of God’s redemptive work.4
What is contemporary Gnosticism like? While it might not manifest itself in ascetic practices like pole sitting and monastic living, it does reveal itself in institutional escape. Institutional escape is not in the Christian tradition. Our nation’s earliest Christian citizens did not view escape in any form to be biblical. Education, publishing, law, science, medicine, and politics, to take just some areas, were to be governed by the Word of God. Modern-day Gnosticism thrives in a climate of escapism which means retreat from this world and responsibility to do anything to change any part of it. If this world means nothing, then I am not responsible for its evils.
In biblical terms, the civil sphere of government is one government among many. Christian involvement is not to grow the size, scope, and authority of civil government but to keep it in check so self-government, family governments, church governments, and local civil governments can live free and unmolested (1 Tim 2:1).