The Tragedy of Open-Minded Christianity
Would you rather be open-minded or narrow-minded?
We all know the answer to that question, don’t we? A quick check of the synonyms reveals the essential difference between those two terms. If you are open-minded, you are accepting, tolerant, observant, unbiased and understanding. But if you are narrow-minded, you are bigoted, conservative, hidebound, opinionated, reactionary and intolerant.
So we know what the answer is supposed to be. Let’s all be open-minded.
But is that always a good idea? Herschel Hobbs makes the point this way:
“No sane person wants a banker who says that two plus two equals three. We do not want a pharmacist who just throws together any drugs that may suit his fancy. We want him to follow exactly the doctor’s prescription. This is true narrow-mindedness. We commend this quality in lesser matters-finances and health. But many condemn it in matters of religion.”
Where God has spoken, his truth is not up for debate. We don’t debate “Do not murder” or “Salvation is found in no one else” or “Abstain from sexual immorality.” We believe that Jesus meant it when he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Let’s face it. Christians are narrow-minded about God’s truth. We believe something the chattering classes find incredible. We believe that God has spoken in his Word and that his Word is to be obeyed, not debated.
Let’s face it. Christians are narrow-minded about God’s truth.
Writing to the church at Pergamum in Revelation 2:12-17, Christ confronts a congregation that had become too open-minded for its own good. We need to hear what our Lord says because many churches today find themselves in the same position.
What do we learn when we read this letter from Jesus?
I. No church can live on its past.
The church at Pergamum certainly had a great heritage. During days of intense persecution a man from the church named Antipas had paid the ultimate price for his faith.
“You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city" (v. 13).
We know nothing more about Antipas than what is said here. What matters is that Jesus knows his name and knows that he would not give in to the pressure around him. Though forgotten on earth, he is remembered in heaven. So it is for all the brave martyrs, most of them unnamed and unknown to the church at large. Their blood has become the seed of the church worldwide.
But where there is heroic virtue, great danger lurks. A church with such a great past may assume that it is meeting the challenge of the present day. Was the church at Pergamum guilty of honoring Antipas while neglecting to follow his godly example? It is right and good for a church to honor those who came before. But where are the heroes like those of the past?
Where are the modern soldiers of the cross?
Where are the Luthers of today?
Where are the Spurgeons of today?
Where are the modern soldiers of the cross?
II. No church can live on courage alone.
We should not miss the good words Christ has to say about this church:
“I know where you live-where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name" (v. 13).
Pergamum was located 65 miles north of Smyrna. A great university could be found there with a massive library of 200,000 books. As the ancient capital city of Asia Minor, it was filled with beautiful palaces and pagan temples. Taking center stage was the massive altar to Zeus, the god of all gods. Pergamum was also known for its temple in honor of Asclepius, the pagan god of healing whose emblem was a serpent entwined on a pole. Sick people came to the temple from vast distances hoping to be healed. All the pagan rites of antiquity were practiced there. Pergamum combined a toxic mix of political power, pagan ritual, and Greek philosophy mixed with Caesar worship. Every citizen was expected to once a year offer incense and declare “Caesar is Lord."
Pergamum combined a toxic mix of political power, pagan ritual, and Greek philosophy mixed with Caesar worship.
No Christian could do that in good conscience. Thus the stage was set for all-out spiritual conflict.
When Jesus says that Satan has his “throne” there, he means that Satan has found a place where he can exercise diabolical influence over an entire region. Through some combination of idol-worship and sensual pleasure, Satan held sway over that city. It was a region covered with a dark cloud of evil.
I believe Satan still has his “thrones” today.
There are areas and places where Satan has held sway for many generations. Missionaries know all about this. They speak of cities clothed in spiritual darkness, so deeply resistant to the light that every gospel advance meets fierce and bitter resistance.
We need not think of remote tribal areas held in demonic bondage through ignorance and fear. We would more likely find Satan’s throne today in places of cultural influence, in the great universities, in the seat of political power, in the halls of commerce, and in great religious centers where prayer is offered many times a day but where Christ is nowhere to be found.
Satan has many friends in the halls of power.
Satan has many friends on Wall Street.
Satan has many friends on the Internet.
Satan has many friends on the Internet.
It is all to the credit of the church at Pergamum that despite the prevailing intellectualism and the widespread paganism, the early Christians had established a foothold in the shadow of Satan’s throne.
It was not easy to be a Christian in Pergamum. It is not easy today to be a Christian in the great cities of Europe or in the great universities of America or in most parts of the Muslim world. If there is not outright opposition, there is subtle and unrelenting pressure to keep quiet, to cut off the hard edges of your faith, and to refuse to speak openly about Jesus Christ.
