As we continue our search
for a church, not one but two pastors that I’ve heard preach recently have
spoken about the seven churches of the Revelation. The two sermons dovetailed
with my own recent thoughts that the modern American church seems to be a type
of the Laodicea church.
If you are unfamiliar with the passage, in chapters two and three of the closing book of the Bible John the Revelator penned letters from Jesus
to seven churches located in the ancient world. Theologians believe that these
letters are not only meant for the actual churches to whom they were addressed
but to Christian believers down through the ages.
The letters are true on multiple levels. On the most basic
level, they were addressed to the seven specific churches. On another level,
they addressed church types that have existed around the world down through
history. On a deeper and more apocalyptic level, they also describe eras in
which the majority of the world’s churches correspond to John’s description.
In America today, John’s description of the church in Laodicea seems especially apt. Beginning in verse 22 of chapter three, the prophet wrote:
These things says the Amen, the Faithful and True Witness,
the Beginning of the creation of God: “I know your works, that you are neither
cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are
lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of My mouth. Because you
say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know
that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked— I counsel you to buy
from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments,
that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed;
and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may
see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent.
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the
door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. To him who
overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat
down with My Father on His throne.
The letter begins with the famous
charge that the church is “lukewarm.” One of my former pastors once pointed out
that cold water is good for drinking and hot water is good for cleaning and
cooking, but lukewarm water is good for nothing. For a church to be likened to
bad water being spit of God’s mouth should be a terrifying metaphor.
John goes on to say that the
church claims to be rich and have need of nothing, another accurate description
of current American churches where the buildings are often large and ornate,
bristling with the latest technology and ornate décor. Some megachurch pastors
even have corporate jets, mansions, and expensive sports cars.
Yet John says that the churches
are “wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked” in reality. The only thing
missing from many American churches is worshippers. Gallup recently reported that church membership was down 20 points in 20 years,
recently hitting a low of 50 percent. Keep in mind that this refers to church
members and not church attendees, which is certainly lower. A Harvard study from last year found that only a third of Americans believe the Bible is
the word of God. While much of the decline
in church membership has been among mainline Protestant denominations,
evangelical denominations have been stagnant as well.
As I write this, a reader
forwarded me a December 2018 article from Christianity
Today citing a Fort Worth Star-Telegram series that found 412 allegations
of abuse across nearly 200 Baptist churches and institutions. The report may be
the tip an iceberg similar to the Catholic clergy abuse scandal. Nothing
reflects the wretchedness of the Christian church so much as pastors and church
leaders who prey on members of their congregation.
In modern America, the church is
split politically into two parts, each with its own faults. On the political
left, the church often denies Biblical teaching for the latest progressive
talking points. Liberal denominations embrace homosexuality and transgenderism,
same-sex marriage, and abortion.
On the right, the church has often retained traditional doctrine in those areas but has embraced legalism over love. As I discussed a few months ago, many conservative Christians deny that liberals can be saved if they don’t accept conservative positions on social issues, an extrabiblical condition that does not come from Jesus, Paul, or the other Biblical authors. At the same time, they ignore the Bible’s commands to be merciful to the poor and refugees. The Bible doesn’t mandate support for entitlements, but threats to shoot and bomb members of migrant caravans who intend to legally ask for asylum in the United States and celebrating the separation of immigrant families clearly violate the Biblical commands to “show hospitality to strangers (for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it),” to “love them [foreign immigrants] as yourself,” as well Jesus’ warning not to cause children to “stumble.” Immigration law can be enforced in a humane manner.
Ironically, immigrants make up the
fastest-growing segment of the American church. As birth rates fall for
native-born Americans and church attendance declines with it, Hispanic
immigrants are filling both jobs and pews. CBN reported that immigrants make up the fastest-growing segment of American
Christianity, noting that “Americans can fulfill the great commission by
ministering to their immigrant neighbors next door.”
“Every denomination is
experiencing explosive growth within the Latino church and the immigrant church
at large. It’s been this way now for several decades,” said Rev. Samuel
Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “This
is a perpetual revival, if you will, and it’s not going to cease and it’s
growing and we thank God for it.”
Not every church in the nation has these characteristics, but the national culture of Christianity seems to match John’s description. Both sides are eager to point out the faults in the other while, as Jesus said, ignoring the plank in their own eye. Some Christian leaders have pointed out that evangelical backing of Donald Trump has occasionally crossed the line to heresy while others take aim at the watered-down theology of mainline denominations. In reality, both wings of the church have departed from Christ’s mission to “go and make disciples.” Liberal churches have become infested with worldly doctrines and right-wing churches have alienated millions with their hypocritical rationalizing in order to avoid condemning Donald Trump. This failure to maintain focus is certainly a big part of the decline of American Christianity.
What should American Christians
do? Jesus, though John, counsels the church to “buy” refined gold from him, an
allusion to Laodicea’s (and perhaps America’s) status as a financial center.
“Gold refined in the fire” may refer to faith that is purified by the heat of
tribulation and persecution, the antithesis of a church that is rich and
powerful. The implication here is that the church should not flow with popular
culture and political movements but continue to speak Biblical truths in a
loving manner, even when doing so is not popular. “White garments” is likely a
call to purity and teaching that does not compromise or cherrypick the Biblical
message. The “eye salve” probably refers to curing the spiritual blindness that
afflicts the church.
The letter to the Laodicea church was the last of John’s church letters. This may indicate that, without repentance, American Christianity is in its end stages. The current hypocritical, legalistic, political church may drive so many away from the faith that the United States effectively becomes a post-Christian nation with only a small remnant of believers.
The good news is that Christ didn’t give up on Laodicea and has not given up on America. The message to the church closes with a call to repentance and a promise that he will accept those who seek him. The question is whether the American church will see through its blindness to realize that it is naked and that repentance is required or whether it will continue to revel in its apparent wealth and power.