When is a church not a church? | Mulholland on Revelation #UMC

The book of Revelation is full of practical application for today’s church. One of my favorite things about Bob Mulholland’s commentary on Revelation is the attention he gives to the formative power of the Apocalypse. One good example of this comes in his analysis of the letter to the church in Ephesus in Revelation 2:1-7. Mulholland observes that, according to Acts 19-20, when the gospel first came to Ephesus, believers responded in a way that carried significant impact in the city, economic not least. They believed the gospel and they behaved in a way that brought the implications of the gospel to bear on the city of Ephesus. But by the time Revelation is written, while the Ephesians still believe the right things (Rev 2:2), they have lost their first love (Rev 2:4). They remain orthodox, but they’re no longer evangelistic. So Mulholland says

…we see that orthodoxy and evangelism are the inseparable foci of a healthy church. Both must be kept in dynamic balance. Evangelism without orthodoxy becomes a tolerant pluralism and results in a community formed around diffuse human values and criteria. Orthodoxy without evangelism becomes a cold, harsh legalism and results in a community formed around debilitating “do’s and don’ts.” Sound orthodoxy and fervent evangelism result in a community of faith whose growing wholeness of life is a powerful witness of the cleansing, healing, liberating life in Christ to a soiled, wounded, and imprisoned world (435).

Mulholland seems to be using the language of evangelism to refer broadly to the various ways churches might engage their community in ministry, even though that language typically refers to a clear articulation of the truth of the gospel and a call to faith in Jesus. In any case, his point is made. And some may think he doesn’t go far enough, since there are segments of some denominations that are neither orthodox nor evangelistic.

Commitment to truth is important, but it’s not enough. And that commitment must translate into action. Likewise, engaging the culture must be grounded in truth. If it isn’t, there are consequences. Jesus commanded the church in Ephesus to remember and do the works they did at first (Rev 2:5). If they do not, he will remove their lampstand. That is, their status as a church. What’s the point? A church that doesn’t maintain the balance between orthodoxy and evangelism will not long be a church. And that, of course, raises another question. When is a church no longer a church?

Have you ever been in a church setting that did a good job keeping the balance between evangelism and orthodoxy ? A church that did not? What are the keys to keeping the balance? Why do churches struggle to keep that balance? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts and experience.

Get your copy of Revelation by Robert Mulholland.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary.

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

Here’s My New Seven Minute Seminary: Resurrection and the Christian Afterlife (@OfficialSeedbed)

Here’s the latest installment of Seedbed’s Seven Minute Seminary series in which I discuss several questions related to life after death, bodily resurrection, and the pastoral significance of the Christian hope. Watch to the end to discover why this doctrine is so very near and dear to my heart. Be sure also to check out this great little discussion guide that the Seedbed team has put together to accompany the video for use in a small group setting.

Check out my other contributions to the Seven Minute Seminary project:

Jerry Walls Responds to my Question on Hell (@rachelheldevans)

Jerry Walls is taking a turn in Rachel Held Evan’s “Ask a…” series, and he is answering question on hell, free will, and possibility of postmortem repentance. I raised a question about a surprising, if not disturbing, passage in Revelation that portrays the torment of hell as taking place eternally in the very presence of Christ. Here’s the passage from Revelation 14:9-11:

Then another angel, a third, followed them, crying with a loud voice, “Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name” (NRSV, the italics are, of course, mine).

Here’s my question:

Revelation 14:9-11 portrays the eternal torment of the condemned as taking place “in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb” (14:10). What does this mean? And how should we understand this portrayal in relation to other traditional images of hell as banishment from the presence of Christ?

Here’s Walls’ response:

Well, I’d start here with Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill, where he observes that God is “not far from each one of us. For in him we live, and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28). In this passage, Paul is applying this point to people who may be seeking God, but have not yet found him. So the point here is that even people who may be “far” from God in terms of meaningful, loving relationship are still “close” to him in the sense that he continually sustains them in existence.

So the unhappy creatures in this text in Revelation are in the presence of the Lamb by virtue of the fact that he sustains them in existence, and they may even be aware of this fact. However, they are utterly separated from him by their sinful rebellion.

Indeed, the paradoxical nature of this observation may illumine why fire is used as an image of the torments of hell.  Fire in the Bible is a common image for the presence of God, not his absence (cf Deut. 4:24; 5:24-5; Psalm 50:3; Hebrews 12:29). But his presence is experienced very differently by those who are rightly related to him, as opposed to those who are not.

