Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Sexuality and Spirituality

Gustav Klimt: The Kiss (ca 1907)

Patrick Comerford

Opening Prayer:

O God,
Giver of life,
Bearer of pain,
Maker of love,
affirming in your incarnation the goodness of the flesh,
May the yearnings of our bodies
be fulfilled in sacraments of love
and our earthly embracings
a foretaste of the glory that shall be
in the light of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jim Cotter, Prayer at Night (Sheffield, Cairns Publications, 1989), p. 65.

Opening poem:


Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’

‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.

– George Herbert (1593–1632)


Understanding sexuality is not the same as understanding sex. And sexuality is about much more than what we have reduced to the description of sex.

We all face general questions and issues about sexuality in the society in which we live. These include the commodification and commercialisation of sex, which we find in movies, in advertising, in popular publications and in pornography. It is important to ask questions such as: When does a movie become pornographic? When is it acceptable to use human flesh to sell a glossy magazine or a tabloid newspaper?

We all face pressures, we are all aware of changing social attitudes, when it comes to facing up to what is acceptable, and we all need to think about and reflect on our sexuality and our ministry during the process of ministerial and spiritual formation, rather than thinking the relationship is something we can deal with when we are confronted with difficulties or a crisis.

Sexuality and spirituality, your sexual maturing and maturity and your spiritual growth are related in ways that are often difficult to examine or to disentangle. For the search for sexual understanding and sexual wholeness is intimately linked with the spiritual quest and journey.

In addition, at a very early stage in your ministry, you will encounter questions about the links between sexuality and spirituality that are intimately linked in a particularly unique way.

Sexuality and spiritual growth and development:

In introducing these topics at this stage, there are four propositions or points that are worth considering at the beginning:

1, Sexuality and spirituality are linked:

The possible connection between sexuality and spiritual growth is a new and strange idea to many. Yet my body and my spirit are aligned. Living life as a call produces joy and a sense of intimacy. It leads to lifestyle choices that preserve balance and are characterised by prudent decisions made in commitment to one’s long-term best interests rather than to law or in fear.

Sexual relationships are not “just” physical, and at their deepest, truest and most committed level, the connections we make sexually are a spiritual and sexual experience.

2, Psychological maturity is necessary:

We all know people who have reached adulthood but have not yet left their prolonged adolescence – which only ends when we are no longer afraid to disappoint our parents, or parent figures.

In adulthood, we all realise we are passing through different phases of maturing, and we give that realisation expression in different phases such as “You know you’re getting older when the policemen all appear to be younger.” Or: “You know you’ve got older when all the bishops/world leaders are younger than you.”

A dramatic shift in psychological maturity appears to occur in most young people towards the end of their 20s. Before this shift, men and women often feel unable to make clear choices or to cope with life’s problems without some help from our parents.

But after that shift, we feel confident enough in our own values to make our own choices, even if those options clash with a parent’s wishes.

There may be another, less economic explanation. It may simply take 20 years or so for us to become sufficiently reflective to be truly “free” in a spiritual sense – a centred person characterised by self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and the desire for self-transcendence.

If you make choices about sexual commitment and about spiritual priorities at the same time and before reaching that stage, there may be real problems ahead later on in life. It will have been particularly difficult, or will be particularly difficult, if you find yourself confronting these problems at one and the same time.

It takes time and commitment, and each person needs that in order to set things right in herself or himself. It takes discipline each time.

3, Selectivity is increasingly common and accepted:

Young people are marrying later in life and more selectively and they are renegotiating their relationships more intentionally. Their very selectivity makes for the deferring of dreams. This leads, predictably, to some mid-life resetting of goals and redefining of “union.”

4, An interest in spirituality is connected with more openness about sexual awareness:

Although some writers and commentators would suggest that there should be a conflict between the two, in reality and in experience, an interest in and openness to spirituality is connected with more openness about sexual awareness.

