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Longing for a pure(r) church

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Have you ever attended a "pure" church? Not a church without any sinful people in it (because there is no such thing), but a church where everything just functioned and operated biblically and in a godly way? I've only experienced it a few times in my life, but those are churches I'll never forget.

One was a small congregation that was among the best I've ever attended. The pastor was biblically deep and sound, yet humble, very kind and personally hospitable in every way. The Sunday school classes had more theological depth than any I'd ever attended. Everyone knew their Bibles really well and insisted upon obedience to the Lord in all things, and yet I never saw any Christians genuinely love and care for each other more than in that congregation, even to visitors — and even to a member who fell into serious sin and had to be disciplined. What's more, every Christian there knew just how unusual that church was and commented on it often: "The Lord has truly blessed this church!"

It's hard to go to a church like that and then have to move away, as I had to do. But it's even harder to go to a church like that and never find a church quite like that again. Whenever I dwell on it, that quote from Martin Luther often floats through my head: "Farewell to those who want an entirely pure and purified church. This is plainly wanting no church at all."

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I wonder, though. If it really is the case that we shouldn't want a pure church, then why did the Lord Jesus say what He said to Pergamum and Thyatira in Revelation 2?

To the church at Pergamum (Rev. 2:12-29), which was filled with false temples and pagan religions, the Lord said: "I know where you dwell, where Satan's throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells (v. 13)." That's impressive. These Christians were surrounded by paganism, yet didn't deny the name of Jesus. Nor did they deny the Christian faith when one of their brothers was martyred.

Then came the Lord's rebuke: "But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality. So also you have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth."

The whole church drew the Lord's rebuke because some in the church were holding to false teaching: "the teaching of Balaam" and "the teaching of the Nicolaitans." Notably, the Lord had just commended the church at Ephesus in Rev. 2:6 by saying, "Yet this you have: You hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate."

So what was the Lord's warning to Pergamum? "Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth (v. 16)." This is not the Lord telling His church that it was fine to tolerate a little error, because there's no such thing as a pure church. His command was to repent and purify His church, or He would deal with those who held to false teaching Himself!

The church at Thyatira had a similar problem. The Lord commended believers there for their works, their love, their service and their patient endurance, and He praised them because their latter works “exceeded the first.” Then came His rebuke: "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."

The Lord's warning to Thyatira was next: "Behold, I will throw (that prophetess) onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead (v. 22)."

Does this sound like the Lord is tolerant of an impure church, of a congregation of believers who may have great faith and works but tolerate among them false teaching and those who hold to it? Does the Lord ever say He understands it is sometimes necessary to put up with a few confused Christians who may be into a heresy here and there? Does He say something very modern like "have patience with them; they are still learning?" Absolutely not!

Christian author and speaker Vance Havner reflects on this truth in his book, "Repent or Else!"  

"The trouble with the Christians in both Pergamum and Thyatira was that they put up with Balaamism and tolerated Baalism instead of standing with the Lord in direct opposition. They probably thought they were exercising charity and forbearance, but they were terribly mistaken. Today we are living in a tragic hour when getting along with everything and everybody is the accepted policy in both the nation and the church ... (but) Paul wrote, 'If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed,' and what he is really saying is, 'Let him be damned.' We are told to reject a heretic after the first and second admonition (Titus 3:10). Even the loving John forbade hospitality to false teachers lest we be partakers of their evil deeds (2 John 10, 11). One reason why Balaam and Jezebel are making such headway in churches today is that so many have the notion that it is noble and Christian for the Church to take under her wing all shades of doctrine in an all-inclusive tolerance. It is not unchristian to oppose heresy. It is unchristian not to oppose it."

This is extremely sobering truth, in light of all the worldly doctrines — and even outright heresies — that our churches are tolerating today. Sure, churches accused of tolerating false doctrines among their members may point you to their sound doctrinal statements to alleviate any concerns you may express about false teachings floating among their members or being bandied about in Bible study discussions, but how does that make them any different from the churches at Pergamum or Thyatira?

Those churches, too, were commended for holding fast to the truth of the gospel and for their love and faith — and then they were commanded to repent for their dangerous "tolerance!" Why? To be faithful to the Lord and His Word and to help preserve — as much as humanly possible — the purity of the church to retain "the faith once delivered to the saints."

There is no end to the way the devil can infiltrate our churches with error and destructive heresies, and it's all around us. He can introduce them through educated pastors or ignorant new Christians or through longtime believers whom we always thought were sound and then went off the rails. He can derail our fellow Christians into accepting or even practicing sexual immorality. Through believers in our midst, he can get every heresy from false prosperity or "hyper-grace" gospels to Gnosticism, Marcionism or Montanism into even the soundest of churches.

The devil also has a modern way to usher false teachings into our churches these days and maybe in the most subversive way possible: through outside media our fellow members or pastors consume, especially online. Without anyone necessarily realizing it, they then regurgitate these falsehoods inside our churches, Sunday school classes or Bible studies. Satan can usher in false teachings through political influences and heretical propaganda consumed outside the church, too, either on the Left (Wokeness and social justice) or on the Right ("Woke Right" Christian nationalism, with its antisemitism and kinism).

I can tell you assuredly: Don't ever assume that a "Christian" celebrity or a "Christian" podcast or a "Christian" book or a "Christian" conference — or, dare I say, a "Christian" radio show — is sound just because it carries Christ's name! Any media bearing the name of Jesus must be even more strictly scrutinized as a Berean, since the very name of Jesus on it can tempt Christians to drop their guards and trust the source immediately.

And more and more, not only do we have to test everything in light of God's Word and hold fast to the truth, but we must be willing to expose the falsehoods we discover that are tolerated in our churches — even if someone in the church gets upset about it. This is not about "heresy hunting." This is just faithful Christianity.

We want revival. We recognize how badly our churches need it, and we desire greater purity of life and doctrine within them. Those are good and godly things to want. But consider the Lord's strong words to Pergamum and Thyatira. Before revival and greater purity comes, first there must be repentance in our churches for our intolerable tolerance of that which is poisoning the Body. The lesson of the Lord's words to those churches is that if we don't repent of the same sins and deal with the poison in our churches, the Lord will!

Our churches will never be entirely and permanently pure on earth, but we can be purer than we are. We can be more faithful to the Lord Jesus. We can love Him more and, in doing so, refuse to tolerate the error He hates! It is nothing less than the privilege and the duty that we owe the Savior we love — the One who "laid down His life for us" (I John 3:16) and said, "Why do you call Me, "Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I say?" (Luke 6:46)

We must take truth seriously, and that also means taking error seriously — first and foremost, inside our churches. As Havner put it, "We have but one responsibility: none other burden but to hold fast the old faith till Jesus comes."

Janet Mefferd is a longtime Christian radio broadcaster whose nationally syndicated talk shows aired on more than 450 stations nationwide. She is a former news and religion reporter and editor for newspapers including The Dallas Morning News and the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago, She now writes at Substack:

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