David Hart has noted that there is a long theological tradition, particularly in Eastern Orthodoxy, that “makes no distinction, essentially, between the fire of hell and the light of God’s glory, and that interprets damnation as the soul’s resistance to the beauty of God’s glory, its refusal to open itself before the divine love, which causes divine love to seem an exterior chastisement” (The Beauty of the Infinite, 399).  

As the Psalmist noted, there is no place where we can successfully flee from God’s presence (Psalm 139:7ff). The God of love is everywhere, and we cannot exist a millisecond without his sustaining grace and power. But our freedom does allow us to refuse his love and go our own way, even as it remains true that “in him we live and move and have our being.” If that is our choice, his glorious love will be experienced like a burning fire rather than “the spring of the water of life” that will deeply quench our thirst (Revelation 21:6).

I’ll begin by saying that Walls raises a couple of interesting points I’ve not considered before. First, he’s right that fire is often an symbol of God’s presence, which is fascinating (and troubling!) when applied to the image of “the lake of fire” (Rev 20:14). Might the lake of fire be the very consuming fire that is God himself? Should we be thinking of Hebrews 12:29? Second, I’m not read-up on the Eastern tradition that makes no distinction between the light of God’s glory and the fire of hell, though it is initially both compelling and satisfying. It certainly resonates with all the Lewis I’ve been reading this year.

In the end, I think Walls’ suggestion that we need to understand God’s presence in two ways is on target. This surprising passage appears to mean that, while a person can be spatially near to Christ, physical proximity is not joyful intimacy. Two people can be in one another’s presence and still a rift stand between them. In fact, the physical nearness of those against whom we are opposed may even cause our anger and frustration to burn with heightened fury. Lewis holds this tension in balance in many of his works. For those who love Aslan, his presence is unspeakable joy; for those who hate him, it is a terror. Nearness to Christ is not necessarily love for him. Nearness can inflame antagonism. As Orual, who stood unseeing on the threshold of heaven, blind though she had entered the gates of the home of the gods, full of fiery hatred, for him. 

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NB: You may be interested in Robert Mulholland’s assessment of this passage in Revelation, which sets it in a Jewish context and resonates with Walls’ reflections. Also, be sure to head over to Rachel’s blog and read the rest of the questions and Walls’ answers.

Rough Magic: Paul and the Law in Narnian Perspective

Ever have the experience of reading a book only to have the author turn a phrase so well that it unexpectedly sheds new light on some matter on which you were not, at the moment, reflecting? That very thing happened to me not long ago while reading C.S. LewisThe Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Let me say that I typically expect Lewis to push me to think about God, creation, redemption, and everything else in fresh ways. However, I wasn’t expecting him to hit me with a sentence that illumined my perspective on Paul and the law, a topic to which I’ve devoted a fair bit of thinking, some writing, and no little preaching. Here’s what happened.
I’ve been reading The Chronicles of Narnia this year, and have just recently completed The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which recounts the adventures had by Caspian, Edmund, Lucy, Eustance, and the Dawn Treader’s crew as they sail eastward in hopes of finding the World’s End and, perhaps, even Aslan’s country. Along the way they stop off at a number of islands, one of which is inhabited by a race of invisible people who come to be known as the Dufflepuds. Ruled by the magician Coriakin, they are invisible because they put themselves under a spell with a view to hiding their self-perceived ugliness put on them by Coriakin’s magic. The spell can only be broken if the appropriate spell is read by a little girl from the magician’s book which is located upstairs in his house. The Dufflepuds are a curious people and spend most of their words agreeing with their chief, though they are none too bright and tend to say remarkably silly (and humorous) things like, “You’ll find the water powerful wet.” Despite their foolishness, they threaten to kill Lucy and her friends if she doesn’t go into the magician’s house and read the spell to make them visible. Lucy obliges and while in the house she not only encounters Coriakin but the great lion Aslan as well. 
That brings us to the point. As Lucy visits with Aslan and Coriakin, she learns that the lion put the magician on the island to rule over the Dufflepuds. As the conversation proceeds, Aslan asks Coriakin whether he ever grows weary of ruling his foolish subjects. The magician responds that he does not; in fact, he finds himself rather fond of them despite their stupidity. It was the next thing said by Coriakin that sent shock waves through my thinking on Paul and the law. “Sometimes, perhaps, I am a little impatient,” he said, “waiting for the day they can be governed by wisdom instead of this rough magic.” I had not been thinking of the apostle to the Gentiles before, but I couldn’t escape him after reading that. Suddenly, the letter to the Galatians occupied my thoughts, not least the words of chapter 3:

Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our child-minder (παιδαγωγός) until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian (23-25).

