A destructive pursuit has plagued the Church of God for centuries. Perhaps surprisingly, it often starts with pure motives—yet it frequently leads to pride, rebellion, and division. It did so in the first-century Church, and still does in God’s Church today. The pursuit of “special knowledge” is one of Satan’s most insidious and effective tools for attacking the people of God, and the problems it causes can be devastating. Let’s examine some of the effects of this pursuit, and then see what we can personally do to rein it in.
We read in the New Testament that within just 20 years of Christ’s resurrection, heretical ideas had begun to infiltrate some of the congregations of God’s Church. In one way, the various backgrounds of the Church’s converts make this unsurprising—each brought a certain perspective or worldview based on his or her background, experience, and influences, and many of these influences had pagan origins. Despite having repented and been baptized, many people were still influenced by these worldviews in ways that affected their understanding of God’s truth. Each nationality had certain propensities and inclinations—Jewish converts were heavily influenced by Mosaic ritual and Hebrew tradition, Romans were influenced by pagan philosophies, and Greeks were enamored with intellectualism. Acts 17:21 says of the Athenians that they “spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.”
These converging backgrounds and influences began to affect the Church, and they all polluted the purity and simplicity of Christ’s message and caused factions to arise. For an example of this dissension, we can go to Galatians 1:6–7, where Paul said that those who insisted that Gentiles must be circumcised were actually perverting the Gospel of Christ.
Paul also corrected the brethren in Corinth for their acceptance of contrary views: “But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted—you may well put up with it!” (2 Corinthians 11:3–4). The Corinthian brethren had been fostering an environment of tolerance for compromised doctrine and morality, and Paul made very clear that these ideas were not at all part of the true Gospel; rather, they were opposed to it.
Notice that Paul referred to the serpent deceiving Eve in the Garden of Eden. We find the account of this deception in Genesis 3:1–6:
Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”
And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’”
Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate.
The serpent, Satan, appealed to Eve’s intellectual vanity. In effect, he was offering her special knowledge. The appeal of having special information goes back to the very first humans, and Satan played on that desire—in fact, he still does.
Peter addressed the growing problem around 68 AD, 19 years after the letter to the Galatians:
But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed. By covetousness they will exploit you with deceptive words; for a long time their judgment has not been idle, and their destruction does not slumber (2 Peter 2:1–3).
Notice that Peter uses the term “false prophets,” referring to people who claimed special insight. Such people, he says, are motivated by covetousness—whether they are coveting power, prestige, respect, or something else. Christ’s Apostles, on the other hand, clearly had the authority to preach as they did. 2 Peter 1:16–18 reminds us that, unlike those who claimed to have “new truth,” the Apostles were eyewitnesses of Christ Himself. What’s more, Peter says, “No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation [origin], for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (vv. 20–21). This has always been how God works to reveal the truth.
Nevertheless, the damage had been done, and the Church was never the same. In many ways, this parallels the challenges faced by the Philadelphia era of God’s Church. When that era began and the Church was small, there was innocence. Later, as the Church grew through the 1950s and 1960s, there was excitement. But with the growth came the inevitable tares among the wheat.
As Dr. Roderick C. Meredith explained many times, there have been many fractures over doctrine throughout the years, including the major fracture three decades ago that we now call “the apostasy.” One common thread through many of these splits was someone claiming to have “special knowledge.” The unfortunate result of this is always further division of God’s people. Yet, for many, their path toward “special knowledge” started as a sincere and innocent pursuit of deeper spiritual understanding. Nevertheless, somewhere along the line, they reached their own conclusion about a doctrinal matter that differed from the established teachings of God’s Church.
A Dangerous Path
The progression from innocent curiosity to arrogant rebellion usually goes something like this: First, a person notices something in a scripture that piques his interest—it’s something he hasn’t noticed before, but it seems to merit further study. Leaping to his mind as a result of this curiosity is a theory that, for one reason or another, is very attractive to him.
This person then gathers all the scriptures and other documentation—lexicons, commentaries, Google search results, etc.—that seem to support his theory. But here is the danger: Does he honestly consider the evidence he finds that does not support his theory? Has he seriously studied what the Church teaches on the topic? Or is he studying to show his new idea correct, rather than to understand God’s word more fully?
Because the Internet spreads almost every idea imaginable, it is easy to feel validated by finding others who share belief in his newfound theory. Once he feels validated, his theory becomes, in his mind, Truth—with a capital T. Believing he has discovered special knowledge, he begins to share it with people offline, including members of his Church congregation. If he receives positive reactions, he grows bolder in spreading his “Truth” and starts to look for further special knowledge that will gain him more positive attention.
But what does he do if he receives negative reactions? The humble Christian approach is to go to God in prayer and to ask God’s ministers to help him understand what he might be misunderstanding. Too often, however, pride was behind the “special knowledge” in the first place, and though he feels superior to those who do not share his knowledge, he retreats within his own mind, still privately believing his own ideas but unwilling to examine those ideas honestly in the light of God’s word.
