In Revelation 2:1-3:22, Jesus addresses letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor. Some of those letters are commendatory. Some of them are rebukes. The letters to the churches at Pergamum and Thyatira have some important similarities. Both churches were commended for their Christian graces. Pergamum dwelt where Satan’s throne was and held fast the name of Christ through terrible persecutions. Persecutions did not cause her to deny the faith, but the friendship of the world certainly did. Jesus said to them, “I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold to the teaching of Balaam… to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality” (Revelation 2:14). Thyatira was a church that abounded in love, faith, service, and perseverance—and her perseverance continued to grow. To them, Jesus said, “I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel…so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols” (Revelation 2:20). Pergamum could not resist the friendship of the world (James 5:4). Thyatira was tolerant of heresy. Jesus gives the same condemnation to both, though the order is reversed. The friendship of the world leads to idolatry and immorality. Tolerating heresy leads to immorality and idolatry. Some denominations, like the old Southern and Northern Presbyterian churches, fall through tolerating heresy. Other denominations do not directly deny the faith or succumb to persecution, but it is the smiles of the world that cause their downfall. Whether it is false doctrine or false practice, the results are the same. Such denominations will tolerate immorality and idolatry in their midst.
Jesus does not condemn the entire churches of Pergamum and Thyatira. He says to Pergamum, “you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam.” To Thyatira, He says, “I say to you, the rest who are in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching.” Thus, the condemnation of the church in both places was the result of the actions of only a part of the membership. The problem is that the other part of the membership of both churches (which was probably the majority of those churches) was permitting that friendship of the world and those heresies to continue. So, what does Jesus recommend to those churches? He calls on them to repent. Such repentance demands that the church discipline such immoralities and/or such heresies. The failure to exercise such discipline is the guarantee of the death of such a church. That is a rule that cannot be broken. Christ Himself threatens to “make war against them with the sword of My mouth” (Revelation 2:16) and to “throw her on a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent” (Revelation 2:22). Christ’s threat is not idle. He will follow through with His threats unless there is repentance.
I fear that many pastors and churches today fail to pay heed to Christ’s warnings. A pastor of another denomination told me several months ago that he would be happy to defend his reasons for remaining in a denomination that is tolerating heresy and immorality. I am not sure it has yet dawned on that minister that the One he must defend that position to is none other than Jesus Christ. Jesus does not look at our churches or denominations and say, “Oh, well, they are not tolerating very much heresy or very much idolatry. I am fairly pleased with them.” No, by no means does Christ view things that way. When only “some” in our midst are guilty of such heresies and immoralities, Christ says to us, “I have a few things against you… repent; or else I am coming quickly” (Revelation 2:14, 17). Jesus requires those who are not guilty of the heresy and immorality to exercise the discipline of such matters or else He will. His discipline will not spare any who are guilty. His discipline will remove “the lampstand out of its place” (Revelation 2:5). The history of the Christian church evidences this truth in numerous instances. There are church buildings all across America where the gospel was once preached in great power, but now the lampstand has been removed. Have you ever been to Northampton, Massachusetts where Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermons, “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”? The last time I was there, it belonged to a Unitarian Church. How sad. But that church where the Great Awakening in America began is no longer even a gospel preaching church. A year ago, I visited the church where George Whitefield was laid to rest, Old South Presbyterian Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts. The church was closed, but a sign outside revealed how far the congregation is from the gospel. It said, “The Great Awakening meets the Great Awokening.” That church, like so many others, is fully Woke now.
The only way to avert such judgment from Christ is to do what he says in several of these letters to the churches: “Therefore repent; or else” (Revelation 2:16). Jesus never recommends that pastors and churches some how find a way to seize control of the denomination through political machinations. The faithful members of the church must repent of tolerating heresy or immorality where they are guilty of such, but the church or denomination is never turned around simply by gaining a majority to vote on their side of issues. There must be repentance. If there is no repentance, there must be discipline of those who do not want to repent of their immorality. If discipline is not or cannot be exercised, then the faithful members must employ negative discipline by removing themselves from the unrepentant body. The failure to exercise such negative discipline has always resulted in denominations going from bad to worse. That downward fall is the evidence that Christ has visited those churches or denominations and taken away their lampstand; made war against them with the sword of His mouth; caused great tribulation to come on them; and, killed her children with pestilence (Revelation 2:5, 16, 21, 22).
The great problem in trying to fight for a church or denomination that refuses to repent is that those efforts replace the Great Commission in importance. People who do that will have nothing to answer when Jesus asks them, “Did you carry out My Commission?” They will be like the man in Christ’s parable who responded that he had buried the talents in the ground. The Great Commission does not tell us to fight for denominations where heresy and immorality is tolerated. It tells us to take the gospel to the world. The fight for the soul of a church or denomination that refuses to repent sidetracks us from our real calling. The Great Commission is what I love the most about being in Vanguard Presbytery. I can focus my whole attention on Matthew 28:18-20 without being distracted by plans to try to outmaneuver those who refuse to repent of heresies or immoralities. Every week, I receive emails from people in various parts of North America. I received an email just yesterday from a man who wrote as follows: “I have never been so discouraged in my Christian walk as I have been in the last two years. I really need some advice.” This man is discouraged because the Reformed churches he has attended for the past 25-30 years are not standing up for the gospel. He has turned to Vanguard Presbytery for help because he sees that we are distinctly different. Now, this is the point I want to make. While pastors and congregations are supposedly fighting for the heart of a denomination (at least in their minds), the little people in the pew, like this man, are suffering from spiritual depression. While you are standing up for the church or denomination in your vainglorious fight, who is standing up for this man—and for the multitudes of others like him? The fight is never supposed to be for the denomination. The fight is always supposed to be for the sheep who have no shepherds. If this distinction does not resonate with you, then I would recommend that you prayerfully read chapters two and three of Revelation very carefully and very slowly, paying attention to every word.
Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL and Moderator of Vanguard Presbytery through the end of 2021. Please send contributions to: PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540. www.vanguardpresbytery.com