A great battle rages between the God of this world and the God of the Bible. In that battle the believers in Pergamum had not yet yielded ground.
What, then, was their great failing?
III. No church can live with error in its midst.
Jesus points to the great weakness of this church in verses 14-15:
“Nevertheless, I have a few things against you: You have people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to entice the Israelites to sin by eating food sacrificed to idols and by committing sexual immorality. Likewise you also have those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.”
Here is the nub of the problem: “You have people who hold . . .” Forget the details for a moment. We see in those five words the weakness of this otherwise brave congregation.
A great battle rages between the God of this world and the God of the Bible.
They would not practice church discipline.
In the name of misguided love they refused to cast out those who held the “teaching of Balaam” and the “teaching of the Nicolaitans.” Both phrases evidently refer to the same general tendency. There were some in the church who advocated a loose doctrine and even looser morality. In the name of being “open-minded,” they held that the Christian church should be an exceedingly broad fellowship. Writing over a century ago, G. Campbell Morgan said that the church at Pergamum, while not committing itself to heresy, had “become guilty of Broad Churchism, attempting to find room within her pale for all sorts and conditions of men and faiths.”
Sounds very contemporary to me.
Evidently at The First Church of Pergamum, they said something like, “We preach the old doctrines of the faith, the doctrines handed down to us from the apostles. But if you do not agree, we will still make room for you within our fellowship. If you disagree about idol-worship, you may still be counted among us. If you frequent the temple prostitutes, we frown upon it but you may still find a happy welcome here. If you dislike the preaching about heaven and hell, you may still be part of our congregation.”
It is very seductive.
We all like the idea of the “Church of the Open Door.”
Come one, come all, come just as you are.
But when that is pressed too far, the church ends up a mixture of truth and error, purity and impurity, and sooner or later the evil tends to spread so that sin no longer seems very sinful.
We are seeing it happen before our eyes in the area of sexual ethics, especially in the great cultural shift surrounding gay marriage. The simple truth of the matter is that until very recently the Christian church in all of its branches condemned all forms of homosexual behavior. We have a 2000-year track record of consistency on this issue based on what the Bible clearly teaches.
But now we’re not so sure.
Even in evangelical churches a subtle change is underway. It happens something like this:
Stage 1: A church takes a stand in favor of traditional marriage and against homosexuality.
Stage 2: The church receives public ridicule for its stand.
Stage 3: Some of the church members feel uncomfortable with the negative publicity.
Stage 4: The church de-emphasizes its position in order not to offend the people they are trying to reach with the gospel.
Stage 5: Some people begin to wonder if homosexuality is really wrong.
Stage 6: They find ostensibly Christian writers who defend homosexuality as morally neutral.
Stage 7: The church moves to a position of silence on this issue.
Stage 8: The church welcomes those who have a “different position” on homosexuality.
That’s how you get a modern-day church of Pergamum. The slide in that direction doesn’t happen overnight, but I can tell you that once it starts, you can move from Stage 1 to Stage 8 fairly quickly. The worst of it is this:
Many people in the congregation have no idea what just happened.
They keep on attending.
They keep on giving.
They keep on supporting the church.
No church remains in the Pergamum stage forever.
Meanwhile the church has become schizophrenic.
On one level it remains faithful to the Bible.
On another level it tolerates those who promote unbiblical (and ungodly) teaching.
The end result is a church that receives both a commendation and a harsh warning from the Lord.
One final thing must be added to all of this. No church remains in the Pergamum stage forever. You can’t hold fast to sound doctrine while harboring those who promote immorality. In the end the church must go one way or the other.
IV. No church can live in a divided state forever.
That brings us to the Lord’s call in verse 16:
“Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.”
Christ takes personal offense when his church harbors immorality in its midst. He threatens to pay a personal visit to Pergamum and fight against the evil teachers.
This verse does raise an interesting question. Who exactly is supposed to do the repenting? Certainly the false teachers need to repent. It’s their only hope of avoiding eternal damnation. But the greater call must be to the church itself for harboring moral and spiritual compromise. In the name of “open-mindedness” and “toleration” and even “building common ground,” many churches have subtly compromised the gospel. I believe the Lord Jesus is speaking more to the church itself than to the false teachers.
Christ takes personal offense when his church harbors immorality in its midst.
Pastors must repent.
Elders must repent.
Deacons must repent.
The congregation must repent.
The church must decide what it wants to be. It’s so easy for a church to focus on being popular in the community:
“If the local papers love us, we must be doing something right.”
Don’t be so sure about that.
One could easily imagine the church at Pergamum saying, “We desire to be known as a church where everyone is welcome and everyone opinion is honored.” Sounds good, but is that really biblical?
