Between Ephesus & ThyatiraSo, let’s review.  On one end of the spectrum, we have an otherwise healthy church who, in their rejection of sin (which probably included some porneia), have become unloving.  Somewhere in the middle, we have a community who are under persecution, even to the point of being martyred, but Jesus even corrects them for allowing people within their community to be deceived by false teaching, which is leading to porneia being practiced in the church.  On the other end of the spectrum, we have a church where porneia is not just being practiced but also endorsed by leadership who is described as a self-proclaimed prophet and is probably invoking the Holy Spirit to give authority to her teachings, teachings that are declaring licit that which was previously declared illicit by the Holy Spirit.

Wait, we’re still talking about Scripture, right?  In all seriousness, I think most of us, at least within the Vineyard, are finding ourselves somewhere on the road between Ephesus and Thyatira.  While some may be ready to begin pointing fingers and naming names (in good apocalyptic, Johannine style), I think such activity would be counterproductive.  Rather, if the narrations of each of these letters are accurately portraying circumstances quite similar to our own, I think we need to hear Jesus’ words to these communities in the propositions,wherever we may be at on this road.  I’ll consider these exhortations in varying order.

On Porneia Practice in Pergamum and Thyatira

In both Pergamum and Thyatira, Jesus calls those engaged in the activity of porneia to repent of this activity.  In Pergamum, Jesus promises that he will come and “war against them with the sword of his mouth” (Rev 2:16) and that points forward toward Jesus’ final decisive actions (Rev 19:15).  Likewise, in Thyatira, judgment seems to already be decided for Jezebel (!) but her followers still have an opportunity to repent.  Jesus promises that each will be given according to their deeds (Rev 2:23; likewise echoing the language of final judgment in 20:12) and that a lack of repentance will result in death.

Let’s address the elephant in the room. Given the historic understanding and development of porneia (see part 1), it is hard to understand same-sex sexual activity as anything other than porneia.  Such an understanding is in-line with second temple Judaism and early Christianity and the prohibitions against porneia for both Jews and Gentiles within the church are consistent.[1] We can’t ignore the reality that Scripture’s witness on porneia is uniformly negative: wherever it is addressed, whether on the lips of Jesus or at the pen of Paul, the witness is negative.  Porneia is bad and must be avoided.

Previously, I had mentioned that, “licit sexual activity was defined by Torah and served as a cultural boundary marker where everything beyond Torah-observance was categorized as illicit and labeled as porneia.”[2] In essence, scripture suggests porneia continues to function similarly as a boundary marker within Kingdom praxis.  That is, porneia practice is one of the boundary markers for the Christian identity.  This boundary is not an issue of Torah observance or law keeping; it is an issue of community identity through holiness.  As N.T. Wright appropriately notes: “the praxis of the kingdom (holiness) is defined without reference to Torah” in the Christian redefinition of the Kingdom.[3] Holiness is the praxis and Paul suggests that porneia practice is antithetical to holiness at the most basic level.[4] Embracing porneia is embracing an identity marker that is antithetical to holiness and thus is equated with rejecting God himself.[5] THIS is why this issue is so important.  We can jigger with definitions within society and culture; but we can’t redefine holiness.  To do so would be to redefine who God is.

But, I hope astute readers will have noticed that I’ve focused on porneia rather than on same-sex sexual activity throughout my discussion.  This is intentional.  Is same-sex sexual activity porneia?  Yep.  So is premarital sex.  And adultery.  As is arbitrary divorce and even some remarriage.[6] Complacency towards porneia arguably extends beyond these textual parallels to issues like our modern pornography epidemic, the proliferation of the sex trade and facilitation of a rape culture.  Our culture, at best, is complacent and, more often than not, subversive and enabling of this brokenness.

