A Blog Series on the Book of Revelation, Chapter 2:18-29
This morning I read a heartbreaking article about the congregation in which a good friend of mine (my best man, actually) grew up. Grace Church was once the 25th largest ELCA Lutheran church in the country, with a membership of over 2,500. Today the average attendance hovers around 100. I’ve spoken with the recently-departed senior pastor several times. He seems like a good man and a faithful shepherd.
And on the one hand, attendance in old mainline churches is plummeting nationwide. So maybe this shouldn’t be that surprising. But Wisconsin and Minnesota are still bastions of mainline traditions, and this particular church had an attendance of nearly a thousand only a few years ago.
Numbers certainly aren’t everything. Around the world there are beautiful, faithful, healthy and vital churches of a few dozen people or less. If I ever lead a church again, I want it to be in a church that refuses to count attenders (only new believers and discipled believers). But it certainly begs the question: What happened?
The article tells the story well, so I’ll let it do so if you care to read it. But what happened at Grace is just the latest echo of a siren that has been sounding from churches since people first gathered to worship and celebrate Jesus, and which the church at Thyatira came to exemplify.
Revelation 2:18-29 begins with an encouragement from God to the church at Thyatira that they are making progress. Their love and faith, perseverance and service to others is growing. They’re on the comeback trail. There is such a thing as a dying church, and there is such a thing as a comeback church that rises and becomes healthy and vital again. Thyatira might be one of them, but at this point it remains to be seen. A toxic menace still threatens the life of the church. But unlike some of the other churches, the greatest threat to its survival isn’t Rome or violent persecution from Jewish opponents.
The threat is from within. The church is killing itself. Suicide by compromise.
In the letter to Pergamum (2:12-17), God alluded to a famous biblical character, Balaam, who had the appearance of piety, but in actuality led the people of God into compromise, wickedness and death. In the letter to Thyatira another ancient biblical villain plays the same role. Jezebel was well known from 1 Kings 16-22 as the wife of king Ahab, a foreign woman who introduced the worship of the rival god, Baal, which led both her husband and the people of God into “whoredoms and sorceries” (2 Kings 9:22).
Throughout Scripture, “whoredom” is a description that often includes, but is rarely limited to, sexual immorality. More often it refers to widespread and wide-ranging unfaithfulness to God. In the case of Thyatira, it’s unclear whether “Jezebel” refers to a specific individual or an influential group of people. It doesn’t really matter.
What matters is that the church is tolerating Jezebel.
“Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling” (Rev. 2:20-21).
Tolerance is the watchword of our time and culture. Intolerance is its only deadly sin. It’s a sentiment so valued by our culture that it’s almost universally insisted upon. It is becoming commanded and codified. Increasingly there are penalties for any kind of intolerance deemed socially unacceptable.
Intolerance is no longer tolerated. It’s become a victim of itself.
Make no mistake, tolerance can be a great virtue. Tolerance is a force that has destroyed injustice, and brokered love and peace. The apostle Paul himself commands tolerance in the church: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Eph. 4:2) Bearing with someone in love that you don’t particular like or agree with is a marvelous form of tolerance that demonstrates the work of God in us.
But what threatened to kill the church in Thyatira and what threatens the church here and now is a neglect of the right kind of intolerance. Intolerance can be just as much a virtue as tolerance if what is not being tolerated is evil and leads people away from the truth, loosening their grip on true ways of thinking and living. And tolerance can be just as much a vice as intolerance if we go the way of Thyatira.
In fact, the danger of the theological and moral drift in Thyatira is so great that God issues a terrifying threat:
“…I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of their ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds” (2:22-23).
The call of God to the faithful is very simple: Hold on. “Hold on to what you have until I come.” (v. 25). This story has played itself out again and again in the two millennia since this letter, as it is today. There are those in the church today who do not realize that they themselves are the greatest threat to the church itself. In the name of tolerance they are not just bearing with and loving people who have different sins, struggles and temptations than their own (which would be right), but they are taking their cues from the culture and world around them and calling “good” or at least “permissible” what God has unequivocally called evil.
God is calling the faithful to hold on. Do not hate. But do not blithely tolerate what is evil. Lovingly bear with those who chose wrong, and lovingly and graciously speak truth—even when truth-speaking is not perceived to be loving by those who hear what we say.
Jesus’s promised gift to those who hold on in faithfulness to his word is the gift of himself.
“To the one who is victorious…I will also give that one the morning star.”
N.T. Wright explains this promise so well: “Since later in the book (22:16) it is Jesus himself who is the ‘morning star’, we probably have here another hint of the level of intimacy which he offers to his people. He will share his very identity with them, as we have just seen him do with his royal authority. But the ‘morning star’, most likely the planet Venus at its pre-dawn brightest, is a sign of the special vocation of Christians, not least those ‘holding on’ when others around them seem to be compromising, under pressure, with local pagan practices. Christian witness is meant to be a sign of the dawning of the day, the day in which love, faith, service and patience will have their fulfillment, in which idolatry and immorality will be seen as the snares and delusions they really are, and in which Jesus the Messiah will establish his glorious reign over the whole world.”
Those who blur the edges of the truth in a well-intentioned but wrong-headed attempt to “be more loving and accepting” are actually doing great damage to the very body of Christ they profess to represent. Christ-follower: Do not join their number. Carry out the much harder and braver work of holding to the truth and loving well—especially those who will not feel our love as love.