Either way, such a proud individual almost inevitably starts finding other points on which he believes the Church is wrong, and he repeats the above steps—either gaining an audience or internalizing his attitude of superior knowledge. His demeanor and attitude change, and his attendance at Sabbath services becomes sporadic. All along, he keeps up a dialogue with others who believe the same things he does.
By the time he tells his minister about his new beliefs, he is no longer seeking to learn. He is seeking to teach, rejecting all explanations of Church teachings or refutations of his mistaken beliefs. He then leaves God’s Church. He might join another group, he might stay “solo” and rely on the Internet for his study and fellowship, or he might start a group of his own. Whatever he does, he is far from the humble place where he began; he now sees himself as a chosen vessel for special knowledge, and as such, he will eventually disagree with whomever he aligns himself, because he now has the delusion of knowing more than anyone else. If he goes far enough, he will become, in his own mind, the sole authority of God’s truth, ending up completely alone and disconnected from the Body of Christ—the Body that, tasked with doing the Work, now has at least one less person to help with doing that Work.
The Issue Is Attitude
The only “winner” in this scenario is Satan, who has once again worked on someone in the same way he worked on Eve. In addition to appealing to people’s intellectual vanity, he also works on the ego, causing them to feel slighted. With Eve, he used, God is not fair—He is holding something back from you.
And Satan uses the same tactic today. What’s interesting is that doctrine is rarely the true beginning of the journey: Many times, before the person “gains special knowledge,” he has already been offended by something or someone in the Church. Perhaps there is something that he doesn’t agree with, or his feelings were hurt by an “insensitive” statement or a slight (usually by someone in authority). The person allows a root of bitterness to spring up. Then, believing that he has “special knowledge” the Church lacks, he soon embraces the idea that those who disagree with him can’t be in “God’s true Church.”
Look at the tragic results: Another schism in the Body, thereby diminishing the Church’s effectiveness in performing its mission of preaching the Gospel. Another person is now without the nurture and protection of the Church, deluded that he, and he alone, is being used by God to reveal truth.
The particular doctrines in dispute are actually beside the point, whether they involve calendar issues, “sacred names,” the true Gospel, or any one of a hundred other old, tired controversies. Once people start down this path, their argumentative and defiant attitudes become the issue. Paul told Timothy to “charge some that they teach no other doctrine, nor give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith” (1 Timothy 1:3–4). How sad that these people have forgotten the point of the Gospel: “Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith, from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm” (vv. 5–7).
Brethren, be on guard against Satan’s lies that play on our vanity. Beware of the danger of thinking you have special knowledge—God doesn’t work this way!
God gave a warning to those who take upon themselves the prerogative of spreading “insight” that is not clearly supported by God’s inspired word. Deuteronomy 13:1–5 reveals that anyone who leads others away from God and the truth is guilty of an incredibly serious offense. But that warning is not only to the person claiming to have special knowledge. God says in verse 3 that He is testing those who listen to what the person says.
Those claiming to have special knowledge will always be around, but part of the guilt of spreading it is on the listeners. Some people have “itching ears” (2 Timothy 4:3–4) and are looking for “new ideas.” We all need to judge the validity of any idea, comparing it with God’s word, as the Bereans did (Acts 17:11, cf. 1 John 4:1).
What God has revealed through His word—all of it—is more than sufficient for our growth as Christians (2 Timothy 3:16–17). We know from this word that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that He started His Church, and that He provided a structure for doctrinal integrity and teaching within that Church (Ephesians 4:11–14; 1 Timothy 3:15). There is no need—and no room—for individuals claiming “special knowledge” to set themselves above other brethren and presume to instruct them in that knowledge.
Does this mean that we should avoid personal study and talking to others about the word of God? No—we are commanded to study to rightly divide the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15), and to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18), which requires study. But the attitude behind Bible study is all-important. Are we striving to become more like Jesus Christ or to become important in our own eyes (Proverbs 3:7)?
What guards us against being seduced by the allure of special knowledge? Developing the virtue of humility guards us against many dangerous spiritual pitfalls. By associating with the humble instead of inflating ourselves above others with our knowledge (Romans 12:16), we become more like Christ, who set the perfect example. He had vast knowledge as the Son of God—yet was still a servant of all. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).
The allure of “special knowledge” has seduced many since Eve was deceived in the Garden of Eden. It is one of Satan’s great deceptions and one of his most dangerous fiery darts—a deadly trap that leads to arrogance and eventual isolation from God’s plan and purpose. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), and as we read in Ephesians 4, He leads His people to the truth through the authority He has established in His Church. By allowing Him to lead us that way, we will remain steadfastly within the safety of the Body of Christ, now and until the end of the age.
Remain humble, brethren, and watch out for those who claim to have special knowledge.