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The Early Church: Catering to the Culture?

by Jasmine Alnutt

The Early Church: Catering to the Culture?

“We need to adapt the Christian message to the way things are in society today!” How many of us have heard this statement? With issues like abortion, racism, the LGBTQ agenda, along with the sudden emergence of the trans and pangender movement, it is easy to feel that, as Christians, we need to change things up and adapt the Gospel message in order to relate to and identify with the culture.

But can the Christian go too far in seeking to identify with culture?

Many believers struggle with this today. Yet, it is not a new question; as early as the first century, Christians were already grappling with a flood of ideologies that attempted to adapt the Christian message to the surrounding Greco-Roman culture.

As we have learned, Greco-Roman culture was very influential and pervasive, having been enforced by the Roman Empire and eventually accepted and embraced by virtually every people group around the Mediterranean. One of its most influential elements was Greek philosophy. At the heart of much Greek philosophy is the concept of dualism, the belief that the world is ultimately divided between the two cosmic forces of good and evil¹ ; this is accompanied by the belief that the material world is crude and evil, while the spiritual realm is pure and good. It wasn’t long before this popular and widely accepted belief system reached the young Christian Church.

The identification of Christianity with Greek philosophy presented itself in a variety of packages, but none was as threatening and insidious as Gnosticism.

Although it predated Christianity, when combined with Christian teaching, Gnosticism proved so attractive that at one point in history many who called themselves Christians adhered to some form of Gnosticism as well!² 

Gnosticism derived its name from the Greek word gnosis, meaning "knowledge." Gnostics claimed to possess a higher spiritual knowledge and understanding of the universe that had been revealed by Jesus to secret teachers other than the disciples. Like the Greeks, they believed that all matter is evil. Therefore, while they embraced the spiritual aspects of Christianity, they were uncomfortable with the material elements taught in the Bible—particularly the doctrine of Creation and the Incarnation.

The Gnostics concluded that God would certainly not have lowered Himself to create the material world; and by no means would He have made His Son Jesus an actual physical body! No, events like the Creation and Incarnation must have been “aeons” or “emanations” of God made by subordinate heavenly powers, not God Himself! In a word, the Gnostics denied the biblical Creation account and the humanity of Jesus Christ, because these were “uncomfortable” doctrines that were incompatible with prevailing Greek philosophy.

Now, Gnosticism was appealing for several reasons. First, it embraced some key elements of the Christian faith: the concept of salvation, the notion of a supreme deity and the idea of spiritual beings at work in the universe.

Indeed, Gnosticism placed great emphasis on the spiritual realm, which, no doubt, appealed to Christians who desired to “set their minds on things above, not on things on the earth” (Colossians 3:2). Thus, there was just enough Christian truth to legitimize it and make it palatable to unsuspecting believers.

Secondly, its identification with Greek philosophy made it very comfortable and familiar to those living in the Greco-Roman world. Although Christians were to be “in the world but not of it,” they still lived in and were exposed to the culture around them just as we are today; it would be extremely difficult not to be in some way influenced by such strong cultural crosscurrents, and particularly, a doctrine that not only seemed to teach Christian truths, but was also culturally familiar and acceptable.

Thirdly, the Gnostics declared they had special revelation or understanding not given to the common man, and so their version of the Christian message belonged to an intellectual elite. Thus Gnosticism was essentially “Christianity for the Philosophers and Intellectuals,” a belief system that appealed to human pride, to those who, as the Apostle John warned, “love to have the preeminence among them” (3 John 9). In a culture that glorified philosophers and intellectuals, this would certainly have been a temptation to many believers. As Bruce Shelley insightfully points out, “[Gnosticism] speaks to all who try to raise Christianity from the level of faith to a higher realm of intelligent knowledge and so increase its attractiveness to important people.”³

Clearly, Gnosticism was a deviation of the Gospel derived from the surrounding culture, altering key biblical truths to appeal to the Greco-Roman worldview. And because it maintained many elements of the Christian message, it gained wide appeal and was difficult to uproot. 

However, God is intentional in what He allows us to face as believers; and what the enemy intends for evil, He can ultimately turn to good. Gnosticism was indeed a great threat to Christianity, and yet it became one of the driving forces in the establishment of systematic theology and Christian doctrine. It forced the Church to articulate the truths of God’s Word and to confidently defend these truths. As God raised up men to contend for the faith, the truth prevailed; as with every attack on Christianity throughout history, Gnosticism capitulated in the face of biblical truth proclaimed by the power of the Holy Spirit. As dangerous as Gnosticism was, it eventually faded into obscurity, as did the dualism and Greek philosophy it championed.

The lesson here is this: There will always be cultural movements, social issues and intellectual challenges to biblical Christianity—even from within the Church itself!

Today’s challenges and pressures from the current culture may seem overwhelmingly strong and influential—but so did Gnosticism! Yet, like Gnosticism, these ideologies and philosophies will fade off the scene; this has been the case for over two millennia. Therefore, as Shelley so accurately states, “The attempt to tie the gospel to the latest theories of men is self-defeating. Nothing is as fleeting in history as the latest theories that flourish among the enlightened, and nothing can be more quickly dismissed by later generations.”4

Our task as Bible-believing Christians is to do what the Early Church did when faced with Gnosticism; don’t try to cater to the culture—contend for the truth! Social upheaval and cultural currents may come and go; yet as the Apostle Peter declared, the incorruptible seed of the Word of God lives and abides forever (1 Peter 1:23).

¹ Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language
² 
Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity
³ 
Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language
4 Ibid.