For example, Professor Joan Timmerman, who has taught an elective course, “Sexuality and Spiritual Growth,” as part of the theology and women’s studies programme in the College of Saint Catherine in St Paul, Minnesota, has listened carefully over the years to what young women students are saying about spirituality and sexuality. She says young women today are generous in acknowledging, affirming, and celebrating a spiritual eroticism in their daily lives.

She has found that a sense of the transformation of awareness, value and commitment accompanies their academic study of sexuality within a theological context.

“After a lot of work,” wrote one of her students, “I came up with a mission statement for my life: to embrace, express and educate in spiritual truth. So … I will take my mission statement and my education and I will grow, celebrate, fight, and educate.”

There are mature values that should characterise sexual integrity: concern with a stewardship of desire, and the moral strength to make a choice freely to love.

Where self-control and asceticism come into play, they are the servants of freedom and love. Ultimately, they are employed freely because they are recognised as being in one’s long-term best interest.

The process of integrating sexuality with spirit belongs to all humanity. Indeed, human sexuality is a kind of call – a dynamic that is intrinsic to the person yet leads her or him to reach out in the most radical way.

As James Hillman observes in The Soul’s Code, this call is a prime fact of human existence. Sexual experience can be religious experience.

Those who want to align their lives with the call to spiritual growth can see that no accident or heartache is able finally to derail that growth toward wholeness.

We all need to strive to integrate spirituality and sexuality. If we are to have life and to have it to the full, if I am to live my life as completely as I can have it, then I need to integrate my physical and spiritual self.

Sexuality and the Church

There are issues that are culturally difficult to face within the Church.

In the Church, we have often reduced our talk about sexuality and our discussions about sexuality to sexual acts, such as, what are the permitted sexual acts and the forbidden ones, who may be engaged in them, when, where and how?

In the Church, we have often reduced our discussion of sexuality to discussing sexual behaviour. And, at the same time, we have often elevated that sexual behaviour to the highest moral debate.

In the Church, when we introduce a discussion about “moral values” we are usually about to begin a discussion about who may engage in genital sexual activity, with whom, and under what circumstances.

In the Church, when we introduce a discussion about “moral values” we are usually not going to discuss the great moral issues of the day, which must include war, violence, economic and social injustice, globalisation, racism, global warming.

And reducing any discussion of sexuality to a discussion about genital sexual activity shows a teenage immaturity. The Church – and I mean the Church in general – seems to have matured and developed morally and sexually to about the level of a 14-year-old schoolboys, who knows all the questions, all the answers, has a prurient interest in the activities of others, but has little or no self-awareness or insight into his future potential, needs and gifts.

Some Biblical foundations:

At the beginning of the creation story, only one thing is described as being not good – that someone is alone: “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him’.” (Genesis 2: 18).

When we talk morally about Biblical values, or even Old Testament values, we generally fail to connect with some of the beautiful passages in the Old Testament that show the writers’ connectedness with their own sexuality:

In the Song of Solomon 1: 2-4, we read:

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine …
Draw me after you, let me make haste.
The king has brought me into his chambers …

On Monday morning, the lectionary reading in the chapel at Morning Prayer was the story in Saint John’s Gospel of the Samaritan women who meets Jesus at the well (John 4: 7-26). It is a story in which the dialogue is dynamically animated by the sexuality and sexual awareness of both people in the conversation. They appear to have different moral values, but each displays a sexual maturity and confidence as the conversation opens and deepens.

It is a dialogue that was very relevant, and the sexual dynamics in it would have been deeply relevant to the early Christian community, which included people who had come from communities whose lifestyles reflected considerable sexual licence (see, e.g., I Corinthians 6: 9-11).

Let’s look for a moment at what the Apostle Paul has to say on marriage and on being alone:

In I Corinthians, it appears that Paul’s own clearly stated preference was for the unmarried state: “I wish that all were as I myself am” (I Corinthians 7: 6); or “those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that” (I Corinthians 7: 28); and “he who marries his virgin does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do better” (I Corinthians 7: 38); or, again, “in my judgment she [a widow] is more blessed if she remains as she is [and does not marry again]” (I Corinthians 7: 40).

