A Season for Conspiracy Theories: 1 Timothy 4

Conspiracy theories are to truth and life what arsonists are to a hot and dry summer in Australia.

Back in May I wrote a piece about the dangers of conspiracy theories and why it is the duty of Christians to not only avoid them, but also to refute them. At the time I was preaching through Colossians (and we still are!), and we made note of the warnings given by God about entertaining myths. As Colossians highlights, in the church “such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work”.

At the time I tweeted what should have been a fairly innocuous statement, “In light of the growing proliferation of nutty conspiracy theories, I’m pleased that we’re currently studying Colossians at Church. Colossians presents a clear repudiation of gnosis. Christians are to be people of reason not speculation, love not fear.”

I was wrong; this was a highly controversial thing to say. 

In particular, I addressed the growing issue of QAnon, which is a political conspiracy theory nest that has recently morphed into a pseudo-christian and cult like religion. In the United States the FBI now consider some QAnon members a domestic terrorist threat. 

You can find the original article here (with links to several important investigative pieces from the Atlantic and the ABC).

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In the last few weeks I’ve had a number of conversations with people in the community who are hearing more of these conspiracy theories. For example, one friend today copied a text message that is being sent to people. The message claims that you have been in contact with someone who has COVID-19 and you must no self isolate. This scam is signed by “COVID-19anon”.

Such messages are foolish, needless, and potentially life threatening.

Other friends are sharing stories of peoples who are convinced that COVID-19 is a hoax orchestrated by the Government. It is interesting to note that those who are thinking this way also tend to believe in other conspiracy theories as well. 

The alternative position to conspiracy theories isn’t to lock your brain away in the freezer and glibly accept everything Governments say as gospel truth. Most of us understand that our political leaders are fallible and that they sometimes massage truth for the sake of political point scoring. There is however a massive gap between grasping political biases and believing in Government led hoaxes. 

Over the weekend, one of the Pastors at Mentone led a group discussion on 1 Timothy ch.4. While unintended, the words couldn’t come at a more pertinent time. 

1 Timothy 4:6 says, “Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly”.

This chapter of Scripture is helpful for Christians in guarding themselves against conspiracy theories. Here are 7 salient points: 

  1. Paul assumes such ideas will appear and grab hold of peoples imaginations.

2. Paul assumes some of these theories will filter into churches.

3. Paul believes these myths have demonic origins; they are not from God.

4. In verses 3-4 he gives examples, which refer to teachings that deny creational order and good.

“They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving,”

5. Paul tells Timothy that he has a responsibility to publicly repudiate these matters (vv. 6;11).

6. These ‘godless myths’ compete with and contradict the “truths of the faith” upon which Christians ought to be ‘nourished’ and “follow”. 

7. Whereas what is true and good produces godliness and life, these speculations drive a wedge into ones faith in Christ and are destructive in all kinds ways.

In addition (as I pointed out in my previous article on the issue), conspiracy theories often lead to gossiping, slandering, and to divisive behaviour. All such behaviour is sinful and contrary to how Christians are to speak and act. One of the sad ironies is that when someone leaves a church because they believe COVID-19 is a hoax, they are in fact proving Paul’s point in 1 Timothy 4 and Colossians 3. 

The sad reality is, it is very difficult to persuade people who believe conspiracy theories that they are mistaken. Conspiracy theories succeed because they play into pre-existing assumptions, and they justify irrational political and religious beliefs. Conspiracy theories don’t depend on evidence but on capturing those seeds of doubt or inquisitiveness that otherwise may lay dormant in the consciousness. Conspiracy theories can be refuted with reasoned argument and with actual experts but this unlikely to convince the skeptics. 

I understand people being suspicious of media and of politicians; many (not all) are prone to exaggeration, fear mongering, and sometimes they espouse straight out falsehoods. In treating truth this way, they encourage doubters and feed the skepticism that may have otherwise lay dormant among the population. And yet, throwing babies out with the bathwater is a really dangerous way to live.

Last week Andrew MacDonald (who is the associate director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center Institute), made this important statement about Christians and the media, 

“Having acknowledged the failures in journalism, it is critical that Christians resist the temptation to reject mainstream reporting altogether. This is a critical mistake that leads us down the pathway to isolation whereby we invalidate any news article we find unfavorable.

Moreover, there are good journalists in major outlets, even religion journalists who strive to understand and report on evangelicalism in all fairness. At times, this leads them to our failures, but in other cases they want to detail the nuance and complexity within the movement. I might not always agree with them, but I respect their integrity and desire to report honestly.

