In this series we take a look back at some of the most notorious errors and
heresies that have threatened the church over the centuries, as well as the subtle (and not so subtle) ways in
which those false teachings continue to haunt 21st century thought and theology.
Did you know that, by learning four simple chords, you can play hundreds of popular songs? It’s true. Four chords, arranged in different progressions, provide the structure for many well-known tunes.
False doctrine works the same way. Satan can take a few of the same basic errors, and from them spin hundreds of different religious groups. This has been evident throughout this series on Error’s Echo. Satan has mixed, matched, reformatted, arranged, packaged and sold false doctrine in ways that appealed to different people at different points in history.
Paulicianism is another example of that. It first appeared in Armenia during the 7th century. It was a devil’s brew of teachings, taken buffet-style from false religions that preceded it. It is part Docetism, part Gnosticism, part Dualism, and part Asceticism. The primary difference between Paulicianism and its component parts was the fact that it operated outside of the Roman Catholic Church and was not a movement within it.
Paulicianism promised to return the church to the glory days of Pauline Christianity. Its leader was Constantine (not to be confused with the Roman emperor of three centuries earlier). Constantine named his disciples Timothy, Titus and Tychicus, and took the name Silvanus for himself. While the group focused especially on the writings of the Apostle Paul, in reality its doctrine relied on the faulty logic and sinful human reason of its leaders.
Paulicians believed that spirit is good and matter is evil. Therefore, Jesus did not have human flesh because the body itself is evil. Jesus also did not suffer physically, nor did He need to. The real purpose for His coming was not to save us, body and soul, for eternity, but to free us from the physical realm.
Paulicians blatantly violated the Scriptures. They separated passages from context the way lions separate a wildebeest from the herd. Isolating God’s truth allows it to be twisted into saying whatever people want it to say. Strip Scripture of its context, and anything goes.
Paulicians rejected the Old Testament, arguing that the God of the Old Testament was not the same as the God of the New. The former was harsh, judgmental, and vindictive; the latter is the God of love, patience, and grace. The God who prescribed death by stoning for adulterers (Leviticus 20:10) is not the same God who said, “Neither do I condemn you…” (John 8:11) and, “Judge not and you will not be judged.” (Matthew 7:1) Can you hear Paulicianism’s echo today? Of course.
Such false teaching is widespread in American culture. By marginalizing the uncomfortable teachings of Scripture, a person can choose whatever he wishes to believe. This is standard practice in today’s secular “Christianity.” Each individual can determine his own, personal brand of faith. Sincerity and piety are more important than truth. In fact, any religious piety is better than no piety, even when it rejects the work of Christ.
This is the religion of modern America. This is also our mission field. Paulicians, past and present, need to hear that the God Who demands righteousness and must punish disobedience, is the same God Who came in the flesh to bear the punishment for us. The God of the Old Testament is also the God of the New. What He promised to the people of old, He faithfully brought to completion through the perfect life, death, and resurrection of the Word made flesh. Law and Gospel are meant to be together. Without the one, the other becomes optional. Understanding this connection separates truth from error and alone can restore the church to what it should be: a place where sin and grace, judgment and mercy, eternal life or death, comfort or despair truly converge at the cross of Christ.
James Albrecht is pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Okabena, Minnesota.