But the Paul sensed that the present age will not be long drawn out: “the appointed time has grown short" (7.29); “the form of this world is passing away” (I Corinthians 7: 31). In the interim, “let even those who have wives be as though they had none” (I Corinthians 7: 29).

It is also clear from the thrust of I Corinthians 7: 25-35 that these two concerns hang together. A large part of the reason for Paul’s preference for the unmarried state is his conviction that the time is so short.

The whole of that section stands under the opening statement, “I think that in view of the impending [or present] crisis (ἀνάγκη, ananke) it is well for you to remain as you are ” (7: 26).

However, at the same time, too little weight has been given to two other factors. One is that Paul was evidently responding to a series of questions posed by the Corinthians themselves – as indicated by the letter’s first use of περὶ δὲ (peri de, “now, concerning …”) in 7: 1, and its repetition in 7: 25.

This probably indicates that the initial letter from the Corinthians to Paul put a series of questions to him, first with regard to the married people among them (7: 1-24) and then with regard to the virgins and the unmarried members of the community (7: 25-38) The importance of this point is that it compels us to recognise that the scope of Paul’s discussion was determined by the particular issues brought to his attention.

In other words, he did not set out to provide a theology of marriage. Doubtless, this was another element of scriptural teaching which he simply took for granted (cf. I Corinthians 6: 16). That presumably is why he makes no reference to what was generally regarded as the primary purpose of marriage – to procreate – although his allusion to children in verse 14 presumably indicates that he also took that as understood too.

On the other hand, one of the challenging and compelling passages in the Pauline writings is Paul’s suggestion that the love-making between a husband and a wife is a sign of the love of Christ for the Church (Ephesians 5: 28-32).

A major challenge being debated in the pastoral epistles (I Timothy, II Timothy and Titus) is the association between religion (the worship of Artemis in Ephesus) and sexual licence (religion was an excuse for the acceptance of prostitution).

Understanding the sexual culture and climate in Ephesus provides some insights too into the world that gave us the Johannine writings, including the three Johannine epistles and the Book of Revelation. For example, it explains how John the Divine could castigate the Church in Ephesus for abandoning its first love (see Revelation 2: 1-17).

What can we read from these?

Adam’s ache from being alone, his awareness of being incomplete, his search and yearning for companionship and constancy, is not portrayed as sinful desire.

The hunger to find completeness with another is a foundational existential experience. It shapes the way we live, it shapes the way we relate to others.

And in seeking relationship with others we are taking risks and we are embarking on a spiritual journey that is the quest to fulfil what we have been created for.

Human sexuality is charged with something holy. It reveals and reflects a deeper hunger for intimacy and union with God. David Runcorn says that as such it is a sign or sacrament of divine love for the world.

Historical approaches to sexuality in the Church in the past

In the past, the Church has often separated sexuality and spirituality.

Prayer and passion are often seen as being in conflict with one another rather than complementing each other. And so, celibacy was often elevated above marriage as the greater or more perfect Christian lifestyle. Yet my sexuality, your sexuality, is one of our God-given human qualities and one that makes us creative and partners in God’s creativity.

On the other hand, this has not always been the predominate attitude in the Church. There have been times when the language of passion, sexual love and erotic desire has been used in Christian teaching.

The Song of Solomon was written about in the Middle Ages more than any other book in the Bible.

The shift in attitude to sexuality is evident in the changing understanding of marriage in the Church.

Traditionally, the Book of Common Prayer said that Matrimony was ordained for:

“First, for the increase of mankind, according to the will of God, and for the due ordering of families and households, that children might be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his holy Name;

“Secondly, for the hallowing of the union betwixt man and woman, and for the avoidance of sin;

“Thirdly, for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.” [The Book of Common Prayer (1960), p. 266; see the Book of Common Prayer (2004), p. 406.]