This all-or-nothing mentality also suggests a poor understanding of Christian engagement. Our goal should be a maturity to engage the new reporting of our time with a critical eye rather than to shout bias upon seeing the outlet logo. We need to read critically across a wide range, accepting hard truths that are well supported rather than if they support our political or cultural narrative. We need to resist our temptations to echo chambers; a temptation that is common to many other subcultures across the globe.”

This crazy year has another 5½ months to go. When there are crucial issues facing society, conspiracy theories are not far behind intruding with their secret knowledge and special insights. Handling the real issues is difficult enough for most of us without having also to put out these needless spot-fires. 

Ed Stetzer is right when he says to Christians, 

“Long story short, you’re ultimately bringing harm to yourself and your community. You may make yourself feel like you’re making a difference when you are not.

Most importantly, we damage our witness and that of your church when you focus on unproven theories and speculation more than the good news we’ve been commanded by our Lord to proclaim.”

The Danger of Conspiracy Theories according to Colossians

Conspiracy theories are never far from the public imagination. In the midst of a turbulent event or changing culture, rumours and speculations emerge which attempt to offer an explanation. Conspiracy theories don’t rely on accessible knowledge, reasoned argument, and evidence, but rather, they join the hidden dots that allegedly lay behind the scenes.

What is QAnon and why is it dangerous?

Two weeks ago The Atlantic published a disturbing piece, The Prophecies of Q: American Conspiracy Theories entering a dangerous new phase. Written by Adrienne LaFrance, this is a lengthy and detailed description of the short history of QAnon. Q is an anonymous figure who began posting messages on the internet in October 2017. The messages are cryptic and relate to current socio-political dramas in the United States. These online notes suggest a world of intrigue that is taking place behind the scenes against President Trump by the so called ‘deep state’.  For those interested, in addition to LaFrance’s article, Joe Carter has written an important summary of QAnon on The Gospel Coalition. Marc-André Argentino’s piece for The Conversation is another informative article.

At the time of reading The Atlantic’s exposé, I sent out this tweet.

“In light of the growing proliferation of nutty conspiracy theories, I’m pleased that we’re currently studying Colossians at Church. Colossians presents a clear repudiation of gnosis. Christians are to be people of reason not speculation, love not fear”.

In case I had doubt as to whether QAnon was a thing, within minutes I had people replying to the tweet, espousing QAnon ideas and carrying QAnon references on the twitter bios. Somewhat ironically, they have since deleted their comments and disappeared in the dark web once more. What was interesting about the comments are these 3 points: 1. They referenced belonging to a chapter of QAnon in Australia, 2. They used Christian language/categories, 3. They obviously exist.

The connection between QAnon and ‘Christianity’ (I stress the inverted commas here) became highly visible when Joe Carter wrote his article for TGC. Many comments were made by people who identify with QAnon. It is quite astonishing and concerning.

QAnon is connected to misinformation campaigns on COVID-19, suggesting it is a hoax, and also offering miracle cures for the pandemic.

This conspiracy theory is now national security in the United States. It is important to note that some QAnon members have been identified by the FBI as a domestic terror threat, and with good reason: there have been cases of threats of violence, people arrested for making bombs, and even a case of a man storming a Washington DC restaurant with an AR-15 rifle because he believed it was a front for a child sex ring that was being run by Hilary Clinton.

Joe Carter also points to the spread of QAnon overseas,

“While most are presumably peaceful, some QAnon followers have allegedly been involved in terroristic threats against Trump and his family, an arson that destroyed 23,000 acres in California, and armed standoffs with law enforcement. The conspiracy theory has also spread to Europe with a QAnon-inspired mass murder in Germanyarson targeting cell towers, and attacks on telecom workers in Belgium, Cyprus, Ireland, and the Netherlands.”

In its short history, QAnon has morphed from a tiny political conspiracy into a religious movement. While it remains fringe and most of us had probably never heard of it until recently, its tentacles have extended into churches, taking Christians captive to its dangerous ideas.

LaFrance explains,

“it is also already much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. And we are likely closer to the beginning of its story than the end. The group harnesses paranoia to fervent hope and a deep sense of belonging. The way it breathes life into an ancient preoccupation with end-times is also radically new. To look at QAnon is to see not just a conspiracy theory but the birth of a new religion.”

One QAnon exponent has now published several books. Take note of the religious themes in the titles, Hearing God’s Voice Made SimpleDefeating Your Adversary in the Court of Heaven, and American Sniper: Lessons in Spiritual Warfare.

The theory revolves around the idea of a coming “Great Awakening”,

“It speaks of an intellectual awakening—the awareness by the public to the truth that we’ve been enslaved in a corrupt political system. But the exposure of the unimaginable depravity of the elites will lead to an increased awareness of our own depravity. Self-awareness of sin is fertile ground for spiritual revival. I believe the long-prophesied spiritual awakening lies on the other side of the storm.”

