Thinking Twice About the Emergent Movement: Listening to All the Churches of Revelation

(The following is an excerpt from the last chapter of Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be, Co-authored by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck. Moody Publishers. Used by permission.)

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

Revelation 2:7

If we had to distill our advice for the emerging church into one sentence, it would be this: Listen to all the churches in Revelation.  Emergent leaders need to celebrate all the strengths of the churches in Revelation 2-3 and admit that Jesus’ prescription for health is more than community, authenticity, and inclusion.

Many people do not realize that Revelation, besides being an apocalypse and a prophecy, was also a letter—a letter addressed to seven real churches in Asia Minor.  The number seven suggests that the churches were more than real churches; they were also representative churches, symbolic of the church universal.  In other words, the problems in these seven churches are the root problems in all churches.  Their strengths are our strengths, and their weaknesses are our weaknesses.  There is something for everyone to love and hate about these churches.  We can all see our besetting sins mirrored here, even if we can see the sins of our neighbor churches more easily.  And while it is certainly legitimate to see individual churches as more relevant to our particular settings, we must pay attention to what Jesus says to all seven churches. 

And that’s my beef with the emerging church.  Doctrinally-minded, Reformed Christians like me would get more out of emergent critiques if they recognized that there are just as many undiscerning, over-tolerant Pergamums and Thyatiras in North America and the U.K. as there are loveless Ephesuses.  I pick these three churches not because they are most important, but because they best represent what is right with the emerging church—a good eye for Ephesus problems—and what is wrong—a blind eye to Pergamum-Thyatira problems.  Emerging and non-emerging Christians need to listen to all three churches.

Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7)

The Christians at Ephesus were hard workers and full of patient endurance.  They were faithful, indefatigable, and doctrinally sound.  They did not tolerate wicked men.  They tested the false apostles and spied out false teaching.  A few years after Revelation was written, the church father Ignatius wrote to Ephesus and again praised them, because he heard the report that no heresy or sect or false teaching could even gain an audience in the Ephesian church—they were taught so well. 

The church at Ephesus was also ethically sound.  They hated the practice of the Nicolaitans—the “anything goes” crowd of the day.  The Nicolaitans were the ones who said, “You’re free in Christ.  Live like you’re free and get rid of these rules.  Go with the flow.  Accommodate the culture.  Jesus was the great sexual liberator.  God’s grace is wide and inclusive.  Live as you like.”  The Ephesians were not drawn away by such notions.  In fact, Jesus commended them for two virtues scarcely mentioned in the emerging church: intolerance (of false teaching) and hatred (of immorality).  For all the talk in emerging circles about the supremely inclusive kingdom of God, it should not escape our notice that Ephesus was not praised for their inclusion, but for their exclusion.

Jesus might say to an Ephesus church today, “You are very faithful people.  You declare the truth in an age of error.  You have not compromised with the world.  You can spot false teaching and wrong living and do not follow it.  You are hard-working, truth-defending, immorality-hating Christians.  I commend you for that.”  If Revelation 2:1-7 is any model, Jesus wouldn’t chastise contemporary Ephesus churches for being fastidious about doctrine and morals.  He wouldn’t tell them, like so many emergent authors, to be less of what they are in order to be more of what they are not.  He wouldn’t chide them for their strengths.  Doctrine and morality and hard work are not the problem.  Those are genuinely good things.  The problem is, as the emerging church is right to point out, those are not the only things.

The church at Ephesus was your exemplary fundamentalist, evangelical church with a good Protestant work-ethic and a close eye on theological orthodoxy.  This was good, but these aren’t the only things that matter in a church.  Ephesus had one big, cancerous problem.  They didn’t love. 

At one time, there was great love in this church (Eph. 1:15-16), but it had been lost.  At first glance it seems that their love for God had grown cold, but in the Old Testament whenever God’s people are said to forsake their love for God, they are pictured as adulterous and idolatrous (see Jeremiah 2 and Hosea 4 for example), which doesn’t fit Ephesus.  No, it wasn’t the loving feeling they had lost.  They had stopped doing something that they used to do (which is why Jesus tells them to do the works they did at first).  Their fault wasn’t with the first great commandment, but with the second.  They loved God, but they did not love their neighbors as themselves.