There is a very different set of priorities when the Book of Common Prayer (2004) sets out the Church’s understanding today of the purpose of marriage, Marriage is:

1, about giving and loving;

2, comforting each other in plenty and need, in sorrow and in joy;

3, the delight and tenderness each other should know in love and bodily union;

4, children; and

5, new life together.

[See the Book of Common Prayer (2004), p. 417.]

Changes in thinking about sexuality in the Church:

Over twenty years ago, Professor James B. Nelson identified seven signs of a shift in thinking about sexuality within the churches:

1, There has been a shift from theologies of sexuality to sexual theologies.

2, There has been a shift from understanding sexuality as either incidental to or detrimental to the experience of God toward understanding sexuality as intrinsic to the divine-human experience.

3, There has been a shift from understanding sexual sin as a matter of wrong sexual acts to understanding sexual sin as alienation from our intended sexuality.

4, There has been a shift from understanding salvation as anti-sexual to knowing that there is “sexual salvation.”

5, There has been a shift from an act-centred sexual ethics to a relational sexual ethics.

6, There has been a shift from understanding the church as asexual to understanding it as a sexual community.

7, There has been a shift from understanding sexuality as a private issue to understanding it as a personal and public one.

Consequences for today:

Today we need to find a Third Way that rejects promiscuity but that at the same time refuses to fall into a false sense of being chaste.

Being chaste is often defined in terms of what one does not do. Where can we find an approach to sexuality that is not based on negative definitions but on definitions that are positive, active and life-enhancing?

We need to be aware of, friendly with, and confident of how our sexuality works, how it fuels our desires and passions, how it drives us towards intimacy and towards making meaningful links with, engagements with other human beings.

Our sexual desires are not only God-given. In the passion and vulnerability of our sexual living we can express, however falteringly, something of the mystery of God’s image and the glory, power and even vulnerability of divine desire. [Runcorn, p. 106.]

Sexuality, vocation and ministry:

Awareness is a theme common to spirituality and to the task of sexual self-acceptance. It goes without saying that unless people are aware, they can neither heal nor change.

And so there is a connectedness between self-acceptance, maturity, response to vocation, and sexuality.

In ministry, we need to know the power and the catches of sexuality.

Ordained and parish ministry calls us to engage in providing, caring and nurturing. But how we give and receive these is closely related to how sexuality works in a very hidden way.

Nurses who have been proposed to dozens of times in hospitals know this.

Many of the male opponents of women’s ordination in the early debates had not dealt with their own sexuality.

We need to know the boundaries and the borders in pastoral theology, and what is at play there, or the two become confused, ministry collapses, and we deal with the wrong questions that have been raised about our sexuality.

Sexuality and theology:

Before we conclude, I would like to make two points about sexuality and theology:

1, The churches avoid sexuality:

Many young people are critical – in a detached way – of religious organisations and traditional practices. As long as religious organisations ignore human sexuality beyond the reproductive scope, and as long as they try to repress sex education, the young people who need the most guidance are going to get their information from sources that breed harm instead of health.

Many young people have become disinterested in the churches that deem them ignorant of their concerns. Many young people brought up in church now families fight old beliefs and teachings on sex and in return feel guilty. If these beliefs and teachings are worth holding, these young people have not heard a plausible reason why.

As the Jesuit writer and theologian, Thomas J Reese, wrote (America, 21 June 1997): “In the Catholic Church the battle about sex is over and no one has won. On questions of birth control, masturbation, premarital sex, divorce and remarriage, the hierarchy has lost most of the faithful.”

Many members of the laity are muddling through making up their own minds without much help. According to Joan Timmerman: “The best thing the leadership of Church communities could do at this time would be to engage people who are living their lives with good will and realism in some important listening sessions about the signs of grace and the signs of evil in the experience of sexual and marital relationships. ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is a rule that fails to promote personal growth as consistently in religious communities as it does in families.”

