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Valentinians were not a separate church or denomination. They were a school offering a fuller esoteric interpretation of Christian doctrine. They did not see themselves or their teachings as being in conflict with Catholic Christianity. They saw themselves as successors of Saint Paul through an apostolic succession of teachers. According to school tradition, Valentinus had been instructed by Theudas who had himself been taught by Paul (Clement of Alexandria Stromata 7:17).
While eminent religious scholars and teachers often played a leading role in the movement, they were not seen as mediators between the individual and the divine. The individual who attained to gnosis was seen as having direct access to the divine without the need for external mediation. A natural consequence of this is egalitarianism. In fact there is no record of any permanent ecclesiastical offices among the Valentinians.
While Valentinians participated in the public life of the Catholic Church, they also held their meetings separately from the congregation of which they formed part. Many of their meetings were open to all interested parties and served to attract potential converts to the movement. Such meetings were surprisingly open and egalitarian affairs. This must have impressed orthodox critic Tertullian who reports with astonishment : "They all have access equally, they all listen equally, they all pray equally - even pagans if they happen to come They also share the kiss of peace with all who come." (Tertullian Prescription Against Heretics 41) Anybody who came to a meeting was seen as potentially spiritual and was made welcome. While newcomers would not have been allowed to address the group, any of the full initiates could be invited to speak based on drawing lots (Irenaeus Against Heresies 1:13:3).
One feature of Valentinian meetings that sometimes brought them into conflict with the clergy was the celebration of the eucharist and various other sacraments. Egalitarianism also extended to ecclesiastical offices. Valentinian initiates took turns performing the various liturgical tasks ensuring a high degree of participation by the membership. According to Tertullian, "Today one man is bishop and tomorrow another; the person who is a deacon today, tomorrow is a reader; the one who is a priest is a layman tomorrow. For even on the laity they impose the functions of priesthood." ( Tertullian Against the Valentinians 1) He goes on to relate that even women could take the role of bishop, much to his horror.
Only the elementary Valentinian teachings were available at such public meetings. Initiates were expected to discern the newcomer's level of spiritual development and act accordingly. This discussed in the parable of appropriate diets in the Gospel of Philip: "Bodily forms will not deceive them, rather they consider the condition of each person's soul and they speak to that person accordingly. In the world there are many animals that have human form. If the disciples of God recognize that they are hogs, they feed them acorns; if cattle, barley chaff and fodder; if dogs, bones; if slaves, a first course; if children, a complete meal" (Gospel of Philip 81:3-13 cf. Hebrews 5:12-14). If a person was considered to be at a material level of development (i.e. "an animal") they received the nothing more than the teaching available at the public meeting ("acorns", "chaff" and "bones").
If the person was considered to be at an animate level (i.e. "a slave") they would be invited to private classes. In these classes they recived elementary teachings ( "a first course") in order to determine if were worthy of further instruction. Valentinians saw most Christians as fitting into this category. Pupils assigned to this category had the potential to move on to the next level. If the person had progressed to the highest spiritual level and become a "child," they were invited to join an advanced class where they would receive the complete teaching. According to Tertullian, complete instruction could last as long as five years and involved rigorous self-discipline. It should be noted that all who received the private instruction were bound by the "duty of Silence" not to disclose it to non-initiates (cf. Tertullian Against the Valentinians 1).
Full initiates acted as the person's spiritual guide towards the ultimate goal of gnosis. Eventual initiation was dependent on evidence of gnosis. To become an initiate one had to "no longer believe from human testimony but from the Truth itself." (Fragments of Herakleon 39). To this end, much of the training at the advanced stage of instruction would have likely focused on meditation techniques. One the person had completed the training and demonstrated evidence of gnosis, they would be initiated by receiving the Valentinian baptism.
All Valentinians participated in the public life of the Catholic congregation of which they also formed a part. Some even held ecclesiastical offices. For example, Florinus was a presbyter at Rome under bishop Victor around 200 AD. Ecclesiastical office was seen as having a pedagogical role in regard to non-Valentinian Christians who were seen as having attained to an psychic level of spiritual development and therefore as dependent on outside instruction (Irenaeus Against Heresies 1:6:1, Herakleon 39). Ecclesiastical mediation of salvation was seen as a first stage leading to possible eventual gnosis.
Divisions within a such diverse congregations sometimes arose which had to be overcome. Using imagery drawn from Saint Paul, the teacher who wrote the Interpretation of Knowledge describes the Church as the body of Christ of which all are part, despite the different gifts they have received. The author chastises Valentinian initiates for looking down on ordinary Christians as "ignorant" (21:25) and treating them as "strangers" (16:24f). He also criticizes those non-Valentinians who are jealous of those who "make progress in the word" (16:31-33) rather than seeking to participate in the other person's gift. Using the image from Saint Paul of the Church as the body of Christ, he points out that every member of the congregation is a vital part of that body. All members of the congregation with their various gifts exist in a reciprocal relationship of taking and giving . No member can exist alone. To cut one's self off from the body is to be dead.
With a few exceptions, Valentinians were an accepted part of Christian congregations until the fourth century. Gradually the views of extremists such as Irenaeus and Tertullian prevailed and known Valentinians were expelled from Catholic congregations. They continued to meet in secret but increasingly they began to take on an identity as an independent sect. Despite persecution, the Valentinian school is refered to in historical records until at least the seventh century.