From the beginning Christians have argued over who had the “One True Church” and what it meant to be a Christian. The Orthodox and the Gnostic factions were particularly contentious until Constantine stood firmly behind the Roman Catholic Church in the fourth century and Gnostics were condemned as heretics and criminals.
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What I find fascinating is that the characteristics, attitudes, and beliefs of the Gnostic groups in early Christianity are very similar to what scholars are predicting the Christian church of the future to look like. In addition to that, I believe that Sacred Journeys has adopted many Gnostic traits without even knowing that was what we were doing.
So, let’s take a look at the difference between the Orthodox and Gnostic Christian Churches of the first few centuries.
By the late second century the Orthodox Church required the following for membership:
- Confess the creeds
- Be baptized
- Participate regularly in worship
- Obey the clergy
- Understand that outside of the church there is no salvation
- Bishops validate the Eucharist
- No questioning – questioning leads to heresy
- Follow only the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as authoritative
- Welcome everyone, if they follow all the rules above!
Gnostic Churches, on the other hand, looked like this:
- Profession of faith not necessary; they welcomed anyone regardless of how differently they approached topics
- Required evidence of spiritual maturity (knowing oneself, recognizing they’d been living in ignorance, experiencing enlightenment as resurrection)
- Baptism was not necessary; rituals were irrelevant
- Did not acknowledge authority of clergy; often shared the duties of “priest”
- Believed that “by their fruits you shall know them”
- Extremely important to seek God and to ask questions
- Used other text than New Testament scripture; challenged interpretations of key scripture text
- The quality of relationships among members was important
- No hypocrites, arrogant, ignorant, or self-interested people
- Regard all doctrine, speculation and myths as only “approaches to truth”
- Many renounced materialism and sexuality
While the Orthodox Church may have facilitated an easy way to join, and an efficient way to determine who is in and who is out, the formula they devised has (in my opinion) outlived its usefulness. In this post-modern world, the old answers and dictatorial nature don’t work anymore.
What many Progressive Christian scholars foresee as the future of Christianity sounds awfully similar to the Gnostic track that was forced into near-oblivion 1,800 years ago. So, I’m not sure if we’re going backwards or forwards, or both, but exciting changes are in the works. Here are just a few examples that I pulled off my shelves:
In The Great Emergence, by Phyllis Tickle, she believes that the emerging church will look something like this:
- Ultimate authority will lie in Scripture and the Community
- Totally egalitarian – no one member of the community has the entire truth
- Each person and group is part of a larger network
- A Conversation
In Why Christianity must Change or Die, Bishop John Shelby Spong asserts that the church needs to move toward this:
- A non-theistic religion (no more white male guy in the sky)
- Jesus will not be a gate-keeper, but an inviting presence to discover “the infinite dimensions of transcendent wonder…”
- Rituals must be rethought in a deeper way, in terms of non-theistic spirituality and a call to be what we were each created to be.
- Eucharist must be “transformed from something in which ordained hands have the power to transform ordinary elements to supernatural realities of body and blood.” Instead God is met as community is built around a common meal
- Mission of the church is not to convert the world, but to call all into the fullness of life.
Philip Gulley, in The Evolution of Faith and If the Church were Christian, suggests that the future church will need to:
- Honor and assimilate the best of each religious tradition
- Let go of the preoccupation of heaven and hell
- Encourage people to search for and discern truth for themselves
- Teach people how to think theologically… not just tell them what to think
And, Ann Kania is quoted in Healthy Religion as proposing that the future church will be:
- About keeping the individual’s personal ego-self related to the Deity
- Psychotherapeutic – to help us confront our fears, anger and subconscious drives, face our shadows
To be honest with you, I don’t like to label myself a Christian. In fact, I’m always sort of shocked when I realize that is how people look at me. I think I have a hard time with it because I feel people will put me into that traditional, orthodox mold. But, I could be okay being labeled a Christian if it had this Gnostic, progressive bent.
I believe we are crossing over into a new type of Christianity. We need the courage, the creativity and the stamina to continue on the journey. We haven’t arrived… we are in process… and you are all part of the conversation of what we become.