In this series of articles looking at the letters to the seven churches in Revelation through “Church Revitalization Eyes,” we are looking to see what we could apply to our Anglican churches. This article looks at the letter to the Church in Pergamum which my study bible gives the heading, “The Compromising Church.” That seems appropriate:
“Write this letter to the angel of the church in Pergamum. This is the message from the one with the sharp two-edged sword: “I know that you live in the city where Satan has his throne, yet you have remained loyal to me. You refused to deny me even when Antipas, my faithful witness, was martyred among you there in Satan’s city. But I have a few complaints against you. You tolerate some among you whose teaching is like that of Balaam, who showed Balak how to trip up the people of Israel. He taught them to sin by eating food offered to idols and by committing sexual sin. In a similar way, you have some Nicolaitans among you who follow the same teaching. Repent of your sin, or I will come to you suddenly and fight against them with the sword of my mouth. Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. To everyone who is victorious I will give some of the manna that has been hidden away in heaven. And I will give to each one a white stone, and on the stone will be engraved a new name that no one understands except the one who receives it.” Revelation 2:12-17 (NLT)
Pergamum was a center for “Caesar Worship” in that part of the Roman Empire. The Christians there were commended for not bowing to “Caesar as Lord” but only acknowledging “Jesus as Lord” even in the face of martyrdom. However, they were apparently compromised theologically and morally by going along with the culture. Even though the civic leaders of Pergamum had the power of the sword to kill them, they were encouraged to remember that Jesus’ “sword” is mightier and deserves our uncompromised obedience.
In thinking about how this might apply to Anglican Churches in North America today, an interesting idea came to me. Many of our churches, having come out of the theologically and morally compromised Episcopal Church, are careful to not compromise to the culture again. They were burned once and don’t want it to ever happen again. For these churches, this was a costly lesson to learn, both in terms of spiritual pain and physical loss. Protecting the truth and integrity of our witness to Christ’s saving power and Lordship is essential. I wonder, however, if some of our churches harm their witness by building too many “walls,” figuratively speaking, around the church. I wonder if our fear of becoming compromised again hinders our effectiveness at bringing the Gospel of the Kingdom of God to our local communities.
The Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven should engage and penetrate the culture. Christianity is not a religion that says, “we good people are in and we need to keep out those bad people.” Local churches are to be missional outposts and not walled-up compounds. I’ve seen churches that resisted bringing in unchurched unbelievers because they thought it could lead to compromise. This is the “Enduring Problem” Richard Niebuhr addressed in his book, Christ and Culture, a standard read for most seminarians. Christians have dealt with the challenge of how to be in the world but not of the world for centuries. We must wrestle with it today if we are to have churches that survive and thrive.
If a church is going to revitalize and grow, it cannot develop a protectionist, “Christ against Culture” attitude. Rather, is must missionally penetrate and engage lost sinners in the community, bring them to Christ and into his church, and make them his disciples.
So the question is, how can we do that without becoming a theologically and morally compromised church? Books could be written on this, but one simple answer is to adopt the principle of Acceptance not Approval. We accept all people. We don’t approve of all beliefs and behaviors.
At a former congregation I lead, not long after leaving The Episcopal church, we were negotiating a lease for rented space. One of our members invited the new landlord to come to our church. The landlord came and brought her brother. The brother was homosexual. Within weeks of them attending, the brother went into the hospital and was diagnosed with stage four cancer. I visited him and almost right away he said to me, “You know that I’m gay right? I really like coming to your church and want to keep attending but would it be okay since I’m gay?” You know the answer, right? It’s probably been printed on a t-shirt at some point. “We love the sinner but hate the sin.” But having fought boldly for a decade against The Episcopal Church’s heresy which manifested itself in the approval of practicing homosexuality, I instantly knew at this dying man’s bedside that I had to have a “gut check.” Did I really love him but hate his sin?
It turns out I did.
I immediately said that I had surmised he was gay and that of course he was welcome to come to church. I added that he needed to know that we believed that all sex outside of marriage between one man and one woman was sin and he’d hear that from the pulpit. I then reassured him though that whenever I said that, I was referring to the man cheating on his wife or the cohabitating unmarried couple just as much as to homosexuality. He nodded gently and said he thought that’s what we believed, understood, and it was fine with him. What he heard was that he was accepted as a human without his behavior being approved of. He continued to come but within months was in hospice care at home. His sister called me one day saying that he was nearing death and asked if I could come pray with him. My deacon and I went. In a weird but amazing moment I shared the gospel with him with his partner next to me nodding in agreement to everything I said. The partner encouraged him to accept Jesus as his Savior and Lord. I then led him in a prayer for salvation. The deacon got a bowl of water from the kitchen and we baptized him right there on his literal death bed. He died days later.
God very much wanted that man saved and in eternity with him. Since we were willing to accept him as a person that God loved and that Jesus died for without compromising and approving his behavior, we got to be a part of God’s saving work in the world. And it turned out that many more people ended up coming to the church and being transformed from that!
How can your church protect against being too protective? How can your church practice engaging the corrupt culture without compromising the faith? How can you accept sinful people without approving of sinful behavior? If you want your church to revitalize, these are some of the questions you’ll need to figure out with God’s help. I’d be happy to help as well but seek His help first.
The Rev. Canon Mark Eldredge is Director of Church Revitalization at the American Anglican Council.