“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.’”
The ancient city of Ephesus in the time of the Roman Empire was a city of influence. It was a religious, commercial, and cultural center. The fourth largest city in the Roman Empire, Ephesus was the ruling center of Asia Minor and was regarded as a seat of learning. The library of Celsus and the Temple of Artemis (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) were there.
Ephesus lay at the west end of one of the main trade routes into Asia and had easy access to two others by water. Much of the commercial activity combined with temple activity to create a symbiotic relationship between commerce and religion. Such relationships were common at that time.
The opposition to Christianity in Ephesus (and many other Hellenistic Roman cities) came from multiple directions. The first obvious opposition involved the fact that pagan worship and practices infiltrated normal, everyday life. In this vein we read in the New Testament about Christians arguing over meat that, while bought in the common market, had been once offered to idols. The markets were often connected to a temple that also functioned as a banking center. The second form of opposition involved the imperial cult—the worship of Caesar. (Sometimes the promoters of this type of worship found the Christians useful as an ally against pagan worship.) The third form of opposition was Epicureanism. The church after Constantine did such a thorough job of silencing the promoters of this philosophy that we tend to underestimate its prevalence during the time of the Apostles.
Such non-Christian influences would have been exceptionally strong in a large, important, metropolitan city like Ephesus. However, the Ephesian church also had to beware of wolves from within, false teaching from false teachers that would destroy the church. Paul warned them:
“From Miletus he sent a message to Ephesus, asking the elders of the church to meet him. When they came to him, he said to them: […] Therefore I declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God. Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to warn everyone with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified.”
-Acts 20:17-18a, 26-32
Ephesus had to be on guard, and test those claiming the name of Christ. The stakes were too high. Paganism, worship of false gods, godless philosophies, and heretical doctrine were strong enemies at Ephesus.
Christ starts out by stating “I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance.” “Works” here means “achievement” or “accomplishment.” So then Christ is saying that He knows what the church at Ephesus has accomplished, how they have labored or toiled, and how they have endured patiently. The rest of Christ’s praise will spell out the toil of Ephesus, which begins by declaring “I know that you cannot tolerate evildoers”. The Ephesian church was intolerant of sin and wickedness.
The next praise delivered is, “you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them to be false.” The connotation of the word “apostles” here should not be understood to mean only apostles such as Peter, John, and Paul who were commissioned of Christ directly. The Greek word translated as “apostle” means a messenger, and was applied in the New Testament not only to those we recognize as Apostles but prominent ministers of the church such as Barnabas, Titus, and Epaphroditus. The church at Ephesus tested all who came to teach and to minister to ensure they held a pure gospel untainted with heresy, paganism, or the godless philosophy of the times. Other churches suffered at the hands of false teachers such as the church at Galatia. But Paul had spent two whole years at Ephesus teaching them and later warned them directly to keep watch for this. The Ephesian church was not about to let the same thing happen to them.
Christ has one last praise before beginning his criticism: “I also know that you are enduring patiently and bearing up for the sake of my name, and that you have not grown weary.” Christ commended Ephesus not just for what they were doing, but for their endurance and steadfastness in holding the truth firmly.
Ultimately, the works of the church of Ephesus involved guarding the truth from error and not tolerating sin. In this toil, they were steadfast and strong. One might say the church at Ephesus was stubborn in resisting compromise.
This description fits historic fundamentalism to a tee. As a reaction to modernism, fundamentalism has always insisted on standing for the truth against the tide of error whether cultural or academic. They test Christian leaders to determine if they are holding to the truth or not. Fundamentalism has placed tremendous importance on doctrine and the correct interpretation of Scripture.
Fundamentalists have a reputation for tirelessly preaching against the sin and wickedness of the world. They are not content to achieve doctrinal purity but also desire to achieve holiness and blamelessness before the Lord. This holistic “search for purity” is a defining characteristic of Fundamentalism.
These characteristics were considered praiseworthy by Christ and ought to be considered praiseworthy by us as well. It is easy to be blown about with every wind of doctrine. It is easy to allow sin into our lives. It is also very easy to allow our hearts to grow cold and our zeal for Christ to wane. Historically, fundamentalism has had much to teach the church at large about the need for truth, purity, and endurance.
Even those in the church who strongly disagree with fundamentalism should not consider fundamentalists outside of the body of Christ. For one, that is up to Christ. Secondly, the church should seek to imitate these good qualities—just as much as fundamentalism ought to be willing to learn from other parts of the church.
A complete history of fundamentalism is beyond the scope of this article, but it is important here, when considering what is called “fundamentalism” in the modern day, to recall that the original fundamentalist movement underwent a split in the 1940s. One of the resulting groups, the evangelicals, was not willing to renounce engagement with modernism and from other parts of the church that had accepted modernist thinking to various degrees. The other group, what we recognize as today’s fundamentalists, insisted on secondary separation, not only being unwilling to engage modernism but also being unwilling to associate with those that did.
In the next part, I will explore the pitfalls facing Ephesus and why I believe today’s fundamentalists have fallen into them.