The Church of Unbridled Orthodoxy
[Excerpted from Barry’s book God-Driven Leadership: A Call to Seeing, Believing, and Living in Accordance with Scriptural Principles] All Scripture quoted from the English Standard Version.
Let’s begin by examining what Jesus said to the church at Ephesus:
“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’ – Revelation 2:1-7
From this text we learn several things about truth in the church:
THE NECESSITY OF TRUTH
Like her television show, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” actress Sarah Michelle Gellar’s personal spirituality borrows from a hodgepodge of religions. She said, “I consider myself a spiritual person. I believe in an idea of God, although it’s my own personal ideal. I find most religions interesting, and I’ve been to every kind of denomination: Catholic, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist. I’ve taken bits from everything and customized it.”
The fact that Sarah doesn’t know the difference between Buddhism and Christianity gives us some idea of her knowledge in this area, but the sad fact is that what she states is common in this day and age. There is a disregard for any one truth — any absolute — anything that says, “this is the way that it is and there are no other options.” But absolute truth is a necessity, especially when it comes to our faith in God.
Jesus said: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:32
There is a power to truth itself, finding its foundation in the God who is always true, that liberates us to be the people we were created to be. And there are certain truths that we must believe as a church and as individuals if we are going to function in such a way that is pleasing to God.
Truth Drives Us
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance…” – Revelation 2:2a
Like the church in Ephesus, we have many people across Christendom who work long and hard on behalf of the church. Many people give up personal time, time when they could be doing other things, to come to worship rehearsal, to come to classes, to prepare to teach, to serve on ministry teams, and to witness to others about Christ.
Why do so many people do that? They do it because they believe in the truth of Jesus Christ and this drives them to sacrifice of themselves to fulfill His mission. This is something Jesus commends them for.
As church leaders we are driven by this same truth. It is what makes us move forward, even when we don’t feel like it. It is what causes us to continue in ministry when sometimes a secular field seems more appealing.
Truth Inspires Us
The truth of Christ not only drives us to work for the kingdom, but gives us the inspiration necessary to endure and triumph in a world that opposes us. We are not just working for a sterile, generic type of truth, but one that we believe will change the lives of those who surrender to it. We’re not here wasting our breath, or spinning in circles — we have a mandate from Christ Himself to share the most significant truths that have ever existed in the history of the world.
Truth Alerts Us
This is a function of the truth of Christ that I think has been lax in the churches for several decades. It is using the standard of truth, not just to lead people to Christ, but also to filter out those who distort the truth, yet who still claim to be a part of Christ’s kingdom. While most of us don’t want to be accused of being on a witch hunt, and we all know of some in the “discernment ministry” that find wrongdoing under every bush, we also cannot ignore that there are those, perhaps even within our own church, who are teaching things and living in such a way that distorts the truth, rather than promoting it.
“I know…you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.” – Revelation 2:2-3
The church has the responsibility to discern between truth and error. The Ephesian church was faced with people claiming to be apostles but they really weren’t. Amazingly, we now have a current crop of people claiming to be Apostles in our own day who come nowhere close to meeting the biblical qualifications . How could the Ephesians (and how can we) know who lives up to the biblical standard if they aren’t champions of truth? In our day and age when we have charlatans claiming the authority of Christ who deny the basic truths of Christianity – what do we do with them? We must decide that we will not tolerate them at all.
Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. – Revelation 2:6
We see this group, the Nicolaitans, come up several times as we look at the seven churches of Revelation. We will meet them again when we look at Pergamum where we read about those who follow Balaam, and then again in Thyatira with those following Jezebel. I am confident that all of these accounts are talking about the same people. What we really need to notice is that this is a threat against the truth of Christ from within the church, not outside of it. These people are trying to infiltrate the church, and Jesus commends the Ephesians for opposing them. In this day and age, when so many are calling for unity, even when we disagree on fundamental issues of the faith, this should be a wake-up call.
The standard of truth is the Word of God, and if anyone opposes the Word of God by trying to distort it or by denying it is in reality working in opposition to the church of Jesus Christ. And Jesus says, we are commended if we do not allow that to happen.
THE POTENTIAL DANGER OF TRUTH
After what I just said, this point might sound a little off in left field, but let me explain. Sometimes we can take the truth Christ has given us and actually begin worshiping the truth rather than the one who has given us the truth. In other words, we become so zealous in our understanding that Jesus gets lost somewhere in the process. This is what I mean by the title of this article, “Unbridled Orthodoxy” — it is taking truth — Orthodoxy — and using it in a way it was not intended.
