Gnosticism cropped up early in the history of the Church. The beginnings of this heresy are seen in New Testament books like Colossians and 1 John. The word gnostic comes from the Greek verb ginosko: “to know.” The gnostics claimed to have a secret superior form of knowledge than everyone else, hence the name. Gnosticism was an application of Plato’s concept of dualism. This ancient Greek philosopher taught that there are two parallel worlds, the spiritual (real) and the physical (illusory). Most of us would agree that there are material and spiritual dimensions to the world; but for Plato the two were absolutely distinct. The physical world was a faint shadow or dim mirror image of the real spiritual substance.
The Gnostics took Platonic Dualism a step farther by saying the material world is not only not “real” in the same sense as the spiritual realm, but that matter itself is bad or evil. From this starting point the Gnostics made applications which involved either punishing the physical body or simply ignoring its significance in the scheme of daily spiritual growth. God could not be experienced in the material world; one must somehow tap into the spiritual plane, which was seen as totally distinct from the physical universe. Some Gnostics called Docetists taught that Jesus could not have had a real body, and that He simply appeared to be human. Because the human body is not “real” but in fact evil, Christ could not be truly divine and condescend to a material existence. He just seemed to be human.
In today’s churches–especially in the singing, we see hints of Gnostic thinking. Songs which talk about wanting nothing in life other than Jesus are as silly as they are wrong. First, there is nothing wrong with wanting things in this world other than Jesus. God created us to want food, sex, money, power, and human relationship. True, we are to seek first His kingdom, but under that umbrella there is nothing wrong with wanting things. Secondly, anyone who sings that he wants nothing in life besides Jesus is really lying about himself. These ludicrous lyrics imply that wanting Jesus and wanting ordinary things of this material realm are somehow mutually exclusive. It is a kind of black and white dichotomy which is reminiscent on Gnostic Dualism.
Other praise songs talk about wanting God to be present in an extraordinary way. God is implored to open heaven and pour Himself out on the congregation. This is the same kind of thinking that sees God present when we are off in a spiritual corner praying or reading our Bibles. But Scripture teaches that God is present everywhere. He is providentially involved in even the most ordinary affairs of this life. We affirm the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: God’s works of providence are His most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all His creatures, and all their actions. God is present everywhere. Evidence of His glory abounds in the material created order. God is not synonymous with the material world, as in Hinduism, but he is present in and through it at every point. All of life is spiritual. All of life is worship–even the so-called ordinary things.
The fact is, God is no more present in a worship service than He is in your car–the Most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands. And don’t quote Matthew 18:20: Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst. In context that passage is speaking specifically of the church discipline process and not the worship service in general. You see, we are not Gnostics. We do not go to church because we think somehow God will be magically present in a way He is absent when we are engaging in “non-spiritual” activities like washing the dishes or mowing the lawn. We do not go to church because we will experience God’s presence in an extraordinary way. We go to church so that together we can experience corporate fellowship with one another and be fed from the bounty of God’s Word. I suppose one could say he experiences God in a unique way at church through corporate fellowship with those whom He indwells–the believers. They are the real temple of God. But there is really nothing extraordinary about this. My point here is that there is no sense in pleading with God to open the windows of heaven and pour Himself out–He is already there! Just as He is with you wherever you are at this moment. He indwells you, and He is present in and all around you whether you feel Him or not.
Modern evangelicalism has it backwards; and this is what I meant when I said much of today’s Christianity savors of Gnosticism.