Ecclesiastical Winds (1)
So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through Phoenicia and Samaria, describing the conversion of the Gentiles; and they caused great joy to all the brethren. And when they had come to Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders; and they reported all things that God had done with them. But some of the sect of the Pharisees who believed rose up, saying, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses.” Acts 15.3-5
Ill winds in the household of faith
Our adversary the devil will leave no stone unturned and no wind untried to keep us from sailing a straight course in our Lord Jesus Christ. God has given us His Spirit, Who blows us in the direction of love for God and His Word, hatred of all sin, increased desire for and delight in Jesus, and a fervent determination to make Him known. But the god of this age blows against the sails of our soul with contrary winds of doctrine. Some of these arise from the world and the times in which we live; others are more naturally at home in our soul, where the law of sin welcomes, harbors, and deploys them as opportunity permits.
We must keep on guard against worldly and fleshly winds of doctrine, for if we fail to recognize and tack against them, they will cause us first to drift, then to go awry, and finally to become shipwrecked in our faith – unfruitful, lacking joy and purpose, and little distinct from the lost people around us.
But we must also recognize that ill winds of false doctrine arise even from within the household of faith. They take the form of mixed winds, blowing in the Name of the Lord Jesus, having many features of the Wind of God, and using the same terminology as that true Wind. Or they blow falsely with respect to the whole counsel of God and how we must regard it; or the relative importance of secondary matters of faith; r o the primacy of mere words; or a fixation with ways of doing things; or a primary commitment to traditions. All these false winds supplant the true Wind of God’s Word and Spirit, and since they cannot truly move our souls along the course of sanctification, they slow us down, direct us into uncharted waters, and ultimately leave us in the doldrums of faith.
The first of what we may refer to as “ecclesiastical winds” is the false wind of syncretism.
Syncretism attempts to bring into the life of faith beliefs, views, traditions, and practices from other forms of religion, arguing that true faith can only be realized along blended lines. Syncretism wants to put faith in Jesus together with other practices or beliefs as the true means of salvation.
Already in the New Testament, syncretistic winds were blowing into the Church. Paul was beset throughout his ministry by those who insisted that believing in Jesus was not enough for salvation. One also had to keep certain Jewish traditions – such as circumcision and holy days – to be fully acceptable to God. The syncretists, against whom Paul preached and wrote, urged people to believe in Jesus; but they added to faith in Jesus practices imported from Hebrew religion, practices which sought to preserve cherished old ways of seeking and serving God – as well as the status such practices accorded those who held them – while benefiting from the new covenant preaching about Jesus.
John also had to deal with a syncretistic wind which insisted that Jesus did not really appear in the flesh. The “docetists” whom John challenged in 1 John believed it was beneath the dignity of God to take on flesh, and that Jesus – Whom they preached as Savior and Lord – only appeared (the Greek word, δοκέω, dokeo, means “to seem” or “to appear”) to be garbed in flesh, even as He remained a most pure spirit.
Both Paul and John realized that these contrary and syncretistic winds would undermine the faith of believers and leave them ultimately with no hope. Paul argued that trusting in any of God’s Law for salvation was just a form of saving oneself. No one had been able to do that up to his day, and no one ever would be able to save themselves, given our inherent sinfulness and self-interest. We need a salvation that comes entirely from without, from a Mediator Who alone is able to fulfill the Law. In Him we are saved; and in Him all those aspects and features of the Law that pointed forward to Him were eclipsed and set aside, while the moral Law remains, though not as a means of salvation, but as salvation’s guide for loving God and men.
John argued against the docetists by saying that he and the other apostles had seen, heard, and even touched Jesus. He argued that Jesus came in the flesh and died in the flesh, and anyone who said otherwise was a false spirit. He emphasized the physical nature of Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection, and warned his readers against those who taught otherwise.
Syncretism has been a problem in every age of Church history; we see its continuing influence in our own day.
Problems with syncretism
Syncretism today takes the form of rationalism, which is a version of the secular faith of naturalism and materialism. Rationalistic syncretism insists that the Bible and its teachings should make sense and be reasonable to open-minded people. Beginning in the nineteenth century, Christian rationalists argued that the Bible is not inspired; rather, like any other book, it must be subjected to principles of analysis and understanding that are agreeable to human minds. This led to the view of Jesus as the product of human thinking, miracles as primitive attempts to explain natural phenomena, and salvation as little more than a psychological state.
More recently, rationalistic syncretism has given way to postmodern relativism, insisting that Christianity needs to be more in step with the times. It needs to adjust some of its teachings which people today find no longer acceptable. The origins and nature of the cosmos cannot be understood in Biblical terms; rather, evolutionary materialism must be allowed to guide our thinking about the origins of the universe, man, and God. In moral issues – such as the nature of marriage, human sexuality, abortion, and the use of wealth – syncretists argue that Christianity needs an upgrade, so that people in our day will be willing to hear the Good News of Jesus without being offended by “obsolete” teachings. In matters of worship and church life, syncretists insist that we must “do church” in ways “proven” by worldly experience, institutions, and culture.
Syncretism will always seek to secure a place in the sails of our soul. Using the language of Scripture and faith, it argues for a form of religion that fits the times but lacks true power to save. Syncretism unrecognized undermines the authority of Scripture, minimizes the role of Christ, turns its back on the history and heritage of Christian faith, and strives to please men more than God. For all these reasons, we must learn to recognize when syncretistic winds are blowing against us, and be able to resist them in the power of God’s Word and Spirit.
1. Why did Paul and John argue so vigorously against syncretism?
2. Syncretism wants to blend Christianity with the winds of doctrine blowing today, in the belief that this is how we fit the faith to the times. What’s wrong with this way of thinking?
3. How might you be able to tell when any syncretistic tendencies are blowing in the sails of your soul?
Next steps – Preparation: Review your walk with the Lord in prayer – how your prepare for your day, what you do throughout the day, your witness for Christ, your calling to make disciples. Do you see any areas where syncretism has diluted the power of true faith in your life?
T. M. Moore
All the studies in this Winds of Doctrine series are available by clicking here.
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.