It wasn’t so much that Lewis’ words brought a dramatic change to my understanding of Paul’s view of the law, and I have no idea whether Lewis himself had Paul in mind when he wrote this chapter in Dawn Treader. Nevertheless, the narrative caused me to think afresh on an old problem in the study of the apostle.

Lewis’ language of “rough magic” is provocative. It seems almost irreverent to speak of the Law of Moses in this way, but the phrase captures both the tension and trajectory in Paul that the law is suitable for its purposes in governing the people of God but was always intended to be surpassed by something better. For Paul, the law was intended to be a temporary ruler over the people of God until they could come to maturity. It was never intended to be the fullest and most glorious expression of God’s mind for his people. That is not to disparage the law, only to understand it within its proper redemptive context.

Lewis provides an analogy by describing the hope that the Dufflepuds will move from being ruled by rough magic to wisdom; they are not where they need to be. Likewise, Paul saw the law functioning as a governor for a people who were not where they needed to be. God always intended for his people to come to the place (or be brought to the place) where they no longer needed a child-minder, The end of the law is maturity in Christ. The law should be studied and valued for the ways it can lead us into the heart of God, but we must understand that it wasn’t intended to be the last word. It had a particular function with regard to a particular people for a particular time, and, having fulfilled it’s particular role, it has been set aside. It was good and important, but it was also rough and unpolished. It was given to an imprudent people just rescued from slavery in a pagan nation, a people who did not know God. But with the advent of Christ and the indwelling presence of the Spirit, the children of God are come to maturity and can be ruled by wisdom instead of rough law.

As is often the case, Lewis’ fiction is a breath of fresh air as I reflect on scripture. May we all be ruled by the wisdom of God in Christ and the Spirit, and may we never be known as Dufflepuds.

Eternal Security? How do you fall away?

In a couple of recent posts (1, 2) I’ve reflected on the language of security and falling away in the New Testament. When the suggestion is made that a believer can indeed fall permanently and to his detriment from grace, the question is commonly raised as to how this happens. What does someone have to do fall away? How does a person move from justification to condemnation? Following on from my last post, I’ll focus my comments on Paul’s discussion of the matter in Romans 11.
 
The starting point must be the comparison that Paul draws between God’s attitude toward unbelieving Israel and his audience in Rome. My previous suggestion that a believer can indeed fall to their peril is based on this comparison in which Paul tells the Roman Christians that Israel was broken off for unbelief; thus, his warning to the Romans, “if God did not spare the original branches, perhaps he will not spare you” (11:21). For the apostle, believing Gentile Christians are liable to the same fate as Israel, namely God might cut them off. The comparison between the Roman church and Israel is developed through a contrast between the faith of the Romans and the unbelief of Israel, “They (Israel) were broken off because of their unbelief (Gk. apistia), but you stand only through faith (Gk. pistis)” (11:20). The explicit contrast of Paul’s Greek is somewhat muted in the English translation of “unbelief” vs. “faith” simply because English doesn’t have a negative word using the root “faith”. The Greek apistia vs. pistis is much stronger, and a more literal translation would say that Israel was “broken off because of their afaith (or unfaith?), but you stand only through faith.” This is enough to highlight the fact that, for Paul, if a person can move from God’s favor into condemnation, it is conditioned on whether or not that one continues in faith in Christ. The logic is quite clear. If it is through faith that we are united to Christ and brought into a state of reconciliation with God, then our unbelief would mean the breaking of our union with Christ, which would also mean that we no longer partake in the blessings of our former union.
 
Paul’s understanding of the contrast between faith and unbelief becomes increasingly clear when we consider Romans 4:20. Speaking of Abraham, Paul writes, “No unbelief (Gk. apistia) made him doubt the promise of God, but he was empowered by faith (Gk. pistis) giving glory to God.” Note the again the strong contrast between apistia and pistis. Abraham’s righteous standing before God is conditioned on his belief in the promise of God (4:21-22), and the opposite of this by-faith-righteousness is unbelieving condemnation. In Romans, Abraham is the prototypical Gentile believer, because he believed and was justified prior to his circumcision. So, faith in the crucified and risen Christ incorporates even a Gentile believer into Abraham’s family, which is defined around the Messiah. In contrast, unbelief cuts a person off from this family. This is precisely what Paul says happened with ethnic Israel, and in his thinking it is a danger to believers in Rome. Thus, his exhortation to continue in the kindness of God, which is conditioned on perseverance in faith, in order to avoid being cut off (11:22).
 