Ken appropriately saw this and cried foul to our inconsistency.  He needs to be commended for this.  But the answer in such circumstances isn’t to declare porneia clean.  It is to repent and pursue Jesus and His holiness.  Gather together frequently and call one another to accountability.  Cry with one another.  Pray for one another.  Seek His face.  Never stop thirsting for righteousness nor become complacent and tolerant of sin, for that is the path to destruction.

We have a porneia problem in America and we need to repent.

On Ephesus’ Love Deficit

Jesus’ word to the Ephesians is a call to repentance and return to the love and practice that they first pursued.  Jesus’ warning and call for repentance is testimony to the fact that you can be theologically right but pastorally wrong.  If you are, as a community, proceeding unlovingly, then you are doing it wrong.  It is worth noting that only at Ephesus is the whole community under risk of judgment and retribution.  In Ephesus, the whole church needs to change its behavior or otherwise risk being proverbially “divorced” by Jesus.  This is very different than the calls to repentance at Pergamum and Thyatira, where specific factions are being warned rather than the church community as a whole.[7] The seriousness of this call to repentance cannot be overstated.

While those in this community are appropriately called to repent for being unloving, defining what is “unloving” will certainly be the central sticking point and discussion around this will continue to be needed.  As we move forward and begin to discern what being “loving” looks like in our contemporary contexts, let me propose a couple guidelines from the wider context of these letters for what we may conclude it doesn’t look like:

  1. It does not include affirming porneia.  God makes it explicit that he hates the works of the Nicolaitans [2:6] (which contextually seems to include porneia, based on 2:14-15).
  2. It does not include enduring or tolerating leadership, especially those claiming to be apostles or prophets, who are promoting and teaching in such a way that will endorse porneia.  Jesus clearly commends Ephesus (2:2) for not enduring such individuals and rebukes Thyatira (2:20) for tolerating them.
  3. It does not include allowing, to the extent possible, individuals within the community to be led astray by such teachings.  Jesus rebukes Pergamum (2:14) for allowing this to occur within the community.

Those seem to be the boundaries for being loving from the context of these letters.  What is certain is that room should always be made for those moving towards Jesus and abundant grace for those struggling to follow in His footsteps.  I think that charting a way forward will require “prophetic imagination” (in the words of Walter Brueggemann)[8] as we attempt to reimagine how to do life in a way that is both radically welcoming and radically pursuing holiness.[9] Whatever way we discern forward needs to hold these two calls in tension.

On the Faithful in Thyatira

Finally, a faction within Thyatira, those that have rejected Jezebel’s teachings, are surprisingly encouraged instead of rebuked.  Jesus promises them he will lay no additional burden upon them (which, as mentioned previously, seems to be echoing the Apostolic Decree of Acts 15) and exhorts them to remain faithful and “hold fast” (Rev 2:24-25) until He comes.

This exhortation may strike some as odd given our fractious, Protestant heritage.  In neither Pergamum nor Thyatira does Jesus exhort the communities to split.  In both communities it is He that will war against the transgressors and bring judgment.  Surprisingly, church discipline and ejection from the communities don’t seem to be within view, at least not explicitly, in either of these communities.  While the faithful within Thyatira may have been in the minority within this community (and thus unable to exercise authority to remove Jezebel), Jesus does not exhort these faithful to leave and start Thyatira church plant 2.0.  In some sense, this church community seems to be a living example of the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt 13:24-30).  While some may see this as an argument from silence, I think Jesus’ exhortation to the faithful in Thyatira is particularly telling.  For those who are finding themselves in divided communities, I think Jesus word is significant: “Remain faithful and hold on.”

