Gnosticism Part 4: Ceremonies & Rituals

If you read Colossians, you quickly become aware that Paul was busy refuting some false teachings that had begun to affect the church at Colossae. Epahras had sent Paul a letter about this, and Colossians was Paul's response. Though Paul never mentioned "Gnosticism" by name, it becomes obvious that's what he was referring to, because of his use of certain words and phrases.

Gnosticism is less a religion than a loose patchwork of philosophies and doctrines from other religions and disciplines, blended into an amorphous set of beliefs that taint the true faith as delivered by Jesus. There never was a church of Gnostics, or a firm set of Gnostic tenets, just beliefs certain people promoted as a subtle blend of Christianity and good-sounding religious practices from elsewhere, mostly the Eastern mystical religions. But in general, we can list six elements contained in most Gnostic teachings, courtesy of the Zondervan NIV bible, which in turn is based on Paul's mention of them in Colossians.

1. secret knowledge, (refuted in Col 1:27; 2:3)
2. asceticism, (Col 2:18)
3. depreciation of Christ (lowering Him in name and in glory), (Col 2:18b)
4. strict rule-keeping, ceremonies, or rituals ( Col 2:23)
5. worship of angels, ( Col 2:18)
6. and reliance on human wisdom and traditions (Col 2:20b-22)

When we come through the door of justification, and before we exit life through the door of glorification, we engage in a life-long process of sanctification. This is the work of the Holy Spirit upon us to make us more Christlike and to consecrate us for holy work on earth. “There are many false paradigms of sanctification, and there always have been. The problem is, there is only one method of sanctification and that is through the Spirit. The false paradigms of sanctification cannot restrain the flesh. Though some paradigms or strategies of sanctification purport to restrain the flesh and make one holy, they don't do that, any more than a false Gospel could save. ... [Gnostic/Mysticism] "is the notion that there is within a person a mystical, intuitive capability that causes, if manipulated correctly, a person to rise in spiritual formation", said John MacArthur, in his new blog series addressing mysticism/gnosticism and spiritual formation, in his part 2 called "Spiritual Formation and Biblical Sanctification."

BibleGateway summarizes Gnosticism, "The heresy taking root in Colossae was a form of gnosticism, which taught (among other things) that humans could transcend evil and the corruptions of the world through asceticism and their own strength of will. ..."

The early church was much plagued by Gnostics throughout the first through third centuries. Colossians and 1 John are the most pointed refutations of this false doctrine, but several other New Testament books dealt with it too, including 1 Timothy 6, Titus, and other books as well.

Gnosticism is a self-centered, and not a Jesus centered doctrine, meaning, they attempt to attain sanctification themselves. They also believe in a progressive sanctification. It was through completion of rituals and participation in ceremonies that Gnostics believed progressed one's sanctification ever upward. Mormonism, Scientology, and many of the 'secret societies' like Odd Fellows, Red Men and Freemasonry have steps for the devotee to attain. Sometimes these steps are called "degrees", as in Freemasonry. In Scientology they are called "levels".

Gnostics brought a teaching, but their rituals varied widely, that is, until Aleister Crowley wrote one. Crowley was a British mystic and occultist who, when in Egypt in 1904, "received" a text known as The Book of the Law from what he believed was a divine source. From this basis Crowley built a theology of Gnosticism called Thelema. In 1913, he wrote a Gnostic Mass. The mass contained Crowley's scripted rituals. Crowley was also a pansexual and a recreational drug user, which may explain his crazy eyes.

Left, Aleister Crowley in ceremonial garb. Wiki source

Crowley explained why he undertook to codify Gnostic teachings into spiritual practices expressed through a 'mass'. He said in his Confessions, "Human nature demands (in the case of most people) the satisfaction of the religious instinct, and, to very many, this may best be done by ceremonial means. I wished therefore to construct a ritual through which people might enter into ecstasy as they have always done under the influence of appropriate ritual."

But Paul said, "Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day." (Colossians 2:16).

As for ecstasies, "Some charismatic Christians practice ecstatic states (called e.g. "being slain in the Spirit") and interpret these as given by the Holy Spirit." 

Since Gnostics deny the sufficiency of Christ's work on the cross in His flesh, and they deny the Spirit's work in sanctification, they need these rituals to make themselves thing they are accomplishing their own sanctification. All false religions, including Gnostics, focus on what the individual can do to attain heaven, or a higher consciousness, or transcendence, or any other phrase they claim will be the result of performing a certain ritual. In other words, I can do it, no God needed, thanks.