2, Fighting degradation:

This generation is in painful transition regarding cultural as well as religious traditions. For example, young women are angry about pornography, and they take it personally. Why cannot pornography, with its humiliation and degradation of women’s bodies, be contained? One woman answers: “A society that is permissive toward pornography can do nothing about it when pornographic images become mainstream culture.” Another has said the level of acceptance of pornography says: “Women are hated.”

The solution to the problem is difficult to come by. But even the most liberal of students believe it to be connected to better education. As one young woman is quoted as saying: “What we need is erotic education, with healthy sexual/relational images. We cannot censor in a free, capitalist society, but we can educate instead of closing our eyes.”

Another student wrote: “What bothers me most about the porn and sex industry in our society is that the intimacy that is especially needed today is being replaced by emotional detachment and voyeurism. We should be bringing people together to touch each other’s spirits. Pornography separates us from our spirits.”

The eroticisation of violence has been a defining characteristic of male love-maps. If it is true that violence is the regurgitation of pain, Western culture has some profound rethinking to do about the relative values of pleasure and pain and which is the greater to be feared. The search for the truly erotic – that which connects and unites rather than diminishes and isolates – is the deep adventure of daily life. Where is Eros? Where is the call to union?

Listening and loving:

David Runcorn sets out eight marks of a church community where people will know they are loved, accepted and listened to:

1, A celebrating and reverencing of our shared gift of humanity

2, A sensitive awareness of our mutual vulnerability

3, A compassion for those who struggle

4, A discernment of the reality of sin and evil

5, A prayer for holiness of life

6, Grace to be gifts to each other’s fulfilling in Christ

7, Truth, forgiveness, reconciliation in facing up to disordered and destructive elements in our lifestyles

8, Support in seeking holiness and sustaining new patterns of living and loving

[David Runcorn, “Sexuality and Spirituality,” Spirituality Workbook (London: SPCK, 2006), pp. 102-108.]

Concluding thought:

“Our sexuality is the playground for prayer. It is where we tumble over our greatest needs and hungers, where the possibility of erotic desire is revealed, the limitations of self-love are exposed, and pride is purged … our sexuality remains the place of great personal intensity where we have the capacity to be most open and most closed to God because it remains a place of trouble and torment and also of the greatest earthly blessings and happiness.”

– Angela Tilby, in Fraser Watts (ed), Perspectives on Prayer (London: SPCK, 2002), pp. 94-95.

Additional reading:

James Hillman, The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling (New York: Random House, 1996).
J Nelson and S Longfellow (eds), Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection ( Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).
James B. Nelson, “Reuniting Sexuality and Spirituality,” The Christian Century, 25 February 1987, pp 187-190 (Dr. Nelson was professor of Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, New Brighton, Minnesota).
P. Reed, “An Emerging Paradigm for the Investigation of Spirituality in Nursing,” Research in Nursing and Health 15 (1992), pp 349-57.
David Runcorn, Spirituality Workbook (London: SPCK, 2006).
Joan Timmerman, Sexuality and Spiritual Growth (New York: Crossroads, 1993).
John Toy, ‘God and Eroticism,’ Theology, Vol CX, No 857 (September/October 2007), pp 323-331.
Fraser Watts (ed), Perspectives on Prayer (London: SPCK, 2002).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for seminar in the Year II course, ‘Spirituality for Ministry,’ on Wednesday 7 January 2009.

The Johannine Letters: I John 4: 1-6

Sunset in the Aegean Sea on the coast near Ephesus (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Patrick Comerford

1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world. 4 Little children, you are from God, and have conquered them; for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 5 They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

