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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

How to Tell When Enough Is Enough

Published Saturday, May 1, 2021 By Allen C. Guelzo


If we can tell anything about him from the brief epistle that bears his name, Jude was not one of those people who always walks on the sunny side of life. His letter hoists the danger pennant for the Christians to whom he’s writing at the very beginning and keeps it flying. He had wanted to write about something more endearing—“about the salvation we share in common”—but the situation has forced him instead “to ask you to contend for the faith which has been delivered to all of you as saints” (vv. 3–4). The moment is a dire one, and he is writing out of necessity because there are people making a mess of the church as bad as that of the naysayers during the Exodus, the fallen angels, and Sodom and Gomorrah.

This bothers Jude so much that he doesn’t just want to have his say and be done with it. He repeats it over and over again, as we vividly see in verses 8–13, which become a grocery list of every corrupt novelty the people “who have crept into your fellowship” have introduced.

The Infiltrators

His first concern, however, is with the “creepers-in” themselves and on this point, he pulls no punches. They are “filthy dreamers”—people who, whatever their public profession, “defile the flesh.” The word Jude uses for “defile” is an odd one: it describes someone who has lost all self-control, like an obsessive-compulsive.[1] It’s actually related to a word we use today to speak of a stink-filled swamp: miasma. Jude doesn’t say exactly what filth it is they’re dreaming about, or with what they defile themselves; but since he mentioned Sodom and Gomorrah, it’s a safe guess it has something to do with sexual obsessions: incest, pedophilia, “swinging” between partners, and so on. The result is that they have the moral aroma about them of a sewer.

They also “reject” authority. They actually believe that their off-the-charts sexual behavior is something unremarkable, something that ought to be free from criticism. And when the church leaders step in to reprove or correct, their response is to throw it right back in the leaders’ faces. They don’t just disagree with the leadership of the church; Jude’s word here is “nullify.” “Who are you to judge me?” they reply when confronted. “You’re no better than I am. Aren’t you a sinner, too?” This, of course, is true—and that’s why it ends up paralyzing us. What we often miss is that it’s a truth being said by the wrong person, being manipulated so that evil gets a free pass.

Above all, these infiltrators even heap abuse (literally, they “blaspheme”) the “glorious ones.” It’s not automatically clear who these glorious ones are. Jude might be simply speaking of the leadership of the church, but more likely he means the angels, since he immediately invokes the example of the archangel Michael. Jude says here that when Michael was arguing with the prince of the fallen angels, Satan, he wouldn’t use abusive or blasphemous language against him.[2] Picture the comparison: an archangel is more respectful of the stature of the prince of hell than these blasphemers are of the angels (v. 9).

Jude was evidently the reader of one or perhaps two texts that circulated in his day (but have long since been lost to us) on the death of Moses. The one scriptural account of Moses’ death (Deut. 34) merely notes that no one knows where Moses is buried (no one was with him at the time he died), and many early Christian preachers believed that, in effect, God buried him himself.[3] But the stories Jude knew embroidered the account of Moses’ death to include an attempt by Satan to claim Moses’ body for himself. After all, Satan reasons, bodies are merely material substance, and he has title to all material things, while God gets to keep the spiritual things. This story got some popular currency among a number of other early Christian writers. From what Jude says, and from the pieces we can pull together, the incident runs like this:

When Moses died on the mountain, the archangel Michael was sent to remove the body. But the Devil, wishing to deceive, resisted and said: The body is mine, since I am the master of matter. And he heard from the angel: The Lord rebuke you, that is, the Lord of spirits and of all flesh.[4]

The point Jude is trying to make here is that even an archangel takes his cap off when Satan speaks. “The Lord rebuke you,” Michael said. He didn’t try to rebuke the devil on his own authority. As much as he had no love for Satan and was fighting over jurisdiction with Satan, he still respected the fact that once upon a time Satan was preeminent among the angels, and that gives even the archangel Michael no authority with which to trash-talk him. So, Jude reasons, if even an archangel won’t sneer at Satan, what should you conclude about the spiritual character of people who tell anyone who questions their behavior to mind their own business?

What are these people like? Jude now resumes his catalogue of unflattering descriptions of those “who have crept into your fellowship.” They “speak evil of whatever they don’t understand” (v. 10); and whatever of right and wrong they do understand just by instinct, they find a way to corrupt. They are, in other words, people who think they know everything already, and so they are intellectually arrogant.[5] They “walk in the way of Cain” (v. 11)—which is to say, they pretend to be brothers to you, but turn out to be cruel and deceptive about their cruelty.