In Colossians 2:20, Paul exhorted, "If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—"

The above verse is explained, "'Your union with Christ in his death has caused you to die to the rudiments of the world', meaning, your union with Christ in his death has caused you to be separated from human religion, and human reli­gion is based in legalism and mysticism and self denial and all those works kind of things. But he says the redeemed are set free from self-styled, man made rules designed to make you holy." (source)

For a pagan, including Gnostics, "salvation is not brought from above to below by divine visitations, but rather occurs through the Gnostic's contemplative ascent through ever higher levels of the divine realm."

"One version of a Gnostic ritual or ceremony was marking the various stages of a visionary ascent with certain baptisms, sealings, washings in various "waters." Another ritual was utilizing a self-performable technique of successive stages of mental detachment from the world of multiplicity, and a corresponding assimilation of the self to the evermore refined levels of being." You'll find this is in Roman Catholic asceticism and Buddhism."

"Other rituals and ceremonies included sexual sacramentalism, verbal performances through ritual speech, which can include glossalalia, traditional verbal formulae, spells, oaths, conjuration, invocations, evocations, voces mysticae, and prayers of various sorts addressed to transcendent powers, good and evil alike, and/or symbolic actions such as a ritual handshake. (source, University Nebraska-Lincoln)

You will note the incipient Gnosticism inherent in the Pentecostal 'language of tongues' (glossolalia) and levels of spiritual maturity through having had a "baptism of the Spirit."

As you read the examples above, perhaps the modern re-emergence of these old Gnostic practices will have already been brought to your mind. The current evangelical craze for contemplative prayer, Lectio Divina, meditation, "Christian yoga", expressive praise dance & mime performance, labyrinth walking, and becoming detached from the world to await a small voice in which conversations are held with the 'Divine,' are now apparent to you in the Gnostic teachings of Beth Moore, Ann Voskamp, Sarah Young, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Mark Driscoll, and many others.

The devilish influence of these practices are collectively known as "spiritual formation" and I mentioned them in part 2 four days ago. Since then, John MacArthur has also begun a blog series on spiritual formation and he is defining these false practices, blog by blog, so that the believer can be aware of their evil influence.

In 1932 the Polish cracked the Germans' war codes. Just weeks before WWII broke out in 1939, they gave the information to the Allies. We called it "The Enigma Machine". "The intelligence gleaned from this source, codenamed "Ultra" by the British, was a substantial aid to the Allied war effort. The exact influence of Ultra on the course of the war is debated; an oft-repeated assessment is that decryption of German ciphers hastened the end of the European war by two years. Winston Churchill told the United Kingdom's King George VI after World War II: "It was thanks to Ultra that we won the war."

You know, Solomon said that there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Every false religion can be traced back to the Garden of Eden. Satan's first words in the bible are recorded as ones which question the sufficiency and accuracy of the information God delivered to humans. He went on to imply that God was holding out on Adam and Eve, (God is a liar) that if Eve performed an action (eat the fruit) she would know as much as God, and that we can be like God. Gnosticism can be traced to those very words. There is no new false doctrine. They are all recycled bits from old satanic lies.

We do not need an enigma machine! We do not need to decipher our enemy's plans! Why? Because we are not unaware of his schemes! (2 Cor 2:11). God has generously given us His word, inside of which is everything profitable for us (2 Timothy 3:16) to live and work out our salvation in fear and trembling. (Philippians 2:12). He laid out for us that satan is a liar and the father of lies. Under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the bible is replete with examples of the lies of satan, warnings that he seeks someone to devour, (Luke 22:31; 1 Peter 5:8). He shows us what kind of lies he perpetrates (Genesis 3:1-5, Colossians 1-2; and many other NT books).

If we read the bible diligently we will be solidly infused with His word. Saturate yourself in Truth! When you come across falsity, for example if your church wants to institute contemplative prayer, build a labyrinth,  send you to a yoga workshop, or start a praise dance will be able to detect it.

"When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come." (John 16:13). "He shall not speak of himself means He shall teach nothing contrary to what I have taught you:" we read in Clarke's Commentary.

Just to reinforce for a moment that there is no new doctrine under the sun, here is the culminating prayer from the 1913 Liber XV Mass that Crowley wrote, which adheres to a position that Gnostics of earlier centuries believed, right down to Paul's time:

"Lord most secret, bless this spiritual food unto our bodies, bestowing upon us health and wealth and strength and joy and peace, and that fulfilment of will and of love under will that is perpetual happiness."

