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GNOSTICISM and HERESY?

Every so often Christians like ourselves, who believe in Biblical equality, are accused of being gnostics or heretics, or both, by believers who are of a complementarian persuasion. These theologically loaded words are highly emotive and when used to describe us suggest that our attitude to the final authority of Scripture is unsound which, for them, means our egalitarian conclusions are Biblically untenable and therefore not worthy of examination. Even worse, it can mean that we are now open game to be rejected, ridiculed and maligned because we are thought to have departed from what is generally accepted as the orthodox tenets of the faith. Having encountered this accusation now myself on a number of occasions I thought to examine the charges in the light of 'Wikipedia' definitions of these two words.

Basically Gnostics, who were around at the time of the writing of the New Testament, viewed the Scriptures as allegorical, or mystical, containing hidden 'esoteric' meanings that were only able to be discerned by the initiated. This led to what was known as 'grades of revelation', or steps to enlightenment and deeper understanding that the uninitiated had no access to. It is believed that the Apostle Paul was addressing gnostic tendencies in his letter to the Church in Colossae with injunctions like, "Don't let anyone lead you astray with empty philosophy and high sounding nonsense that comes from human thinking and from the evil powers of this world, and not from Christ. For in Christ the fulness of God lives in a human body, and you are complete through your union with Christ. He is the Lord over every ruler and authority in the universe." (Colossians 2 verses 8-10, New Living Bible)

Heresy, on the other hand, is defined as a controversial, or novel, change to a system of beliefs, especially religious beliefs, that conflicts with established dogma. The word is of Greek origin meaning 'to choose', in this case to choose to believe something different from that which is commonly accepted. Some early Church Fathers, such as Irenaeus seemed to think that all heresies were Gnosticism at root and thus that any heretic was, in a sense, a Gnostic. When the Church and the State amalgamated heresy became a capital offence punishable by death and tragically many thousands of those who were so accused lost their lives. Perhaps due to the many modern negative connotations associated with the term 'heretic', such as the infamous Spanish Inquisition, the term is used less often today, but it has resurfaced in the debate over the ordination of women and gay priests.

Unfortunately for us these two issues are often grouped together as parallel issues which means that our arguments for the ordination of spiritually gifted women and Biblical equality, without regard to race, gender, ethnicity or class, are seen as paving the way for the acceptance of homosexuality as a legitimate, alternate lifestyle. From our perspective these are two entirely separate issues and the case for Biblical equality, within the church, is argued, almost exclusively, on the legitimate premise of the 'Priesthood of all believers,' which is neither Gnostic nor Heretical. When such accusations are levelled at us our carefully researched and Biblically sound arguments are automatically invalidated. Some go a step further in believing that as Gnostics or Heretics we deserve to be treated disparagingly as unbelieving enemies of the Gospel.

It used to be that when individuals or groups were branded with the term 'Gnostic' or 'Heretic' there was ample evidence that these people had made a serious departure from the faith, usually related to the person and work of Christ. By and large modern day believers have been free to differ on matters related to creationism (more recently), eschatology, modes of baptism and church government to name a few, as these were regarded as secondary issues. Egalitarians simply contend that their beliefs are matters to do with an alternate interpretation of disputed texts and should be open to debate. The challenge here is that egalitarian beliefs do cast an ominous shadow over the long standing traditions of patriarchy and hierarchy within the church. This is seen as a real threat to those who hold to these views/interpretations as essential doctrines.

It seems to me to be very heavy handed to label egalitarians as 'Heretics' and/or 'Gnostics.'

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