“The language of evangelical Christianity has come to define the Q movement. QAnon marries an appetite for the conspiratorial with positive beliefs about a radically different and better future, one that is preordained.”

There is now a gathering of QAnon members, which Argentino argues is essentially a ‘church’. It’s known as Omega Kingdom Ministry.

QAnon sounds as though it is more prevalent in the United States than here in Australia. Although as I experienced last week, there are adherents in Australia and at least one organised groups of followers (on the Gold Coast). Christians should at least be aware of its existence so that we can respond pastorally, should anyone in our congregations be drawn in. Let’s be clear, as  Joe Carter writes,

“Christians should care about QAnon because it’s a satanic movement infiltrating our churches.

Although the movement is still fringe, it is likely that someone in your church or social media circles has either already bought into the conspiracy or thinks it’s plausible and worth exploring. We should care because many believers will or are being swayed by the demonic influences of this movement.”

photo of broken red car on grass

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How Colossians warns us against conspiracy theories

I am writing this blog post, partly to raise awareness of this dangerous movement but also to demonstrate from Scripture (Colossians in particular) that conspiracy theories, in general, are anti-Christian.

In writing to the Church in Colosse, the Apostle Paul notes an emerging group of false teachers, which Bible scholars observe are a form of proto-Gnosticism. These teachers are spreading new ideas that spring from secret knowledges and that in contradiction to the true Gospel of Jesus Christ that had been received by the Colossians. In this letter, Paul is both calling the Church to remain firm on the Gospel of Christ and to reject these new and unChristian teachings

“My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how disciplined you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.

For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness.” (Colossians 2:2-9)

Firstly, God’s mystery has been revealed. In the Old Testament, the fulness of God’s purposes were not revealed and made clear. The Apostles stresses that in Christ this mystery is now made known. Indeed Christ and inclusion into Christ is the mystery.

“the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. 27 To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (1:26-27)

Secondly, God’s revealed mystery, which is Christ, is sufficient in every way. The fulness of God is in Christ, for he is fully and eternally God. This fulness has been given to us through faith. The exhortation is to remain in Christ, not shifting from him and onto something new and different. Why not? Because God’s promises and blessings and purposes are all wrapped up in Christ and are already ours in Him.

In chapter 1 Paul offers what is a superlative picture of the Lord Jesus Christ, detailing that he is supreme and sufficient,

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

Thirdly, in contrast to the true and sufficient knowledge given us in Christ, Paul warns Christians about being attracted to new theologies. He refers to these as deceptive yet persuasive (2:3), as hollow and deceptive philosophy, and as arising from human traditions and elemental forces rather than Christ.

The origins of this new and secret knowledges is human speculation. As Paul adds in 2:15 behind these movements are devilish ‘powers and authorities’. These have been defeated by the cross, but are lingering about and trying to take God’s people ‘captive’ and uprooted from Christ.

 

Christians need to push against conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories succeed because they play into pre-existing assumptions, and they justify irrational political and religious beliefs. Conspiracy theories don’t depend on evidence but on capturing those seeds of doubt or inquisitiveness that otherwise may lay dormant in the consciousness.

Christians should avoid conspiracy theories because they depend on rumours and spreading speculations. Christians should ignore conspiracy theories because they reject well-established truth and they regularly turn to gossip and slander. There are clear examples of this in relation to QAnon.

Conspiracy theories also encourage suspicion and hatred, where the Christian ethic requires us to love our neighbours.

The issue is heightened when the conspiracy theory links itself to Christian teaching in some form. Paul insists that churches are to be on their guard and refute ideas that undermine the person and work of Christ, that suggest new and improved spirituality beyond Christ, that promote eschatological prophecies regarding the future, and that creates discouragement and division in the Church (2:2). It’s a car crash waiting to happen.

These Apostolic concerns regarding Proto-Gnosticism can be easily linked with modern day cults such as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some forms of Pentecostalism and Christian liberalism would also fall under this umbrella. The reason being is that in different ways they deny the supremacy of the Lord Jesus or reject the sufficiency of the atonement. And like other those ancient heresies of Arianism and Montanism, that cause believers to doubt the clear teaching of Scripture and the fulness of God’s revelation in Christ, these contemporary storylines depend on new and secret knowledge.

We measure Christian doctrine according to the measure give to us by God, namely the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. When we find ourselves being pulled by extraordinary and too-good-to-be-true stories and understandings, they most probably are too good to be true. Be careful lest you step yourself away from the fullness God has already given us in Christ, and drag others with you.