For our Lent Studies at Christ Church this year, I have been taking a different theme each week from what our Lord said in the letters to the seven Churches of Asia in the book of Revelation. The four themes I have selected are:
1. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches
2. Be faithful unto death
3. I have this against you
4. I know your works
Last night, we were looking at the third theme which is to do with false teaching and the need to hold fast to the truth.
Warnings against false teaching abound in the New Testament, and they are a major theme in the letters to the seven Churches. Interestingly, Ephesus, one of the seven Churches, emerges in the New Testament as a centre of false teaching. St Luke, for example, tells us that St Paul warned the leaders of the Ephesian Church of what would happen after he left them:
'I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them.' (Acts 20:29-30)
St Paul sees the attack on the Church as coming both from outside the Church and from within it. It is the job of Church leaders to protect those whom God has entrusted to their care from false teaching.
So how does this apply to us?
In the Book of Revelation, and indeed the New Testament in general, the Devil appears as a major player in the attacks on God's people and as the One who deceives. St Paul writes in 2 Corinthians that 'we are not ignorant of his designs' (2 Corinthians 4:11).
I think we have to admit that we have been very ignorant of his designs and that the Devil has been very successful in deceiving the Church - so much so that not only are we not now in a position to recognize false teaching, we are even unhappy with the concept itself. As a result, we are largely defenceless against the attacks that are being made on us today as a Church and as Christians.
We are like people being attacked in a dark room: we know we are suffering injury, but we have no idea where the blows are coming from or when we are going to be struck.
The attack has been carefully planned and orchestrated:
Firstly, we have been encouraged in the Church, for many years now, to be open in our thinking. We have been persuaded to see dogma as bigotry; certainty in matters of faith as narrow-mindedness; and insistence on the importance of doctrinal assent as intolerance of the worst kind.
The real seeker after truth is one who is prepared to doubt; who values the beliefs of those outside the Church who also seek meaning in life; who engages in open-ended dialogue with those of different faiths; and who does not insist on one interpretation of the truth.
Secondly, we have been urged to be relevant to the world in which we live. Implied in this, of course, is that the way we have understood and expressed our faith in the past is not relevant any longer - if ever it was.
Everything has been up for reconsideration from the fundamental teaching of the faith, such as the Virgin Birth and the resurrection of our Lord, to the Creeds themselves. The very need for doctrine has itself been questioned in the process. Surely what matters more is what we experience as individuals and how we engage with the world around us?
Thirdly, having got us in the Church to the point where we are unwilling to be dogmatic about our faith and are unhappy with traditional formulations of it, and where what matters most to us is how we are perceived by the world around us, we are now being encouraged to move to the next stage in our departure from the truth.
What form this stage will take is only just beginning to take shape, but already there are some hints. This week, I suggested three areas in particular:
1. Our understanding of God as expressed in the historic Creeds of the Church.
The Devil doesn't have to do much to persuade us to abandon these Creeds as most Christians have already been persuaded to think that they are either no longer relevant or are incomprehensible or both. Having got rid of the Creeds, the way is open to convince Christians that they now need to change the way they think about God.
2. How we worship and talk of God.
Worship has already become more about what we experience and the effect it has on us than about giving honour and praise to God. In some Churches, worship is as much about entertainment and giving people a good time as it is about anything else. And, for the record, this applies equally to those Churches who insist on great liturgy because they love the language it uses as it does to those who like hi-tech and bands.
3. Our understanding of ourselves and what it means to be human.
Most of the arguments so far in this area have been about sex and who does what, with whom. The freedom of the individual to make these decisions for themselves without fear of being questioned or judged is now just accepted and understood. What we now face is a questioning of how humans for all their history have seen and understood themselves and, in particular, of what it means to be a man or a woman.
Having got to where we now are as Church, we simply lack either the ability or the resources to tackle these issues effectively. What St Paul said would happen at Ephesus, and what was happening in some of the seven churches in Asia, is happening to us, that is, that the distortion of the truth is happening from within.
Given how we have been deceived into thinking that we should be open and accepting of any idea or opinion no matter how contrary it may be to what the Church has believed in the past, our Lord's words in Revelation come as a total shock.
He talks about how he hates (and yes, he does use the word 'hate') what some in the Church are doing and teaching. He condemns those who tolerate teaching that is wrong. He tells them that unless they repent and do something about it - and quickly - he will bring to an end their existence as Church.
And that, I believe, is our Lord's message to us this Lent.