Question: "Who were the Paulicians?"
Answer: The Paulicians were a heretical sect that began in Armenia in the seventh century. Like many heresies during that time, this group was influenced by Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Manichaeism. A man named Constantine started the sect and advocated for a supposed return to Pauline Christianity. Constantine and his followers adopted names of Paul’s disciples, such as Timothy, Titus, or Tychius; Constantine himself adopted the name Silvanus. The followers of the sect were named “Paulicians” because of their emphasis on Paul’s letters and their belief of returning to the teachings of Paul in the Bible.
The Paulicians caught the attention of the Byzantine Church, which condemned their teaching because of its connection to the Manichean heresy. Constantine Silvanus was eventually executed by stoning, but Simeon Titus revived the Paulician congregation. This heretical sect, who viewed themselves as true Christians, were persecuted periodically, depending on the level of toleration of the Byzantine Emperor. Although a massive persecution was undertaken by Michael I and Theodora, the Paulicians experienced a great revival in the ninth century, and their group seems to have continued until the time of the Crusades. Paulicianism has not survived into the modern period, but it was around long enough to influence the Bogomils, another heretical sect started in the tenth century.
Paulicianism taught a form of Gnostic heresy that combined elements of dualism and Docetism. The Byzantine Church rightly condemned the teachings of the Paulicians, which do not agree with Scripture. The Paulicians advocated various false doctrines, such as the following:
• Dualism. Paulicians followed the Marcion belief that there are two gods. The true god created the (good) spiritual realm, while the evil god created the (bad) earthly and sensual world. The Bible does not teach this, of course. There is only one God, who is described as creating all things, including the earth (Isaiah 44:6; Genesis 1:1).
• Docetism. Because of their strong belief that the material world is evil, Paulicians advocated Docetism, which teaches that Christ did not have a physical body and so only appeared to have suffered in the flesh. Obviously, this is not taught in Scripture, as the disciples personally touched the physical body of Jesus (Luke 24:39; 1 John 1:1).
• Jesus’ purpose was to free us from the physical realm. According to Paulician teachings, Jesus died to free the spirit from the bondage of the physical realm, not to provide salvation from sins. Scripture teaches otherwise (see 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Peter 3:18).
• Asceticism. Although Paulicians allowed marriage and eating meat, they urged asceticism regarding the material world. Scripture warns against asceticism (Colossians 2:20–23).
• The Old Testament is invalid. Believing that the evil demiurge was tied to the Old Testament, they rejected all the books of the Old Testament and only used the Gospels, Paul’s Epistles, and a few general epistles. In contrast, the Bible teaches that the Old Testament is equally the Word of God (see Luke 24:44–46).
• Problematic view of Jesus. Paulicianism teaches that Jesus was created and adopted as the Son of God at His baptism. Paulicians did not believe that God assumed flesh, because of the evilness of the body. Scripture unequivocally teaches the doctrine of the Trinity and Jesus’ incarnation and divinity (Matthew 28:19; John 1:1, 14).
Although they called themselves Christians, Paulicians were not Christians in a biblical sense. Following Gnostic teachings, the sect was one of many groups in the early centuries that fell into heresy. Paulicians and their teachings should remind modern Christians of the importance of guarding against false teaching and the need to deal with unorthodox views of Scripture (see Acts 20:28–30). Heresy can spread quickly but cannot stand in the face of truth.