But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. – Revelation 2:4-5
There are two potential dangers here:
Legalism is when we take God’s truth and use it as a club to beat other people over the head with it. It is when we begin to come up with a system of dos and don’ts that are never found in the Scripture and use that system to decide who is and who isn’t a real Christian. For instance, Jesus commends us for using discernment when someone denies He is God in the flesh, or when they speak against a foundational truth of Christianity. But legalism is setting up rules of fellowship and acceptance based on other criteria.
For example, a legalist might decide that you couldn’t possibly be a Christian because you have a worship style they don’t like, or use a translation of the Bible different from theirs, or because your women wear pants and make-up, or some other criteria the Bible never uses. In reality, this is not following the truth of Christ at all, but instead following a counterfeit truth disguised as conservative Christianity.
Loss of Love
Jesus said this type of church has lost both their love for Him and for each other. And that is exactly what happens to every church that misuses truth. They become so focused on what everyone looks like, and whether they agree with them on every little issue to the nth degree that they forget all about their purpose for being a Christian. And in the quest for doctrinal purity, they forget about the need to love, even those who disagree and who do things differently than they do. Worst of all, they lose their capacity to love Christ as they once did.
Jesus told them if they didn’t get their act together He would “come to you and remove your lampstand from its place unless you repent.” He is saying that He will remove their light-giving capability, their testimony, and their ability to reach out to a lost world. And if you know any churches like this you also know that is exactly what happens to them over time when they misuse the truth of Christ.
THE BALANCE OF TRUTH
Obviously there has to be some balance here — we want to live by the truth, we want to have truth as our standard, and we do not want to compromise where the truth is concerned. So what do we do?
KEY: TRUTH DEMONSTRATED THROUGH LOVE
There is a truth that supersedes all other truth — it is the commandment to love.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. – Matthew 22:37-39
Truth, in its purest form, is a balance between the facts Christ has given to us and the expression of those truths through love for God and our fellow man. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if I am not loving God and those around me, I don’t really understand what truth is — the two go hand in hand.
In our text Jesus is speaking to a church that had allowed this balance to get all out of whack — and so He tells them how to pull it back together. Now I honestly don’t know if this is an area where your church has a problem. It is important for you to sit down before God in prayer and examine the situation you find yourself in. If you are in the same or a similar situation as the church at Ephesus, Jesus gives three basic instructions that must be followed to turn this thing around.
“Remember therefore from where you have fallen…” – Revelation 2:5a
He’s saying, “Look back to how it used to be. Remember how it was when you were first called to ministry. Regain that feeling of love that you once had.” Unless you are the founding minister of the church you serve, you probably don’t know a lot about its history. Look back into the records, or talk to members who were there at the start, and find out what the drive of the church was at its founding. Get out all of the Board Meeting Minutes that are available and read them from the oldest to the most recent entry. Most likely you will find that, at least at the beginning, there was a heart-felt need and desire to evangelize, grow, and disciple.
Do you remember that time when you first came into a relationship with Christ? Do you remember the excitement, the joy, and the expressions of love you felt for Christ and all those around you. We need to remember and focus on that time to turn things around. The excitement and other feelings you felt at conversion are the same types of feelings that should be emanating from your church.
“…repent, and do the works you did at first…” – Revelation 2:5b
It’s interesting that Jesus ties this behavior together with a turning away from Him. Misusing truth and our love for Christ isn’t just some small problem we can ignore. It is in reality turning away from Jesus Himself and setting out on our own path. Whenever we turn away from Christ there is a need to turn back to Him — the Bible calls this “repentance” — it is doing a U-Turn with your life and following God’s ways instead of your own. But repentance is not just for the individual; the Church is called to repent when it finds itself drifting away from its first love.
For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? – 1 Peter 4:17
“…repent, and do the works you did at first…” – Revelation 2:5c
Here is the same verse with a different point of emphasis. When we remember and repent, it is with the purpose in mind of returning to a place in our spiritual lives and in our church where Christ is placed first. “Go back to work” Jesus says. “Go back to loving and being loved. Go back to following truth.” “Go back to being the kind of Christ Follower and Church Fellowship you were created to be.”
At the end of His message to each of the seven churches Jesus gives a promise —it’s a promise that can be applied to all of us. Here is His promise to the Church at Ephesus as well as to your church today:
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. – Revelation 2:7
Have you been listening to what the Spirit has been saying to you in this article? If so, the time is coming when you have been promised victory in paradise. May you and your church strive to be the Church Jesus is calling you to be!
Having been a pastor for two decades, Barry knows what it is like to be on the front lines of ministry, in the pulpit, out in the community, in board meetings, doing evangelism, and all the rest that comes with an active church ministry. Bringing that experience to the Pastor’s Helper, he is in a unique position to lead other pastors to be successful in God’s calling upon their lives.