Avoid Spiritual Complexity

2021 May 9

I have been in a class reviewing the early Christian book Against Heresies by a guy named Irenaeus. He wrote about a lot of ideas at that time that were going astray of what Jesus had taught.

One of these is what is called Gnostisism (from gnosis in Greek meaning knowledge). The idea was that once you learned hidden knowledge, you were no longer spiritually powerless.

Gnostic Thinking

According to Irenaeus, gnostic thought substantially started with a guy named Simon (the Sorcerer, Acts 8). This developed into a whole set of Gnostic doctrines not too long after the time of Jesus.

They include the idea that some original powerful being creates another lesser being which creates another being (emanations) and so on until you finally get to the being that creates the world that we know and live in. That last being was said to be the god of the Jews.

Over time all the gods/creators lost knowledge of the levels above them. However, those inside Gnosticism claimed to be able give you secret knowledge about all of the levels. Once you knew this, you would become invisible to those powers and then they would lose power over you. note

Crazy, isn't it? How could these powerful beings lose that knowledge, but those "secrets" are available from mere humans?

Jesus was said to be an emanation near the level of the god of the Jews. Now, when Jesus was being led out to be crucified and carrying his cross, the soldiers conscripted a bystander (Simon of Cyrene) to carry it for Jesus. According to Gnosticism, Jesus then transfigured Simon and himself in a swap of likeness. The people around them did not notice this, and so Simon was crucified and Jesus was not. Therefore, if you are a follower of the “Jesus” that was crucified, then you are still spiritually trapped (because you are not believing in the “real” Jesus). However if you have the privileged knowledge of “truth”, then you are free. note

You can see by this how they reinterpreted what we understand as the Gospel of Jesus to not credit the "true" Jesus as the crucified one. Thus Irenaeus was documenting it as a heresy.

This was just a start of an extensive web of gnostic “knowledge”. These secret details are complicated and usually mystical.

Collections of "secret" ideas like this are still around and are enticing. It is cool being on the inside of a group. There is pride about being the one in the know.

Mystical Christianity

Unfortunately I see this type of thinking in Christianity as well. It seems that some people have the idea that if you understand deeper knowledge about

  • spiritual gifts (i.e. speaking in tongues), or about
  • end times (eschatology, prophecy), or about
  • theology (systematic, atonement theory, Christology, etc, etc)

then you are a better Christian.

Very often this "hidden" knowledge of Christianity is complicated and sometimes it is mystical. note However, generally it is not practical. Of course not everything we know needs to be practical. However, sometimes if something has doubtful value for practice then it might also be that it is not so valuable.

Complicated Christianity

Another aspect of these kinds of thinking is that it can make Christianity be very complicated. Even just taking fairly standard ways of looking at Christianity (protestant or Catholic theology, for example) it can seem quite complicated.

If someone were to ask you as a Christian what you believed, what would be your answer? Could you give a simple answer? If you would give a simple answer, was it because you didn't know additional complicated stuff (and you might be feeling guilty about that)? Or maybe you skipped over some complicated stuff, even though it was stuff you actually thought was very important?

Imagine we only had the gospels in our New Testament (and none of the letters of Paul). What would the doctrines of Christianity be? That is, if we only had the direct teachings of Jesus from the gospels would you have what you would otherwise describe Christianity to be? note If we are Christians and we follow Christ, surely the direct teachings of Christ should be sufficient for our beliefs and practices. If what Jesus taught was simple, then wouldn’t simple be enough?

I have no doubts in my mind about Paul's teachings and writings. Paul is important. And Paul is in full agreement with the direct teachings of Jesus.

However, sometimes I think that people interpret Paul's writings in a complicated academic way when I do not think he meant it to be taken as such. In my own technical areas of expertise, I know I have to work to keep things simple when I talk about a topic I find interesting. If I add in background detail that I know, it would be additional information, yes. However, that doesn't mean the main important part is therefore more complicated.

