In the last two posts we saw the two extreme positions that churches can end up in when they lose sight of that which ought to be the foundation of all Christian thought and behaviour.
The church at Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7) had with great zeal tested anyone who wanted to be a teacher of God’s word and rejected those whom they found to be false. They were commended for this dedication yet unfortunately it seems they had taken it too far. The mutual, self-sacrificing love that ought to have underpinned everything else they did appears to have been overtaken by a climate of suspicion and mistrust where everyone was a potential false teacher who had to be closely observed and, if necessary, censured.
The church at Thyatira (Revelation 2:18-29) was commended for its service motivated by love, something that was increasing all the time, the exact thing that Ephesus appear to have lacked. Yet where Ephesus had done well, Thyatira fell down completely. They were not doing anything to counter false teaching. Members of their church were leading other Christians away from the way Jesus wanted them to live.
In both of these churches we see an essential thing that all Christians should do taken too far and pursued to the exclusion of other essential aspects of the Christian life.
Were these two churches unique? Did these extreme positions only exist in churches in Asia Minor at the end of the 1st century AD?
Unfortunately not. Our churches today can and do go down exactly the same route.
What can we do about it?
As I see it, the first step is to be aware that both extremes exist. Much animosity and conflict can arise when Christians attribute all of their community’s problems to only one of these positions.
Some Christians might conclude that the community’s problems stem from a lack of active love shown to other people and will point to Ephesus-like churches, those whose focus is on maintaining correct beliefs, as those to blame.
Other Christians might conclude that the community’s problems stem from a lack of understanding of what God actually wants us to do and will point to Thyatira-like churches, those who focus is on caring for the poor and needy, as those to blame.
Crucially, both sides will tend to forget or dismiss the good that the other side is actually doing.
Those of the Thyatira mindset may begin to see doctrinal purity as an unnecessary or even a bad thing, since from their point of view all it does is exclude and hurt well-meaning people.
Those of the Ephesus mindset may begin to see care for the poor and needy as an unnecessary or even a bad thing, since from their point of view it neglects human beings’ far greater need for forgiveness and salvation.
Again, both sides have a point.
Zeal for purity, while an essential part of Christian faith, may lead us to a position where we do not want to associate with anyone or anything that we think might contaminate us. We may find it difficult to give different views from ours a fair hearing. We may ground so much of our personal identity as a Christian on a particular set of doctrinal statements that it becomes impossible for us ever to consider that we might be mistaken.
Zeal for purity may make it difficult for us to preach, since preaching by definition involves associating with people who don’t share our beliefs. We may feel comfortable enough to gather together in our church halls and present preaching services, yet we may end up only preaching to the converted if nobody else turns up.
A refusal to associate ourselves in any way with the world around us will make it very difficult to contextualise our preaching. What do I mean by that? Jesus was able to present the gospel to his listeners by means of parables, short but thought-provoking stories told in the context of things they were all familiar with: farming, fishing, family, the racial prejudices of the day, etc.
How can we do the same if we don’t have any grasp of the things the world around us is concerned about or interested in? If our church services typically use Bible translations and worship liturgy from centuries in the past, it can be difficult for us to present the gospel in a way that will make sense to the average 21st century unchurched individual.
On the other hand, caring for the poor and needy, while also an essential part of Christian faith, may lead us to a position where all of our attention and energy is focussed on the concerns and problems of this world. We may find ourselves forgetting the Bible’s clear teaching that the current world order will come to an end when Jesus returns to the earth.
If all of our attention is on the present world, that may also make it difficult to preach, since the gospel message we are called to preach isn’t about a better life now. For Christians living in the affluent West it’s easy to forget that God never promised we would experience or bring about justice and happiness in this life.
For Christians or churches who enjoy a good relationship with the local community due to involvement in charitable work etc, there may exist the danger of not wanting to say or do anything which might damage that relationship. There may be a temptation to present the gospel as little more than a “feel good about yourself” message of love and hope, without any mention of the need for repentance and personal commitment.
It’s easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking that Christian love means never saying or doing anything that will offend someone or hurt their feelings. Christian love means teaching people what God thinks about certain issues and how God would want us to live as a result. To see a person believing or doing something that is against what God says, and to simply leave them to it, is not Christian love.
So what is the solution to both of these positions? How can a church maintain a zeal for purity while still showing genuine love and being able to contextualise the gospel in modern terms? How can a church maintain active love for others while consistently and accurately presenting a gospel message about God’s plan for the future regardless of how offensive that might be to some people?
The answer is, in all of our interactions with other people, whether Christian or otherwise, to make our first priority how we can help that person to receive eternal life from God when Jesus returns.
Next time we’ll look in more detail at how that can be done.