“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.’”
We come now to the chief criticism Christ lodged against the church at Ephesus—that they had abandoned the love they had at first. It is interesting that in exhorting the Ephesian church to love, he says that they should “do the works [they] did at first”, calling “love” a “work.”
In my time among fundamentalists, the explanation of this criticism capitalized around the concept of “working out of love for God.” The application of this interpretation usually centered on making certain that your ministry involvements were rooted in a love for God, and not mechanical.
However, that interpretation and application is based on the assumption that the “love [they] had at first” is merely a love for God. The text gives no warrant to limit it in this way. The NIV and NLT both render this as “first love”, which I find very suggestive of the two commandments which Christ identified as the greatest of all:
“‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ ‘He said to him,
‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment.
And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’
On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’”
All the law and prophets hang on the commandments to love God and your neighbor. This was a message the Pharisees needed to hear. This was a message Ephesus needed to hear. This is a message fundamentalists need to hear.
That this “first love” is combined love for God and others is obvious in two ways. In Matthew 22, Christ groups them into a single category on which the law and prophets depend. Secondly, we know from elsewhere in Scripture that these two loves must go together:
“We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
-1 John 4:19-21
Love for God cannot exist separately outside of love for others. The Apostle John understood Christ’s commandment in this way as well.
Many of the independent fundamental Baptists I have been around have attempted to qualify this dual love for God and neighbor by declaring that this condemnation especially concerns evangelism (or “soulwinning”). In other words, the church at Ephesus grew cold in their witness to a lost and dying world. Again, however, this is reading something into the text that is not there. The love we are commanded to have for others extends to all people, not just those in a particular category. Christ said clearly, that we must love our neighbor. If we ask with the lawyer, “And who is my neighbor?” we then recall the story of the Good Samaritan that the concept of “neighbor” extends to everyone we encounter (Luke 10:29-37). Christ could have used a story of preaching and conversion to illustrate neighborly love, but He did not.
Moreover, what we find in Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians that the main love he exhorted them to was love for others in the church:
“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.
But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.
Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”
If the Ephesians struggled with loving brothers and sisters in Christ (at least by the time of the writing of the Revelation to the Apostle Peter), then it is highly likely that their love for God and those outside the church suffered too. Love is love is love; to partition it is to turn it into an insidious form of hatred. Thus, Christ did not need to talk about what kinds of love the Ephesians needed to work on. The Ephesians just needed to LOVE.
To understand how it is that the Ephesian church ceased to love as they ought, we can tie in the previous discussions on this letter. In Part 2, we looked at what the Ephesian church did right, in sticking to the truth and challenging error. In Part 1, we looked at the importance of the unity of Christ’s church universal. The fact that Christ has to challenge them on unity and love in light of their doctrinal strength suggests a picture of this church that matches closely with today’s fundamentalists.
From this letter and the exhortations to unity in the epistle to the Ephesians, we get the picture of a church that has let doctrinal correctness trump Christian love. The Ephesians had evidently engaged in some form of ecclesiastical separation that denied Christ’s ownership of all the churches and the essential unity of the body of Christ. Such separation thrives on an “us vs. them” dynamic which would have trickled down to result in internal discord at Ephesus and an “in or out” view towards the lost.
Such a situation accords well with today’s fundamentalism. Anyone acquainted with fundamentalism has heard derogatory remarks made towards evangelicals (“evanjellyfish”), liberals, and others. This is simply the outworking of ecclesiastical separation where lines have to be drawn and an “us vs. them” dynamic is maintained.
The basis for ecclesiastical separation is a voluntarist, (pseudo-)creedal ecclesiology that defines Christian community not through receiving of God grace, but through mental assent to a set of propositional truths. Therefore, such an ecclesiology has further warrant to prosecute from within those who do not line up with the specific, stated positions of the leadership.
Lastly, in the interest of doctrinal purity, relations with the unbelieving world must be carefully managed. This is why the saved/not saved distinction is so strong. Either you are with us, or not; and if you are with us, you will do things our way. Today’s fundamentalists are highly evangelistic, and consider “born-again” conversions as the ultimate spiritual achievement of the church on earth.
Ultimately, love is conditioned on assent to a specific application and outworking of the gospel without respect to the spiritual consciences and giftings of the believers. If you are unsaved, it is held that your greatest need is to get saved, so any type of social work that is not overtly evangelistic is derided as “social gospel.”
The exact expression of doctrine trumping love in the ancient church at Ephesus may not have exactly matched what we find among today’s fundamentalists, but it, in all likelihood, followed the same trajectory in making love conditional upon acceptance of a particular application of revealed truth.