I know that Paul was an amazing academic and was recognized as such among his peers in the Jewish system (before he met Christ). Someone like Paul is able to go deep into the background of a theological topic even when the topic can be expressed simply. This additional detail though does not mean that the important part actually is complicated at all.

If the theology at its base is not complicated, then we should not think it is complicated and we should not make it complicated. Complicated can just make it more likely to be misunderstood.

What if you were dropped into an alternate universe where only the direct teachings of Jesus were available and the Apostle Paul had never written any letters. And what if you listened to someone tell you what their Christian beliefs were. Would you want to say, “Yes, but…”, and then add more details that you had gotten from Pauline epistles?

Essentials of the Gospel from Christ

Instead, could just the teachings of Jesus that were distilled down to the essentials be enough?

“I have a new kingdom that is spiritual, and it is for all people. I have come to establish this this Kingdom of God by my death and resurrection, because of my sacrificial love for you.

“The greatest commandments in earthly kingdoms are to love God, and love people. I have one new commandment in my kingdom: you are to love each other as I have loved you. You will know who is in my kingdom by the evidence of this love.

“I forgive your sins because of my love and require you to forgive others. Tell others about this kingdom and help them learn to live these values.”

  - Jesus (paraphrased)   note

This is my paraphrase of Jesus' teaching, using ideas from Darren Twa's work.

The Complete Gospel

The Gospel was first preached at Pentecost (Acts 2), and many people became Christians on that day. This means the gospel was complete less than two months after Jesus was taken up into heaven. Nothing more needed to be added to it. God was satisfied that the hearers understood the Gospel and therefore accepted them into his kingdom. note

This point from Darren Twa.

It is not wrong for ideas to be refined over time (that is: for ideas about the gospel to become refined), however, the gospel didn't need any new ideas or requirements added to it. God was satisfied that the gospel was complete already at that time. We must not add more requirements to that gospel message.

The apostles of Jesus in other stories in the book of Acts told the same gospel to non-Jews, and those people were being saved. Again, God was accepting them, therefore the other Christians knew they must accept them as well (Acts 11, 15).

Paul wrote about this in Romans:

"Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

Romans 15:7 NIV

The basis for which God accepts us is very simple (the core elements). We also then must recognize Christians correctly by the very same simple basis.

Church Traditions

In churches today there are a variety of traditions. Unfortunately in many cases, church traditions which go beyond the gospel are being used to exclude people, or are being added as requirements to the gospel. Sometimes this is enumerations of extra required beliefs (as in doctrinal statements). Or it can be legalistic rules that come either from ancient Jewish law, or that were invented today.

The requirements of these traditions are being added to an already complete gospel. This is a serious problem for multiple reasons.

  • Remember that we do not have more authority than God. If God has accepted someone, we must be very careful not to exclude them. If we reject someone that God considers to be his child, we put ourselves in a position of offense to God.
  • This issue may in part derive from being enticed by complexity because the "power" of "secret knowledge" is still a strong temptation. However, complexity adds no value to the gospel.

A Simple Gospel

The gospel is simple, but this must not be confused with inadequacy:

The gospel that Jesus directly taught is simple and profound and is the power of God.

Pause on that for a bit.

However, an area that can be complicated is application of the gospel. That is, how do you apply the simple gospel to the complexities of life situations? There are a lot of life details to consider, and sometimes it certainly is complicated. But that does not mean that the first principle of sacrificial love for the benefit of others is complicated. The principle is simple even though the application can be complicated. The gospel is simple even though living it might be complicated.

Our practical understanding of the gospel should be no more complex than is necessary. Since the gospel is actually very simple, we should be careful to keep it that way.

  • Don't add requirements to the gospel from your traditions that God did not supply to the gospel.
  • Avoid complications to the gospel that would make you feel like you have deeper knowledge.

Remember, the gospel is very simple.



The value system perspective used here is based on ideas from the work of Darren Twa.