They stopped loving one another in the church.  They had keen minds and busy hands, but shriveled hearts.  They were a classic case of 1 Corinthians 13—“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”  The church at Ephesus was strong in some areas, but without practical, tangible love for one another, they were in danger of becoming worthless as a church.  The people cared about being right, but they didn’t care about each other anymore.  My guess is their precise, careful eye for theological and moral error had become a precise, careful eye for finding fault in each other.

This is the great danger for doctrinally sound churches.  They can be quick to judge and slow to forgive.  They analyze everything and everyone.  They are so used to fighting against the world, that when they get bored with that they turn and fight among themselves.  They always need to be against something, always purifying something, always looking for error or inconsistency.  This is why many denominations that split end up splitting again.  Fighting gets in their blood.

I realized a number of years ago that it didn’t matter if I was against all the things I should be against, if I wasn’t foranything.  I think that’s the Lord’s point to Ephesus.  “You hate what I hate.  That’s good.  But you do not love what I love.”  I can tell in my own spirit when I am arguing a point to be right and when I am arguing a point out of love.  Hopefully, this book is the latter.  There is a big difference between the two.  Do I want to be right because, “I know this is right, moron, and why can’t you see it?”  Or am I arguing my point because “I love you and I know this will be good for you and honor Christ”?

Ephesus’ lovelessness manifested itself in another kind of sin: not just a lack of life-giving fellowship but a lack of life-giving witness.  The church was so busy battling and protecting and defending, that they had turned inward to self-protection and suspicion.  They were navel-gazers, with no vision or purpose outside themselves.  They were great at keeping the world out of the church, but they were terrible at taking the church out into the world.

Consequently, Jesus, he who walks among the lampstands, threatened to take away their lampstand which was failing to give light.

Matthew 5:14-16
You are the light of the world.  A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.  Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

The light at Ephesus had grown dim.  They had good deeds, but not love for one another.  They defended the light, but they were not shining it into the dark places of the world.  They were not bearing witness to Jesus Christ in their love or in their testimony.  And as a result, Jesus says, “I will come and take away your light if it does not shine.”  And, sadly, he did.  There is no church at Ephesus.  This is not the reason every church closes its doors.  But certainly it has been true many times and continues to be true that churches which refuse to live and shine and bear witness in the world will die.  Let this be a warning to all Ephesus churches: Give the gospel away or lose it.

It is sad but true.  Theologically astute churches and theologically minded pastors sometimes die the death of dead orthodoxy and grow sterile and cold, petrified as the “frozen chosen”, not compromising with the world, but not engaging it either.  We may think right, live right, and do right, but if we do it off in a corner, shining our lights at each other to probe our brother’s sins instead of pointing our lights out into the world, we will grow dim as a church, and our light will eventually be extinguished.

Pergamum (Revelation 2:12-17)
I dare say that most emergent Christians either came from Ephesus churches or perceive them to be the overwhelming problem in the Christian West.  The emerging church sees loveless, lightless, listless churches everywhere and rebukes them.  Where such churches exist, their rebuke is justified (though not the emergent remedies).  But it also seems clear to me that emerging leaders are blind to the failings of Pergamum and Thyatira churches.

The church at Pergamum had one main strength.  They were faithful in witness.  It was not popular to be a Christian in Pergamum (Satan dwelt there, after all). And yet, the church did not renounce the name of Jesus.  They were strongest in the very areas where Ephesus was weakest.  The church at Ephesus didn’t love anymore.  They turned their lights inward on each other instead of out in the world.  But the church at Pergamum held together.  They were loyal and did not turn on each other when they faced persecution.  They were bold in their witness to an enemy culture.  They would tell you about Jesus and stand up for him, even if it cost them their lives.

