Can the Church Survive? Can it Thrive?2
All indications are that the experience of the Church in western society will progressively deteriorate. I don’t mean that the Church will diminish, far less die. I mean that it will increasingly suffer persecution and oppression and the loss of its civil rights. Continue reading . . .
All indications are that the experience of the Church in western society will progressively deteriorate. I don’t mean that the Church will diminish, far less die. I mean that it will increasingly suffer persecution and oppression and the loss of its civil rights.
What will be our response, should this happen in our lifetime? I think we should look to the church at Ephesus in the first century to find encouragement.
It’s appropriate that the first of the seven letters in Revelation 2-3 was sent to Ephesus, for although not the titular capital of Asia (Pergamum held that honor), it was the most important political center of all. By the time the church received this letter, the city of Ephesus had grown to a population of @ 250,000. By their standards, it was huge. It was, in effect, the New York City of the ancient world.
We honor our President and pray for him, and rightly we should (1 Peter 2:17; 1 Timothy 2:1-2). But in Ephesus, worship of the Roman emperor was mandatory. Prayer to him was normative. Scattered across the landscape of America are Presidential Libraries, bearing the names and housing the historical artifacts of men such as Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Not so in Ephesus. There one would find, not libraries, but temples dedicated to the idolatrous veneration of men such as Claudius, Hadrian, Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Severus. Every day Christian men and women in Ephesus passed these imposing structures, going about their daily tasks in an atmosphere filled with pagan praise of mere humans.
Worse still, religion and superstition were hopelessly intertwined and the magical arts were widely prevalent (cf. Acts 19:19). Ephesus was a seething cauldron of countless cults and superstitions. Preeminent among all religious attractions was the Temple of Diana (Artemis), construction of which began in 356 b.c. It was regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Christianity came to Ephesus with Aquila and Priscilla in a.d. 52 when Paul left them there as he traveled from Corinth to Antioch (Acts 18:18-22). On his next missionary journey Paul remained and worked in Ephesus for more than two years (Acts 18:8,10) and sometime later Timothy ministered there (1 Tim. 1:3).
It’s important to remember, therefore, that the first church to receive a letter from Jesus was located in a city that wasn’t even remotely Christian. No laws existed to protect their freedom of religious expression. The worship of false deities was institutionalized. The only thing on which the Ephesian believers could rely was God himself and one another.
How would you and I fare in such a pagan atmosphere? I ask this because it often appears to me that many Christians believe the church in America can survive only if it is afforded legislative protection, only if certain Christian candidates are elected to national and local office, only if the next appointee to the Supreme Court is pro-life, only if prayer is restored to our public schools.
Make no mistake. I’m eternally grateful for the laws that safeguard our rights. But have we come so to depend on such political blessings, economic liberties, and the legal protection Christianity enjoys that in their absence we fear the destruction of the church and the silencing of our witness?
The church in Ephesus, as with so many other congregations in the first century, knew nothing of a constitution, a first amendment, or a right to vote. Yet they survived, and thrived, in the midst of what strikes us as unimaginable state-sanctioned idolatry and immorality. Before we panic or lose heart at the state of our state, or the condition of our city, we would do well to remember the promise of Jesus: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).