The Church and Abuse: What do We Expect?
And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: “The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. ‘I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.’ ” (Rev 2:8-10)
We do a lot of complaining and criticizing of the church on this blog — and rightly so. The Christian church’s track record in dealing with the evil of abuse is not a shining example of what it should be. You know the drill. Victims are dismissed, chastised, and even excommunicated while abusers skate and enjoy the sympathy of their duped allies in the pews. Been there done that. We expect more. We expect justice. And so does Christ, the Lord of the church.
But sometimes we all need a dose of reality, and I find that dose here in Christ’s letters to the seven churches of the first century. What is revealed in these letters about the state of the church? Well, Smyrna was weak and foolish in the world’s estimation, but commended by Christ. A similar commendation is given to the church at Philadelphia. But the other five? Well, there were problems. Serious problems. Here is a sample:
And to the angel of the church in Pergamum write: “The words of him who has the sharp two-edged sword. ‘I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells. But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.’ ” (Rev 2:12-14)
Compromise was the name of the game for these Balaamites who infected that church. We don’t know precisely what some of these -isms taught (Nicolaitans) but we do know that there was intense pressure on Christians in that day (as there is in ours) to compromise in their profession of Christ so as to avoid persecution. The Jewish synagogue as well as the local trade guild associations put all kinds of threatening pressure on anyone who would profess that Christ is Lord rather than Kaisor Kurios (Caesar is Lord). You can imagine that there were all kinds of tempting rationalizations that offered to supposedly keep a Christian in good standing with Christ and with the world at the same time. Burn incense and make an offering to Caesar or to a local pagan trade guild patron deity, but tell yourself that “in your heart” you really worshiped Christ. That kind of thing. The Lord Jesus of course will have none of this middle of the road stuff.
There were other false teachings and evils in the churches as well, but the point I want to make here is this: Five of seven local churches were compromised, some more than others. The Laodiceans were so pathetically lukewarm that Christ would spew them out of His mouth. Five of seven. Let’s see, that’s like, 70%. Listen to this vital observation from New Testament scholar G.K. Beale:
…the churches in Asia Minor were in serious trouble . . . the church in any generation is typically not a healthy, witnessing church. Nevertheless, there is always a small part of the church which faithfully maintains its witness like Smyrna and Philadelphia. The sober (accurate) assessment of the church’s overall condition matches what is said in 2 Tim 1:15 — ‘You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes.’ Ministers of the gospel (as well as every Christian) must be aware of such realistic evaluations of the church, so that their calling is not destroyed when the triumphalist expectations of modern Christendom are not fulfilled. (The Book of Revelation: New International Greek Testament Commentary).
Pow! There it is. A jolting wakeup call to each one of us. Yes, we should expect justice from our churches. We should expect that none of us are compromising with the world. But we must also realize that we are only going to find that justice and righteousness in, say, 30% of the visible church — and probably even less. Beale calls us to reality. If we are not realistic in this regard, we are going to place ourselves in serious danger of having our calling destroyed. By that, Beale means we become so disheartened and disillusioned that we just throw in the towel and say “I’m done with the church and all of it.”
Let’s bring this down to the level of a single local church. These percentages (understand that I am in no way saying these are THE percentages we will always find) mean that in many or most local churches, there may well be a significant majority of professing Christians who are seriously compromised with the world. Don’t expect justice from them. If the Word of God is faithfully proclaimed in such places, and if the preacher of that Word is established by Christ and not driven out, this could well mean that in the majority of local churches, 70% of the people SHOULD leave!
That is reality. One day it no longer will be. In the New Creation there will be a Bride without spot or wrinkle or hidden reefs or wolves in wool or Laodiceans who love the world. But for now, we must not be surprised to find this to be the case.