“A cunning Canaanite! Deceitful scales are in his hand; He loves to oppress.” –Hosea 12:7
Like ancient Israel in Hosea’s day, the modern church has become enamored with and enslaved by her surrounding culture. So much so that the church looks, thinks, and acts more like the world she was called to reach than the church she was called to be.
Jesus prayed for His followers and those that would follow Him because of them (John 17), and in His prayer He revealed that it was His plan to take people out of the world, transform them by the truth, and then leave them in the world as credible and effective witnesses of the transforming power of the truth (vs. 14-16).
However, in order to be effective and credible witnesses to the world, these believers would have to maintain an identity distinct from the world in which they lived, moved, and ministered.
How can this be accomplished effectively, biblically, and without compromising the very truth to which we testify?
A similar problem confronted the church at Pergamum.
We know very little about the founding or the history of this church other than there was a group of believers that God had called out of this very pagan city, and He had established them to be a beachhead for truth in the very center of one of Satan’s most important strongholds for darkness.
These believers were living in the midst of the most idolatrous and immoral pagan culture, and they were willing to pay the price for standing for Christ in the midst of this moral and spiritual darkness.
And this pagan culture was not passive. It was aggressively acting against them to the point that one of their number – Antipas – had already paid for his faithfulness to Christ with his own life as a martyr.
Clearly, this was a church that was doing a great job standing for Christ against the external enemies that threatened them.
But they were not doing so well against another, more subtle enemy. Satan had infiltrated the church with people who were living lives that contradicted the truth of the Gospel – and this church was willfully tolerating those people!
If this continued, Christ knew that it would prove to be the undoing of this great and strategic truth!
Churches like this are not initially destroyed by false doctrine. They are more often destroyed by a toleration of false living by those in their midst who believe better than they behave.
And if a church doesn’t address the issue of false living, sooner or later, the door is opened to false doctrine! And so Christ comes both to commend and to cleanse this church in Revelation 2:12-27. Look at verses 14-15:
“But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate.”
They had been vigilant in keeping pure doctrine and maintaining their commitment to Christ in the face of strong pressure externally, but they had allowed something to come inside the church that would eventually destroy them if they continued to tolerate it in their midst!
There was in the midst of their commitment to sound doctrine a lax attitude toward sound living! In other words, they believed much better than they had behaved!
The real problem was not what they were teaching – their doctrine was sound and their faithfulness to Christ’s Truth was commended. Their problem was not what they were teaching – but what they were tolerating!
So Christ challenges them to “Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth” (vs. 16). He is issuing a strong directive – repent and do it now!
The danger at Pergamum was their willingness to tolerate and give Christian fellowship to those who believed and taught that salvation gave a person a license to indulge in the perverse idolatry and immoral living on the surrounding pagan culture! It is a problem that is with us to this day.
Listen to this quote from G. Campbell Morgan in A First Century Message to Twentieth Century Christians:
The church of Jesus Christ must not tolerate within her borders those who lower the standard of truth’s requirements! This is not a question of holding the truth. The church at Pergamum was orthodox. It is a question rather of the right application of truth. The error of these men is one that in subtle form, threatens all churches even until this hour! It is that if a man’s creed be right, his conduct does not so much matter. Truth never excuses sin. … The test of doctrine is purity of conduct and character (106-107).
God’s people have been called to live in the culture as counter-culture people.
Christians who have given attention to the “in the world” part of the Lord’s statement have lost their distinctive identity and as a result have failed in many cases to communicate the truth accurately.
On the other hand, Christians who have given attention to the “not of the world” part of the Lord’s statement have kept their identity but in many cases have lost their opportunity and as a result have failed to communicate the truth attractively.
We have been called to do both.
Truth matters enough to God that He would leave His people in a culture knowing they would be persecuted by that culture in order that some from that culture would be transformed.
May God help us to be such a people in our day and to our culture.