They abandon themselves to “Balaam’s error” (v. 11) since like Balaam (Num. 22–23), they will sing any song you pay them to sing, because money means more to them than truth. They will “perish in Korah’s rebellion”—referring to Korah of the family of the priests and Levites during the Exodus, who staged a short-lived rebellion against Moses. Like Korah, these are people who always have to have the top billing, always have to be in charge, and always need to be No. 1 to get the credit. They are like “waterless clouds” with all the substance of water vapor, or late autumn trees with no real life or sap in them (v. 12), or like “raging waves of the sea” without permanence, just washing back and forth, or (lastly) like “wandering stars who are doomed to darkness” that don’t offer anybody any real direction or illumination (v. 13).

This is quite an indictment. There seems to be almost nothing these people “who have crept into your fellowship” are not guilty of. But if we look back over this list, we can boil down the basic nature of these “creepers-in” to two characteristics. First, they have no respect (that’s really what the first three parts of this list are saying). They defile, they reject, they blaspheme. They don’t know any restraint, and they won’t take anyone’s advice. They are the superannuated prom queens and the practition­ers of one thing who imagine they’re experts on everything. There’s almost a sociopathic quality to their behavior. They have a single goal: their own way.

Second, they have no real substance. These are people who like to assert themselves, but not because they have a message we need to hear. It’s because they have a message they like to hear themselves saying, which allows them to believe that everyone else is a clown or a tramp and that they’re the only nice ones in the room. They may like to advertise themselves as prophets, as rebels without a cause; but the only thing they’ve really got is a snarky tongue, a bad attitude, and a basic contempt for anyone who’s not part of their inner circle.[6]

They have, in fact, substituted that inner circle for the church itself. There may be a well-defined structure to life in the church involving pastors, elders, or teachers, but these people have no time for that. They create their own alternative caucus—a group of those who are really in-the-know—and they offer a delicious sense of superiority over those poor, silly souls who think church is for worship, adoration, and love of God.

Blemished Love Feasts

When you put it in these terms, these “creepers-in” sound nasty and ill-mannered but not necessarily threatening. You therefore may be wondering whether Jude has gone a bit off the spar in the energy with which he pursues this inner circle. But Jude may have some wisdom in his anxiety that we have missed. The truth is that temptation, sin, and evil rarely come to us dressed in their full uniform of thunder and screeching bats. They come much more often when a handful of unscrupulous egotists induce us to disregard good things or to do bad things—not because we’ll enjoy the badness, but because we really passionately desire to be on the inside with them rather than on the outside. After all, not too many people ease themselves into shoplifting, drugs, or promiscuity because they anticipate liking these things. There isn’t, really, much in them to like. We allow ourselves to be sucked into them, because we don’t want to be left out of the club, out of the smart set, out of the inside. I also think that this is why Jude pauses in verse 12 to explain why he thinks these “creepers-in” really are such a threat. These people are “blemishes on your love feasts”—literally, on your collective worship.

We often think that in church the worst offense must be theological in nature—that what angers God is people not thinking the right theological or biblical thoughts, and that our task is to measure people by how perfectly they check off each doctrinal box. Mind you, I don’t think right theology unimportant (or I wouldn’t be writing this), but it’s not an end in itself. The ultimate offense of wrong belief, wrong practice, and wrong intention is not that it doesn’t get the correct grade, but that it destroys the beauty of the picture.

God has made us to be mirrors of his own image. What grieves him when we sin is not that we gave the wrong answer, but that we destroyed the beauty of that image. Just so, says Jude, what makes the crime of the “creepers-in” so repulsive is not simply that they think incorrectly, but that they are an aesthetic and moral blemish on the face of what is otherwise supposed to be the church, the bride of Jesus Christ. There is a point in the life of every church when we are compelled to say that enough is enough, that there are behaviors and ideas that are destructive and un-Christian and have to be expelled—not because we get greater scores on the final exam for theological accuracy, but because those behaviors and ideas are ugly in a place that is supposed to be beautiful.

And where is the ugliness of the “creepers-in” at its ugliest? Surprisingly, in how they speak. 

Allen C. Guelzo (PhD, University of Pennsylvania) is senior research scholar in the Council of the Humanities and director of the Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.

  • Allen C. Guelzo

1. W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 487.
2. Norman Hillyer, New International Biblical Commentary: 1 and 2 Peter, Jude (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992), 248.
3. Peter Chrysologus, “Sermon 83,” ed. G. E. Ganss, Saint Peter Chrysologus, Selected Sermons, and Saint Valerian, Homilies (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1953), 133.
4. Charles Bigg, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude (1901; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975), 331; Richard Bauckham, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church (London: Bloomsbury, 2004), 261.
5. George Lawrence Lawlor, The Epistle of Jude (Nutley, NJ: P&R, 1972), 81.
6. Gerald Bray, James, 1–2 Peter, 1–3 John, Jude, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. 11 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2000), 253.
7. William Jenkyn, An Exposition of the Epistle of Jude (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1853), 265.
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