Where is Irenaeus When we Need Him?

In the south of modern-day France, in the Roman city of Lugdunum which is now Lyon, around the middle of the second century, a bishop was stoned to death by the people of the city who followed Gnostic teachings. The pope summoned Irenaeus who was serving as a priest in Lugdunum and appointed him to be the second bishop of the region. Rather than set up shop as a bishop with all the pomp and circumstance, Irenaeus considered his work to be more missionary in nature since most of the people in his diocese were not Christian.

He spent several years befriending and meeting with the people and their religious (gnostic) leaders. He was doing field research so that he developed a thorough understanding of the gnostic belief. Then he began to write treatises refuting Gnosticism and showing that the Christian faith as taught by the church was the true faith. He eventually won over the city and the whole region of Gaul. Modern day France is Roman Catholic today largely because of the efforts of Irenaeus.

Why is his story important to us today (at least for those of us who don’t live in France)?

One of the practices of Gnosticism was the selling of spirituality and God’s favor. This was condemned in the Book of Acts in the story of Simon Magus. Today, we refer to the crass selling of indulgences or tickets to heaven as the sin of “Simony.” It is also the standard message of many evangelical churches.

While on sabbatical in 2017, we visited five large, evangelical churches. In 100% of our visits, the very long message from the pulpit that thousands of people flocked to hear was the same. “Give your money to the church and God will forgive you.” Sometimes the message was preceded by a nod to John Calvin where people were made to feel guilty for being “evil, wicked and sinful from birth…”

This dreadfully heretical message is deadly effective in building up huge followers giving enormous amounts of money, power, and prestige to the practitioners of this black art known as “televangelists.” The preachers on television live in enormous mansions and fly on private jets paid for by their followers. This has been going on since the late 1800s so that now, fundamentalism and this variant of “evangelical Christianity” now outpaces the Roman Catholic church and all forms of mainline Protestantism put together.

If this trend is allowed to continue, the Roman Catholic church and mainline Protestantism will be reduced to irrelevance while the followers of Simon Magus that the church condemned for 2,000 years will ride blissfully off into the sunset. I am not sure that Jesus died in agony on the cross so that a few silver-tongued preachers could lead thousands into heresy. What should be done about it?

This is where the teaching office of the bishop is important. Vitally important. Rather than dealing with the latest social-theological fads, our bishops need to follow the lead of Irenaeus and forcefully condemn these teachings that no Christian prior to 1800 would recognize as Christian. Instead of sound research, scholarship and vigorous condemnation, our church leaders have preferred to “play nice” and allow the heretical distortions of Christian belief to overwhelm all other versions. This is not an easy road for bishops or scholars today. Irenaeus’ predecessor was stoned to death.

But again, I ask, Where is Irenaeus when we need him or her?

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