Returning to the initial question regarding how one falls away, we can say that the condition for being cut off from the people of God is unbelief or a cessation of faith in Christ. He does not here raise the issue of evil works as a means for falling away, though he would certainly assert that evil works are the product of unbelief. This makes sense in light Paul’s larger soteriology. If a person is justified by faith, then falling into unbelief would necessitate falling out of justified reconciliation with God. One might say that this is all hypothetical for Paul, and that a true believer will never fall into unbelief. The problem with that suggestion is that Paul doesn’t seem to be dealing in hypotheticals. His argument is based on the very concrete and historical example of God’s action to cut off unbelieving Israel. Cutting off, he insists, is the grievous consequence of unbelief. For Paul, it appears to be a real possibility that a justified true believer could fall into unbelief and be cut off from the people of God.

Eternal Security? My Crucial Verse

Everyone has particular passages of scripture that shape their reading of other passages of scripture. Whether we recognize it or not, we create a framework for reading the Bible (or any document) where we prioritize certain parts of it. We take one portion as a lens for reading the rest. This may seem suspect at first, but it’s not. It’s simply part of how we read and interpret texts. Any idea in any text only has meaning in relation to other ideas in that text. This hermeneutical reality has a long standing history in the church. For centuries, theologians have suggested that we allow the clear and straightforward parts of the Bible to guide, inform, and shape our reading of the less straightforward, less clear, and downright hard-to-get parts. This is how it works; we might as well be up front about it.
When it comes to the so-called doctrine of eternal security (or the perseverance of the saints), the crucial passage for me is Romans 11:17-24, especially verses 19-21. I formerly held the view that true believers cannot ultimately fall away, but my view was never exegetically grounded. It was motivated more by the psychological comfort of knowing I was indeed eternally secure. But the trouble with textually ungrounded psycho-therapeutic theological constructions is that they sometimes encounter texts that chop the safety net into little bits and pieces, which is what happened when I read Romans 11:19-21:
“You will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand only through faith. So do not become proud, but stand in awe. For if God did not spare the natural branches, perhaps he will not spare you” (NRSV, emphasis added).
There are two aspects of these verses that forced me to change my view on the perseverance of the saints. First, Paul is explicitly speaking to people who “stand by faith.” That is, we are dealing with believers here. And we know from what we’ve already read in Romans that those who have faith in Jesus are justified and have been reconciled to God (3:21-26). They “have peace with God” (5:1), and for them there is “no condemnation” (8:1). Second, Paul tells these justified, reconciled, peace with God having believers that the possibility exists that God might “not spare you.” Yes, that’s right. Paul compares these baptized and believing Chrstians to unbelieving Israel (the natural branches) and declares that, if they, like Israel, fall into unbelief, they will not be spared. There it was. I couldn’t escape it. My therapeutic theological safety net had been decimated.

This passage seems to me so straightforwardly clear that it cannot be seriously taken any other way. (Yes, I know many take it other ways). To make Paul’s declaration that God might not spare these believers to mean that believers, once they have believed, can never fall into condemnation requires exegetical gymnastics of olypmic proportion. This verse hit me so hard and so fast with its stunning clarity that it became my crucial verse. It changed my mind and now shapes my reading and reflecting on questions of perseverance. Everything else is viewed through this lens.

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NB 1: I’ll point out the fact that this passage comes at the climax of the larger Calvinist go-to passage of Romans 9-11. I would argue that this is a really good reason for not supposing that Romans 9 means what Calvinists take it to mean. Whatever Paul thinks about God’s purposes in election, he also envisions the real possibility that one can be a member of the people of God and fall away.

NB 2: I’m not saying that everyone who holds to some form of the perseverance of the saints is doing so for the sake of psychological comfort. That’s just what I was doing.

Why Read Revelation?

I’m teaching a Bible study on the Book of Revelation this summer and am thus reading a variety of resources to prepare. One that I’m enjoying very much is Mike Gorman’s (a fellow United Methodist!) Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Cascade, 2011). One of the challenges to reading Revelation well is the abundance of outlandish interpretations that distract us from the central figure and message of the book, namely Jesus and his call to faithful discipleship despite the challenges and hardships that inevitably arise from living such a life in the midst of a fallen and rebelling world. While reflecting on his theological and missional approach to the Apocalypse, Gorman gets to the heart of this issue:
Revelation is not about the antichrist, but about the living Christ. It is not about a rapture out of this world but about faithful discipleship in this world. That is, like every other New Testament book, Revelation is about Jesus Christ – “A Revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1) – and about following him in obdience and love. “If anyone asks, ‘Why read the Apocalypse?’, the unhesitating answer must be, ‘To know Christ better.'”
It’s easy to lose sight of the reality that the Revelation is a revelation of Jesus. Any responsible reading of John’s great vision will insist on keeping this fact properly in front of us.