Friday, July 25, 2014

At least better than X?

Matthew is good at making me uncomfortable. In chapter 23 Jesus lays into the Pharisees: “For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence.” I don’t go in for robbery, though I’ve some extra pounds that testify to two of my self-indulgences. Some translations have extortion instead of robbery—I don’t go in for that either. I don’t quite understand the reason for the accusation—perhaps some of them were taking advantage of their reputation to supplement income with fees for blessings or fees for intercessions for other people’s shortcomings. I don’t go in for that either. So I’m half home free here. But half clean isn’t clean, is it?

Widows and orphans, the destitute, the ill and the mad—even a slight familiarity with church history rings up countless examples of giving and exhortations to give up lots of our own stuff to help these others. Not so much in the churches I’ve been in, though. “Give ‘till it hurts, and then give ‘till it feels good”, yes; be one of the poor yourself, no.

From time to time I wonder what Jesus would say to us (evangelicals). I have the nagging sense that He would think we weren’t taking the faith very seriously. As a group we’re OK at evangelizing, but not always so hot on other sorts of spiritual disciplines, which are enjoined on us in order that we be fruitful. And God takes fruit rather seriously.

Standing up to say “Hey, at least I’m not like them” probably doesn’t cut much ice; unless it happens that it does.

It is a bit more comfortable to puzzle out how the problems and twistings in the early church map into modern groups. Bishop Spong seems to meet John’s criteria for an anti-christ, for example, and there is no shortage of people accumulating ear-ticklers as teachers, especially on issues of sex and mammon. There’s no point in naming names here: the devotees will just get huffy and claim fidelity to a purer gospel, and everybody else knows who they are anyway. Paul is pretty down on them. At what point do they “go too far and … not abide in the teaching of Christ,” though?

Precise examples are a bit hard to find. Trying to buy the gifts of God is clearly past the line. Beyond that...

The Nicolaitans aren’t easy to find reliable information on. Ephiphanius is nice and dramatic, though a little late and apparently getting his information second hand at best. He reports that Nicolaus was one of the 7 deacons, who decided to try and achieve purity by abstaining from sex with his wife—unsuccessfully. In reaction to his failure he announced that one could not have eternal life without having sex every day. Apparently he or his followers went on to honor gnostic emanations of some degree whose nature exemplified and whose service demanded sexual acts of one kind or another. Ephiphanius delays the description of their “mass” until his section on gnostics; it is blasphemous enough for a Black Mass and you’ll sleep better without reading it.

No group I know has gone quite that far in practice, though several elevate sexual expression to almost the holiest category they have, and seem to consider abortion one of the highest human rights.

So though it isn’t hard to spot anti-christs and false teaching (at least the kind that doesn’t happen to tickle my ears), I can’t safely say “denomination X is like the Nicolaitans and at least I hate their practices."

So I’m not going to get any compliments for being better than denomination X. Still on the hook…

Ephiphanius includes a version of the Blood Libel. That’s been used for false accusations for thousands of years—but I’m not sure that its inclusion makes the report less credible. The claim that Jews used the blood of Christian babies is an obvious lie. That some individual with a taste for the diabolic would go in for something like this is believable—we’ve seen similar things in our own crime reports. The exact expression of this hunger for wickedness will depend on the culture, but the overall shape will probably be much the same. I don’t believe all the Nicolaitans went in for this sort of thing: it is a bit too far out. That some did, maybe even an entire inner circle, isn’t incredible. Some inner circles are pretty horrible.

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