Jesus warns that if the church doesn’t take strong action, he will do it himself. And his judgment is always harsher than ours. The same Jesus who said, “Come to me” also said “Depart from me."
It’s a frightening thing when Jesus says, “I will fight against you.”
You’re going to lose that contest every time.
Your arms are too short to box with God.
The same Jesus who said, “Come to me” also said “Depart from me.”
Better just stick with what the Bible says.
And kick out the moral compromisers.
If they won’t get right with God, kick them out of the church.
Off the elder board.
Off the pastoral staff.
Off the Sunday School teaching team.
Off the Benevolence Committee.
Off the Women’s Committee.
Off the Social Justice Task Force.
Just kick them out of the church.
Unless you’d rather fight with Jesus.
Jesus has the right to make that judgment because he judges with perfect judgment. That’s what verse 12 means when it says these words come from “him who has the sharp, double-edged sword.” The sword speaks of Christ’s unswerving, unsparing judgment. He sees through the facade of religiosity to the truth underneath.
“There are men in the borders of our churches to whom we are doing incalculable harm by allowing them to remain there”
“There are men in the borders of our churches to whom we are doing incalculable harm by allowing them to remain there” (G. Campbell Morgan). That exactly catches the spirit of this warning. If you allow these false teachers to remain in the church, not only do you corrupt the church, you allow the false teachers to think they are safe when in fact they are hanging by a thread under the sword of God’s judgment. We do them no favors by allowing them to stay in the fellowship of the church.
V. No church can live without a word of hope.
Christ’s message ends in a series of wonderful promises to those who overcome by faith:
To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it (v. 17).
In contrast to the pagans who offered hidden mysteries, Jesus offers something much greater to those who follow him. Hidden manna speaks of personal communion with the Lord. Jesus is saying, “I am greater than all the allurements of the world. Those who eat the Living Bread and drink the Living Water will never hunger or thirst again.”
Those who eat the Living Bread and drink the Living Water will never hunger or thirst again.
The white stone speaks of acquittal and purity. But what is the “new name written on it, known only to him who receives it"? No one knows for certain because no one living has ever received that white stone with the new name on it. That awaits us in heaven. But perhaps a human illustration will suffice. Almost every married couple has pet nicknames for each other. Usually the nicknames are funny. Sometimes they bear allusions to events that the husband and wife have shared together. Often they are romantic in nature. They are usually so intimate in nature that they are never shared with anyone else. It is difficult to write about this, not because it is embarrassing, and not even because it is so personal, but because no examples can be given. Every married couple knows what I am talking about.
Those personal names cannot be shared not only for all the obvious reasons, but also because they would not make sense outside the marriage relationship. They are unique and individual names that a husband and wife share together.
That perhaps offers the best picture of what Christ promises here. Sometimes we wonder what heaven will really be like. If there are millions of people there, will we ever even see the Lord? Will he really know us? Most of us struggle to keep track of a hundred or two hundred names. How will we not get lost in the crowd when we get to heaven?
In heaven no one will ever be lost in the crowd.
Our text offers us a wonderful assurance. We will be each be known by the Lord as a husband knows his wife. He will call us by a name that only we will know. In heaven no one will ever be lost in the crowd. Despite the great throngs, we will say of the Lord,
“I am my beloved’s and he is mine.”
Exactly how this can be I could not say, but it is most assuredly true. No mystery religion can offer what Christ promises to his followers. In that great day, when we finally reach heaven, we will know even as we are known, and Jesus will be both our Lord and our most trusted friend forever.
Not Enough to be Orthodox
So we come to the end of this solemn message from our Lord. His words must be taken with utter seriousness. It is not enough to be orthodox in our theology. It is not even enough to have courage in the face of community opposition. We must go beyond that to say that we will not tolerate in the church those who threaten the purity of its testimony to the world. This is certainly not a politically correct message nor will it likely win many friends in the secular media. But it is a message we must heed if the church is truly to be a lighthouse in the darkness and an oasis of healing to a broken and hurting world. We cannot help sinners by saying that sin is not sinful. Christ came to save sinners, but if the church no longer believes in sin, we have nothing to offer to the world. Where sin is winked at or renamed or where the church turns a blind eye to moral compromise in its midst, to precisely that extent the church commits spiritual suicide.
It is not enough to be orthodox in our theology.
That can happen even when the church is otherwise evangelical.
Truth never excuses sin.
This is the message of our Lord to the church at Pergamum, and it is his message to the church today. To those who would rather be open-minded about these things, let them go elsewhere so that the church can bring the message of Jesus to a hurting world.
May God help us to stand strong for the gospel in this age of moral compromise. If people call us narrow-minded, let us take it as a compliment and stay the course. Let’s be as narrow as God’s truth is narrow and as broad as God’s grace is broad. Amen.
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