1 Ἀγαπητοί, μὴ παντὶ πνεύματι πιστεύετε, ἀλλὰ δοκιμάζετε τὰ πνεύματα εἰ ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐστιν, ὅτι πολλοὶ ψευδοπροφῆται ἐξεληλύθασιν εἰς τὸν κόσμον. 2 ἐν τούτῳ γινώσκετε τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ θεοῦ: πᾶν πνεῦμα ὃ ὁμολογεῖ Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν ἐν σαρκὶ ἐληλυθότα ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐστιν, 3 καὶ πᾶν πνεῦμα ὃ μὴ ὁμολογεῖ τὸν Ἰησοῦν ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐκ ἔστιν: καὶ τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ τοῦ ἀντιχρίστου, ὃ ἀκηκόατε ὅτι ἔρχεται, καὶ νῦν ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ ἐστὶν ἤδη. 4 ὑμεῖς ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐστε, τεκνία, καὶ νενικήκατε αὐτούς, ὅτι μείζων ἐστὶν ὁ ἐν ὑμῖν ἢ ὁ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ. 5 αὐτοὶ ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου εἰσίν: διὰ τοῦτο ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου λαλοῦσιν καὶ ὁ κόσμος αὐτῶν ἀκούει. 6 ἡμεῖς ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ ἐσμεν: ὁ γινώσκων τὸν θεὸν ἀκούει ἡμῶν, ὃς οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐκ ἀκούει ἡμῶν. ἐκ τούτου γινώσκομεν τὸ πνεῦμα τῆς ἀληθείας καὶ τὸ πνεῦμα τῆς πλάνης.


There are two sorts of people that we all meet in parish ministry who take very contrasting attitudes to taking part in the Sunday-by-Sunday, week-by-week worship life of the parish.

On the one hand, there are those who say they love coming to church for the spiritual high they get from the music, the choir, or even, perhaps, the liturgy itself, or for the strong sense of community, and who say that this has a spiritual significance for them, but they do not believe in what the Church teaches about faith and discipleship.

And then there are those people who claim they accept and believe in Christian principles, but who say they do not need to come to Church, on Sundays or the main feast days and festivals, or to receive Holy Communion on a regular basis, because, they claim, they can just as easily worship God at home, in the privacy of their own room, or while they are out walking in the woods or walking the dog in the park.

Is the spiritual experience of the first group really valid? Is the spiritual isolationism and elitism of the second group an expression of Christianity? It appears one group wants the “spiritual high” of Christianity without the love of God, and the other wants the “spiritual high” of Christianity without having to love their fellow Christians and the rest of humanity.

Testing the spirits

This passage in I John comes between two passages on love: love of our neighbour, and the love of God. This section is about testing the Spirits, inviting us to ask questions about the right spirit and about testing the spirits. Chapter 3 ended with us being told: “Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit that he gave us.”

But how do we know the difference between the Holy Spirit and other promptings and leadings. How can we tell whether others who claim to be inspired by the Spirit are true or false in their claims and in the leadership they provide. This is at the heart of the divisions within the Church that are being address in I John, and that are dealt with in this section, described by C.H. Dodd as an “excursus on inspiration, true and false.”

In this epistle, John has already discussed our relationship with God (1: 5-6), with Christ (2: 3-4), with the things in the world (2: 15), with Sin (3: 4-5), and with our brothers and sisters in faith (3: 11). As chapter 4 begins, we find John discussing what our relationship should be to a very real danger: the danger of false prophets (I John 4: 1-6).

In these six verses, the author says that the many false prophets who have gone out into the world speak as from the world and the world listens to them. But how can we tell the difference? How do we know if someone is just professing Christ as Lord but is a false prophet or if that the person is confessing Christ as Lord and is a true prophet?

This theme of testing the spirits to see whether they are from God is a Johannine theme that we will return to again when we look at the Revelation of John: “I know your deeds and your toil and perseverance, and that you cannot tolerate evil men, and you put to the test those who call themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them to be false” (Revelation 2: 2).

Here in these six verses in I John we are told of the need to test the spirits and to determine whether they are from God. At first glance this passage may appear to say that anyone who professes that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God. But that is not what it is being said, and the next few verses go on to say it is a little bit more complicated than that.

The writer is saying that right belief and right behaviour go hand-in-hand. There has to be a direct connection between orthodoxy and orthopraxis. There are those who profess Jesus with their mouths but deny him in their deeds and in their failures in love and in action.