But they were undiscerning, which is why Jesus introduced himself as him who has the sharp two-edged sword.  The Christians at Pergamum didn’t have a keen eye for orthodoxy and moral uprightness like Ephesus.  They held to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.  In short, they had been deceived. 

If Ephesus was under-engaged with the culture, Pergamum over-identified with the culture.  The Christians in Pergamum bore witness to Jesus, but they had comprised in what it meant to follow him.  Undiscerning tolerance was Pergamum’s crippling defect.  Their indifference to religious and moral deviancy was not a sign of their great relevance to the culture, or their great broadmindedness, or a great testimony to their ability to focus on God’s love; it was a blight on their otherwise passionate, faithful witness.

We don’t know how Pergamum was deceived and why they tolerated the Nicolaitans.  Perhaps they were untaught, ignorant on some key aspects of discipleship.  Maybe Pergamum was filled with the kind of Christians that are always against rules: “Christianity isn’t about do’s and don’ts.  It’s about a relationship.”  (As if the relationship were not guarded and preserved by rules.  Try telling your wife after you’ve had an affair, “Come on.  I thought our marriage was about the relationship, not all these do’s and don’ts.”)  Pergamum reminds me of what can happen to young people that aren’t taught well or to youth movements that lack grounding in the Scriptures.  People get converted, sometimes dramatically, and they live vibrant, courageous, evangelistic Christian lives, but they are also confused, undiscerning, and antinomian.

Maybe the Christians at Pergamum were saying, “Hey look, the important thing is that we all love Jesus.  Don’t get hung up on secondary matters.”  Maybe they were in dialogue with the Nicolaitans, attending lots of warm-fuzzy meetings where they tried to understand each other and gain an appreciation for their differing perspectives.  Most likely, the cultural pressure was simply too strong.  Idolatry and sexual immorality were so rampant that they became like high places for the church at Pergamum.  They didn’t see the danger and the wickedness of what the false teachers were promoting, and so they became overly accommodating.

Thyatira (Revelation 2:18-29)
Ephesus was praised for their good deeds and strong work ethic.  Thyatira was even better.  They possessed the deeds that Ephesus had and the love that Ephesus lacked.  Thyatira was a vibrant church.  They loved, served, believed, and endured.  This was probably the kind of church you walked into and immediately felt like you belonged.  “Great to meet you.  Let me introduce you to my friends.  Here, I’ll show you how you can get plugged in, use your gifts, do ministry.  We’re so glad you’re here.”  It was that kind of church: friendly, caring, full of service to each other and probably to the community.  This church loved.  That’s the good part.

But there was a bad part too.  Their love was blindly affirming.  The big problem at Thyatira was tolerance.  They tolerated false teaching and immoral behavior, two things of which he who has eyes as piercing as fire and feet as pure as burnished bronze is fiercely intolerant.  Jesus says, “You’re loving, which is great, but your tolerance is not love.  It’s unfaithfulness.” 

I imagine Thyatira as a church with lots of community programs, a concern for social justice issues, a desire to be inclusive.  But somewhere along the line, warm-heartedness overtook clear-mindedness. 

Most Christians and most churches go liberal for one of two reasons.  Either they are disillusioned conservatives who have seen nothing but legalistic, angry fundamentalism; or they are passionate social activists who, in their desire to love everyone, end up rejecting nothing.  Thyatira’s problem was the opposite of Ephesus.  I fear that emerging Christians are in danger of repeating Thyatira’s error: they love what Jesus loves but do not hate what Jesus hates.

Emerging Church leaders need a vision for the church that encompasses all the letters of Revelation.  They need to see and talk about the problems of over-tolerance and under-definition as well as the problems of lovelessness and listlessness.  There are undoubtedly many Ephesus churches, and emergent leaders are quick to point this out, but these same leaders underestimate the problems of Pergamum and Thyatira.  As a result, they end up rebuking not just the faults of Ephesus churches, but their strengths as well, tearing down what Jesus commends in order to strengthen what Jesus condemns.