Furthermore, if I may go one step farther, I think an appropriate inference in that exhortation is also this command: “Continue witnessing to the truth so that some may be saved.” Such advice seems inline with Paul’s advice to spouses who find themselves married to unbelievers, a situation not totally unlike what is happening within these communities.[10] Just as Paul acknowledges that an unbelieving spouse may be saved, so too may fellow believers in covenant communities come to see their sin through the witness of the faithful and repent.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting doing away with church discipline (where appropriate) but rather acknowledging that such options may not be available in some communities, especially when it is leadership who are part of the compromised parties.  For those in such divided communities, I think the exhortation is to remain faithful and maintain your covenant commitments to your faith community and witness to the truth as the Holy Spirit leads and empowers you to.  I recognize such an exhortation will most likely not be received in our factionary, western Protestant consumer Christianity but I think it is something that we all must consider as we discern what “unity” looks like in the Church.    For those willing to receive this word, my personal exhortation would be to stay with the proverbial “unbelieving spouse” for as long as they will have you; if they leave, in the words of Paul, “Let it be so…It is to peace that God has called you” (1 Cor 7:15).[11]

Radical Welcome and Radical Holiness

So there we have it.  As a whole, I think the letters to these three churches in Revelation form a much more comprehensive and appropriate model for understanding all of the various elements and currents within this discussion on LGBT practice within the church as well as providing particular calls to repentance to individuals and communities at various points along the spectrum of responses.

I profoundly agree with Bill Arnold on the point that we are “starting in the wrong place” with LGBT issues.  I think any discussion on this must start with porneia, not same-sex sexual activity.  I certainly think Ken is right in his critique of some of the ways we have dealt with divorce and remarriage.  There is certainly a reason why Jesus’ disciples marveled at this teaching and suggested it might be better not to marry at all (Matt 19:10)!  I likewise largely agree with Peter Davids, a NT scholar and friend of the Vineyard, that with wholesale “accepting divorce evangelicals largely went against scripture…. Yes, this is a wakeup call to revisit the question of divorce.”[12]

But this is even bigger than divorce.  Remember that these prohibitions apply equally to a wide range of sexual activity also including adultery, most divorce, premarital sex, polyamory/polygamy, incest, and bestiality.  Luckily, many of these activities are not socially or legally acceptable so they are not in view of the current debates…yet.

Ultimately, I think this entire issue speaks to a much more significant, underdeveloped area in Vineyard’s Kingdom Theology.  Traditionally, we have done very well talking about the Kingdom coming powerfully through signs and wonders.  Our very origin as a movement echoes with these elements of the Kingdom.  In recent years, the Vineyard has done an excellent job exploring what it looks like when the Kingdom comes and encounters issues and systems of social and economic injustice.  We do a very good job theologically and practically describing what the telos of the Kingdom looks like in these instances.

But this is the question we need to spend a little more time reflecting on and developing: what does it look like when the Kingdom of God comes into the interior life of a believer?  Or, rather, what John Wesley, when talking about the Kingdom of God, describes as “heaven opened in the soul” and God setting “up his throne in our hearts.”[13] Or, more systematically, what is often referred to simply as “holiness.”  What is does the telos of the Christian life look like?

Finally, however we proceed from here must include both radical welcome and the radical call towards holiness.  Ephesus failed the radical welcome.  Some in Thyatira and Pergamum failed to pursue the radical holiness of Jesus.[14] We must hold on to both and continue to be a both-and people, a people in and through which God’s eschatological in-breaking Kingdom life and praxis is realized in ever increasing degrees of holiness.

End Notes

[1] See Acts 15.  One is either a Jew or a Gentile and both are prohibited from porneia.  In the early church, porneia abstention was discerned, with the Holy Spirit, as an ”essential” of the faith (15:28).

[2] See “On the Road between Ephesus and Thyatira”, part 1.

[3] Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 218.

[4] See 1 Thess 4:1-8. Torah testifies to holiness and any authoritative ethics derived from it must necessarily reflect Kingdom realities.

[5] 1 Thess 4:8.

[6] For those interested in digging into the nuances of divorce and its varying appropriateness, check out the contributions of Wenham, Heth and Keener in Remarriage after Divorce in Today’s Church: 3 Views (Zondervan, 2006); also see Craig Keener, And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament (Baker Academic, 1991).  Scripture does grant allowances for divorce and remarriage although probably not to the degree being tolerated within our Western societies.

