Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Fundamentalism and the Church at Ephesus, Part 1: The Unity of Christ’s Body

“‘To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands: ‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance. I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers; you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false. I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this is to your credit: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.’”
-Revelation 2:1-7


Fundamentalists have their place among the churches of Christ. It is Christ who is Lord of all and judge of all. Whether one wants to be a fundamentalist or not, that is a different story. To a great degree, the Christian’s choice in this matter depends on a number of factors including where they began to learn of Christ and certain psychological needs—but this is a topic for another time.
In the book of Revelation chapters 2 and 3 we find seven letters addressed to seven churches in Asia Minor: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. It has often been posited that these seven churches, in order, represent stages that the church will go through from the time of the apostles to the return of Christ. Whether that is true or not is debatable, but what is certain is that these letters are intended to address seven entirely different churches with entirely different strengths and weaknesses. I believe that we can see parallels between the seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3 and Christian churches today.
Where fundamentalism has taught on these letters, the focus has typically been to smear all other Christian churches as Laodicean and worthless, and to occasionally claim that fundamentalists are like the church at Philadelphia. They would like to see themselves as a Philadelphian remnant in a Laodicean age. It should suffice to simply reply that situation is much more complex than that—there are seven types of churches, not two; and anyone with a passing familiarity with fundamentalism knows better than to accuse them of the type of brotherly love that the Philadelphian church was commended for!
Moving past any misinterpretations of the seven letters to the churches, we see a pattern in each letter. There is a description of Christ that is particularly relevant to the church, praises for what the church is doing well, warnings over things that need to corrected, and finally, an eternal promise that fulfills what the church is seeking. Each of the seven letters follows this pattern except for the letter to Philadelphia, which contains no warnings.
It is my belief that the church at Ephesus is representative of today’s fundamentalist churches. In a series of articles, I hope to shed light on the spiritual condition of fundamentalism in light of what Christ had to say to Ephesus. In this article, we will examine the identification of Christ as the steward of the churches.
Christ begins by reminding the Ephesian church that He fellowships with all of the churches—He “holds the seven stars in his right hand [and] walks among the seven golden lampstands”. This is not the only time in Scripture were the Ephesians are reminded of this truth. In Ephesians 2:17-22, the Apostle Paul tells them:

“So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

The unity discussed here is more than unity within a single assembly. Paul begins by teaching that through Christ, both he and the Ephesians have access to the Father by one Spirit. Because of this, all of us in Christ are being “built together” as a “whole structure” with Christ as the “cornerstone”.
(Some fundamentalists will object to the idea of a “universal” church and a refutation of such arguments will have to wait for another time. However it is already pretty easy to see that the New Testament teaches a “universal” church.)
Paul elaborates further in Ephesians 4:1-7:

“I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift.”

“One body and one Spirit”—Christians who have access to the Father through “one Spirit” also constitute “one body”, as seen here and in Ephesians 2. The church of Christ was always intended to be ecumenical in nature—the universal membership of her members in a relationship with the Father through the Son by the Spirit. The Gospel is supposed to be a unifying force.

“A life worthy” of the Christian calling is one that bears others in love, and maintains unity and peace. The Ephesians needed to be reminded of the necessity of the unity of the universal church.
Today’s fundamentalists need the same reminder. Ecumenism is derided by fundamentalists, with some of them even rejecting the concept of a “universal” church. Some Baptist fundamentalists go even further and claim that the only legitimate churches are those Baptist churches that have descended in an unbroken line from apostolic times.
The Gospel is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ which allows us to enter into a relationship with the Father through the Son by the Spirit. It is this relationship that ensures our membership in the body, not any creed or code of conduct. It is a relationship that is begun under the conviction and enlightenment of the Spirit of God and continued in the same manner. This enlightenment involves sin, and righteousness, and judgment. It manifests as faith in Christ and works toward men.
Both faith and the works are the manifestation of being indwelt with the Spirit of God. Pitting “works salvation” against “grace salvation” is missing the broader reality of our salvation being brought to pass through birth into God’s family through the Spirit. Salvation is wrought neither by works nor by mental assertion to propositional truth but by the regenerating power of the Spirit of God. Works and faith follow this regeneration. We are saved by an initial act of grace on God’s part, not faith or works (Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 2:11-14).
Being a part of the family of God is enough to command unity with others who have been regenerated in like manner. It is truly the baptism of the Spirit that unites as one. Denominational divisions may be necessary to provide order within each local assembly, as each denomination follows different traditions and interpretations. However there is no excuse for inter-denominational condemnation.
Ultimately, the Lord Jesus Christ will bring every church into judgment. Christ warns every church except Philadelphia that unless they repent, He will remove their “lampstand from its place”. Fundamentalist churches stand in danger of this as much as any other church.

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