Verse 1:
This section opens with a typical Johannine greeting and term of endearment:

Ἀγαπητοί (Beloved, dearly beloved, from the Greek ἀγαπητός, beloved, esteemed, dear, favourite, one worthy of love).

Note the use of phrases such as “all the spirits” or “the spirits” in this verse, which are supernatural powers claimed by the false spirits, and, in verse 2, the Spirit of God, or the Holy Spirit, which inspires the true confession about Christ.

The expression “to test the spirits” also occurs in the Dead Sea Scrolls, where it is used in reference to new members of the community. Not everyone who wants to join the community necessarily holds to the beliefs and values of the community, and they need to be tested.

Verse 2:

The Greek verb translated as “to confess” in verse 2 is ὁμολογέω (homologeo), from homos, “the same,” and lego, “to speak.” In other words, it means to say the same thing as another, to agree with, to assent, to concede, to promise, to profess, to confess, to declare, to confess or to admit or to declare oneself guilty of what one is accused of, to declare openly, to speak out freely, to profess oneself the worshipper of one, to praise, celebrate or to say the same thing as another, to agree with or assent, to declare openly, to speak out freely, to “speak the same thing as another.”

The mark of the spirit or the Spirit of God is belief that Jesus Christ is the Messiah or Christ incarnate. To confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is to be moved by the Holy Spirit to say the same thing that God himself says about the person and work of Christ, and to same the same as other, fellow, true believers say. This is deeper than mere intellectual assent; this is confession that comes from the heart and that agrees both with God and with other believers.

Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, but false propagandists destroy his claims by denying and neglecting his human career.

Verse 3:

Verses 2-3 are best understood in light of the Gnostic-like errors that were threatening the Johannine community in Ephesus at the time. Those who accepted these errors included some who denied that Jesus Christ actually came in the flesh (see II John 7), and those whose doctrine was leading many astray, those false teachers who claimed they were inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Those who would teach such falsehood are not led by the Spirit of God, but possess the spirit of the Antichrist (see II John 7).

Jesus too addressed questions about those who claimed to be his disciples but who did not really confess him. In Matthew 7: 21-23, he says: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers’.”

The false prophets Jesus is speaking about also professed him as Lord, but they did not abide by the Word of God or do his Father’s will. Instead they did evil.

Verses 4-5:

Little children (τεκνία): you will remember when we were looking at the poetic section in I John 2: 12-14, the members of the Johannine community were addressed in three ways: as fathers, young people, and little children (2: 12) or children (2: 14), whose sins are forgiven on account of his name (2: 12), and who know the Father (2: 14).

This term, “little children,” is used throughout this letter for the whole community. In I John 3: 1, we are told that in God’s love we are called his children (3: 1), we are God’s children (3: 2), God’s little children, and we should let no-one deceive us (3: 7), and the children of God are contrasted with the children of the devil (3: 10). Later on, John tells them: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action (3: 17).

The term “little children” is used once again here to address the whole community.

In the midst of these warnings to test the spirits, John provides the whole community with some comforting words in verses 4-5. By being children of God, because they have heeded the words of the apostles – in other words, because they have loved in truth and in action – they can overcome the false prophets, for the One who is in them is greater than “the one who is in the world.”

We should not be surprised to see the world following false prophets, for those false prophets are of the world and they speak in a way that appeals to the world. But we should not be deterred by the “apparent success” of the false teachers – for we know that size and numbers are not the proper measures of truth.

Verse 6:

“Whoever knows God listens to us …”

At the end of this section, I John comes to the ultimate test of truth and deceit – the ability “to listen to us” or conformity to the teaching within the Johannine school.

When the writer uses the first person plural here, this not a majestic we, but calling on the witness of all true Christian teachers.

Whoever knows God discriminates between truth and error. Verse 6 reveals how we can distinguish between “the spirit of truth” and “the spirit of error”: those who truly know God listen to the apostolic teachers, while those who are not of God will reject them.

Next: I John 4: 7-21.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group on Wednesday 7 January 2009.