It is the Prosperity Gospel!

I am against Expressive, Choreographed Dance in Worship. I do not believe it to be an acceptable form of worship in a service. With that in mind, here is Stephen Colbert in "Just Say No to Liturgical Dance". He provided his own liturgical dance version of the hymn "King of Glory" on the show Strangers with Candy. I think this shows the ridiculousness of praise dancing. I do not doubt the sincerity of many who perform this kind of dance in church, and I applaud them for wanting to serve Him, but I think it detracts from the fact that we must always keep Jesus as the focus, especially in these Gnostic days.

Gnosticism series:
Part 1: Secret Knowledge
Part 2: Asceticism
Part 3: Depreciation of Jesus
Part 4: Ceremonies & Rituals
Part 5: Worship of Angels

Part 6: Human Traditions 


  1. I was told by a missionary some years ago that the Roman Catholic church would be in the practice of blending itself with the cultures existing religious system to make it more palatable.
    Every church that has people in it are to some degree guilty of adding something. It looks a lot like syncretism.

  2. David danced before the Lord in a way that embarrased onlookers, he had joy in his heart. There is nothing wrong with dancing and expressing the joy of the Lord. Yes, that guy dancing looked ridiculous but I don't think he was trying to be serious, do you? He sure did look happy though didn't he?

    1. Your response is similar to those I receive that essentially says "dancing is in the bible, so it is OK!" well, cannibalism is in the bible. So is incest. A knee-jerk reaction to praise dancing by a tenuous support of it by saying "Well...David danced" is not exegetically sound.

      Davids dance was an choreographed, unscripted, unrehearsed response to the joy in hes heart. Praise/Liturgical/Lyrical dance in Christian worship services is the opposite.

      What made David's dance different (and acceptable) is

      It was spontaneous, not planned
      It was responsive, not catalytic
      It was for the audience of the Lord, not people
      It was asymmetrical, not choreographed
      It was humble, not man-exalting
      It was spirit, not body-centric
      It was characterized by noticeable fervency, not noticeable form

      more here

  3. Do you really hold cannibalism and incest along the same lines and choreographed dancing? I'm pretty sure the Jews didn't offer up babies as sacrifices to their God, and yet they offered up their dancing.

    I guess it becomes a heart issue, are you doing it to please God or man? If man, then yes I am with you.. it doesn't really count as worship. I have seen one choreographed dance about Jesus online and it was stunningly beautiful and I would count that as worship for sure.

    1. "Do you really hold cannibalism and incest along the same lines and choreographed dancing?"


      Too many people take something that is in the bible casually and not exegetically and use it as the excuse for doing what they do. "Dancing is in the bible, hey, David danced so it must be all right", and use that verse as a platform for their reasoning.

      I'm glad you saw the ridiculousness of the process of saying "it's in the bible so it must be all right," because no one in their right mind would advocate incest or cannibalism. Just because something happened in the bible does not mean that it is appropriate to strip it out of its context and use it for a bad purpose that is really only a deluded self-justification.

      It is NOT a heart issue. The heart is desperately wicked, who can know it? That's why we look to the bible for what *He* said on how we should worship Him. Choreographed praise dancing is not biblical. It is carnal. I encourage you to read the essay at the link, it explains fully why.

  4. I think you've done well to address gnotisisim in today's culture, but I think you'd do better to find a better source to rule out the disciples and teachings of Jesus than what you listed from the NIV Zondervan Bible. Gnostic beliefs are centered around a supreme God above the God of the people (Jesus), that man is fallen and existence is but a droplet or vapour, they believe Spiritual power comes through Angels on behalf of God, more often or always rather than God themselves, and they speak oft of keys to kingdom or secrets of heaven or mysteries of God. It's important to accept that Jesus and his disciples not only taught many of these beliefs, but most of them where never introduced in the bible at all before the new testament. It's especially important not to overlook how their faces

    1. I used the Zondervan NIV only to list the 6 main elements of Gnosticism, and acknowledged there are other elements because Gnosticism is not a religion with a set of identified creeds, but that those were the main ones. My preferred translation is ESV.

      Jesus never taught that power to men comes thru angels. He never said there were secrets still to be learned by only the select. There is nothing new to learn about Jesus unless it is in the OT or the NT. He IS the Truth and apart from Him there is no truth. That truth is found in His word. If is not in the bible it is not His word. It is not 'important to accept' that the Apostles taught Gnosticism. I think you missed the entire point ...and I'm really sorry for that because it means you missed the point of Jesus.


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