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Bedford, Texas, United States
Pastor of Woodland Heights Baptist Church in Bedford, Texas and former Professor of Old Testament. But mostly I am a husband of an amazing wife, father of gifted children, and servant of an AWESOME God.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A Tale of Two Churches

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16, ESV)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insist on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859)

The opening paragraph of the classic, A Tale of Two Cities highlights the contrasts of life present in both Dickens’ day and in the years captured in his story about the French Revolution, some hundred years prior to his composition. Although there are many nuanced interpretations and applications that could be taken from the paragraph, perhaps the easiest summation might be “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

When I look at the current level of debate and correction about social issues and even biblical interpretation in Christianity today, it seems at first glance that the discussions have become nastier than I ever remember them being. Maybe it is just a renewed sensitivity to it in my own Christian walk, but it seems that the level of vitriol between certain groups of Christians has increased lately. In particular, I have in mind exchanges between those who battle for Truth and those who battle for Love as the primary Christian virtue in our interactions with the world and each other.

Now, no doubt both groups would argue that they value the other virtue and, though I don’t know the heart, I would imagine this is true. I have noticed, however, that when questions dealing with the social issues of the day rear their head, people tend to gravitate to one side and then accuse the other of either lacking compassion or conviction. I believe this tendency can be healthy for the Church in the long run if humility and a willingness to listen and learn are present. But too often we become so defensive of our own tendency that we settle in to protect it rather than to become all that Christ would have us be.

Which brings me to my own comparison of a past that seems to model much of what we are experiencing today. Only this time it is not a Two Cities that serve for the comparison, but Two Churches. In the book of Revelation seven letters are sent to seven churches, each representing a specific problem that any church at any time can struggle with. In relationship to the present discussion, Ephesus and Thyatira stand out as representatives of the two groups of Conviction and Compassion, respectively.

We know a lot about the church at Ephesus. It is mentioned several times in Paul’s letters and was even the primary recipient of a letter from Paul that currently bears its name. The church was in a city well-known for its worship of Artemis and the Emperor – it was surrounded by false systems of belief. It was also a church that had struggled with unity and reconciliation – in short, love (Eph 2.11-22; 5.1-2), but which could be generous towards fellow believers when the need became known. This strikes me as representative of so many of my friends who are on the Conviction side of issues. They are quite generous in many ways and they stand strong against the prevalent heresies of the day, but they are more given to separate than to seek unity. And if they are not careful, they become as Ephesus is described in Revelation - “‘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." (Revelation 2:2-4, ESV). They can spot unsound doctrine from miles away, but they really struggle with love, joy, and peace.

The church at Thyatira is less known. Unlike the other six churches listed in Revelation, it was not a district center. From its description in Revelation 2:18-29 we learn that it was church going about the business of the Lord in love and faith, service and endurance, and it grew in its commitment to cultural engagement. But despite being very outward focused and driven, Jesus had these words for Thyatira “But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality.” (Revelation 2:20-21, ESV)

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

As believers we have to find the balance. Many of us believe we have it when we don’t (myself included). I tend towards Conviction myself and although I would say, “I love the sinner and hate the sin,” I know that too often those words are more a cliché than a reality. When I look at the ministry of Jesus’ interactions with the prostitutes, tax-collectors, adulterers, and others I don’t see him correcting their theology or even telling them they are sinners first – He always started with compassion. And for me, that is what I am learning to do – instead of correction, I want to start with compassion. They won’t care about the Truth of our words if they haven’t seen the Love in our actions.

I am reminded of a story Andy Stanley tells of a gay pride event that took place outside his father’s church a number of years ago. He said that as the event transpired two church groups formed in response. One group picketed in protest and argued with the participants. The other church group (from a different church than his own) handed out water and sought to express love. The mere fact that the gay activists were there protesting said that they knew of both church’s stance on homosexuality - there wasn't really a need at that point to reiterate it, but instead of expressing the love of Christ, one church decided to express only condemnation. Certainly, in our ever changing society and the lack of clarity on what churches now believe about that same issue, an expression of Truth might be more needed if a similar situation were to happen today. But the question we need to ask ourselves is are we being true to our calling if truth is spoken without an expression of tangible love being brought along with it?

But compassion without conviction becomes sentimentality that is unhelpful and unhealthy. In all of Jesus’ interactions He left the person with a clear sense of Truth. Whether it is the woman caught in adultery – “Go and Sin no more” (John 8:11) or the woman at the well “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:22-24, ESV) ­– Jesus never compromised on the Truth. Indeed, in Revelation, He called Thyatira and us to be more than just culturally engaging, He called them to deal with falsehood decisively.

No doubt the Truth people will tell me I misinterpreted or misapplied the text and the Love people will tell me I haven’t contextualized my observation into present world concerns and perspectives enough, but in the end I hope we learn to strive toward the goal of maintaining both correctly – it doesn’t have to be one or the other and, in fact, in Jesus’ words it CAN’T be just one or the other.  We need to speak the Truth with tangible Love.

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