[7] Interestingly, even though correction is being brought to both Pergamum and Thyatira, judgment is only coming up those that are practicing these indiscretions (porneia and eating food sacrificed to idols).  Judgment doesn’t seem to be aimed at these (Pergamum and Thyatira) communities generally, only at the factions within the community that need repentance.  To restate: Judgment does not come on communities for being divided on this issue or for having individuals practicing porneia within the community; the community as a whole is rebuked but judgment only comes on the individuals and factions practicing these sinful activities.

[8] See Walter Brueggemann, Prophetic Imagination (Fortress Press, 2001).

[9] In 2006, Scot McKnight had a post on homosexuality and Jesus that I think points in this direction.  In his discussion, he rightly suggests that individuals engaged in same-sex sexual activity “would have been welcomed at the table of discussion, they would have been invited to listen to him, to interact with him, to follow him, and to fellowship with his followers. They would have been challenged to live before God as Jesus taught. In short, they would have been loved by Jesus. Not shunned; not humiliated; not ostracized; but given a seat for as long as they cared to be with him.”  This final point is significant.  They are welcome to be with him as long as they cared to—but that doesn’t change Jesus’ message and ensuing call to holiness.  I encourage you to check out Scot’s forthcoming A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together, which should be available this Fall, for more on this topic.  The original post is here.

[10] See 1 Cor. 7:12-16 for Paul’s advice.  I suggest such a situation is not so different as those who have been confronted with sin and yet remain in their sin are to be treated as unbelievers.  This seems like a logical consequence for how to interact with those that may professing Jesus’ lordship but living in such a way that denies who God is.

[11] I fully recognize that I will most assuredly be in a minority position with this exhortation (and certainly in the minority regarding the appropriateness of using Paul’s teaching on marriage and divorce in this way) but I feel that such teaching surely dovetails well with the dual radical calls of both welcome and holiness in Jesus’ ministry.  Interestingly, this also squares well with Scot McKnight’s assessment of what Jesus ministry amongst same-sex practitioners might have looked like (see footnote 9 above).

[12] This quotation by Peter is from a public interaction and critique (on Facebook) of  Ken’s position.  It has been reproduced here in full with Peter’s permission: “I agree with one point made, which is that in accepting divorce evangelicals largely went against scripture. The rest is questionable exegesis and more questionable hermeneutics and theology. Yes, this is a wakeup call to revisit the question of divorce. I would suggest starting with a theology of marriage that is not based on desire but rather on becoming “one flesh” (i.e. procreation, as John Goldingay has convincingly argued). Then I would suggest that we look at marriage as permanent and be willing to make those difficult decisions needed to make that reality (which means time-consuming support of couples in crisis and further time-consuming and money consuming support of single parents). Jesus is Lord and it is time we did what he said. With a good foundation in place we can then join the majority of the church down through the ages (from the New Testament to the fathers and mothers of the church and on to the vast majority in the southern hemisphere let alone the Catholic and Orthodox churches worldwide) who want to obey Jesus and his apostles on both divorce and homosexuality. The arguments presented for writing off the biblical statements are naieve in some ways, for they depend too much on the Old Testament and/or ancient Greece and too little on the who social structure of the New Testament, particularly what is says about marriage. If individuals and individual churches want to break with the saints and spiritual masters down through the ages, the New Testament, Catholic Christianity, and the evangelical movement, they are welcome to. The approval of porneia is not new – 2 Peter and Jude had to deal with it, as did the John of Revelation. Such factions, however, did indeed starve. What is needed is that orthodox teaching be made clear and be presented with true love, not the pseudo-love that condones self-destructive activity, but the costly love that calls people to walk in cross-bearing holiness.”

[13] John Wesley, “The Way of the Kingdom,” (Sermon 7).

[14] This dichotomy interestingly maps to Jesus’ teaching on the greatest commandments of loving God (which looks like obedience to what he commands) and loving neighbor.  This is certainly a worthy discussion for another time.