Emergent Christians, to use the language of Revelation, have many good deeds.  They want to be relevant.  They want to reach out.  They want to be authentic.  They want to include the marginalized.  They want to make kingdom disciples.  They want community and life transformation.  Jesus likes all this about them.  But he would, I believe, also have some things against them, some criticisms to speak through other brothers and sisters.  These criticisms shouldn’t be ignored because they come from academics or theologians, or because it hurts to be criticized, or because other people have expressed profound gratitude for their emergent ideas.   These criticisms shouldn’t be sidestepped because their movement is only a “conversation,” or because they only speak for themselves, or because they admit “We don’t have it all figured out.”  Emergent Christians need to own up to some of their overreactions and catch Jesus’ broader vision for the church—his vision for a church that is intolerant of error, maintains moral boundaries, promotes doctrinal integrity, engages the culture, reaches out, loves, serves, stands strong in times of trial, remains vibrant in times of prosperity, believes in certain judgment and certain reward, is deeply theological, deeply ethical, deeply compassionate, and deeply doxological.

Knowing God

It is no coincidence that the problems of the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 are followed by a majestic vision of him who sits on the throne in chapter 4 and the Lamb who was slain in chapter 5.  The magnificent picture of the sovereign, holy God of the universe sitting on the throne and the Lamb at his right hand follows seven very practical, specific letters.  Many people overlook the fact that they are right next to each other.  They treat the seven letters like a disconnected introduction to the real meat and potatoes of Revelation.  But the vision of God in chapters 4 and 5 is the answer to the problems posed in chapters 2 and 3.

Each of the churches is called to overcome.  But how do you do that?  The answer is found in chapters 4 and 5.  You get a breathtaking glimpse of God and the Lamb.  You take your eyes of your earthly situation and gaze into heaven and see what true reality looks like.  No matter the church’s problem, what is most needful is to see God in his glory.  Lost your first love?  Being persecuted?  Impure?  Bad theology?  Spiritually dry?  Full of weakness?  Apathetic?  You need to know God better.

One of the things that keeps me grounded as a pastor is to ask myself, “Will this help me and my people die well?”  Promoting radical uncertainty does not help people die well.  Calling people to live the life of Jesus while minimizing the death of Jesus as the substitutionary sacrifice which turned away our Father’s wrath does not help people die well.  Assuring people that the gospel is not information containing propositional good news, but is instead an invitation to kingdom living, does not help people die well.  Undermining confidence in our ability to know anything beyond our own interpretations of the Bible does not help people die well.  Calling us to simply experience the wild, unexplainable journey of faith doesn’t help much when it comes time to reach our eternal destination.

What puts a rock under my feet and hope in my heart is the certain knowledge that God is holy, righteous, loving, all-knowing, all-powerful, eternal, independent, sovereign and merciful; that he created the world good only to have Adam plunge the human race into sin and bondage to ever-increasing wickedness; that God purposed in eternity past to save those whom he would call, and that in the fullness of time he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to live the life we couldn’t and die the death we deserved; that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, justly condemning the unbelieving to eternal punishment and granting the followers of Jesus to live forever in never-ending, always-increasing enjoyment of God.  Resting in all of this helps us do what all the mysterious paradoxes and postmodern uncertainties never could—it helps us die well.  Call it linear, dogmatic or hopelessly otherworldly, but it’s what Christians have held on to for millennia as their only comfort in life and in death.  And by God’s grace, such an articulation of the Christian message will emerge and re-emerge, unapologetically and unhesitatingly, as front and center in all our churches.  It is after all, as Jude put it so long ago, our common salvation and the faith that was once-for-all delivered to the saints.   

Kevin DeYoung is the Senior Pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, across the street from Michigan State University. He is a graduate of Hope College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is the author of Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) and Freedom and Boundaries: A Pastoral Primer on the Role of Women in the Church and has written daily devotionals for Words of Hope: Daily Reflections. He and his wife, Trisha, have three children, Ian, Jacob, and Elizabeth.
Originally published on Used by permission.
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