We've heard what Thomas John Creedy had to say about Ken Wilson's A Letter to my Congregation, now let's here from Thomas Lyons.
In Lyons' series of posts (1, 2, & 3), he focuses on Wilson's treatment of Romans 14-15, specifically term pornia. The first post is a "brief ... history and development of the biblical concept of porneia (and the related semantic family) through its usage in the NT." The second post begins by pointing us to Revelation where over one third of the use of the word porneia occurs.
After providing yet another excellent overview, Lyons focusses our attention on the letters to the seven churches:
While the arrangement of these letters seems to correspond to the order each would be delivered along a courier’s route, these seven churches can be categorized into three groups based on the contents of the narration to each church. Some of the churches, namely Smyrna and Philadelphia, have nothing wrong with their community (and thus there is no call of repentance) and are instead exhorted to remain strong in the face of their present adversity and persecution. Other church communities, Sardis and Laodicea, have nothing to be commended to their name and simply need to repent of their current wickedness. While still others, Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira, are a proverbial ‘mixed bag’ where they are to be both commended for some things and yet rebuked for other activities. Robert Mulholland has helpfully labeled these various church groupings as “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” Both of the occurrences of porn- related language occur in these “ugly” churches. We’ll consider each of the three churches in turn (even though the porn- language only occurs in two of the three).
The church at Ephesus is affirmed for their works, toil, patient endurance, and the fact that they do not tolerate those who do evil, which contextually seems to be those who are claiming to be apostles yet are found false (most likely by some combination of their doctrine, teaching, and works). But in their opposition to these false/evil ones (probably teachers or prophets), the Ephesian church missed the mark. Jesus rebukes them for they have abandoned the very love with which they first set out. They got a lot of stuff right –but doing so without love risks the community the very essence of its church-hood. Jesus threatens to “remove their lampstand” (which identifies the community as a church, see 1:20) unless they repent. It appears that, in their pursuit of doing right, of being right, they moved from hating sins to hating the people practicing those sins. Let me restate this a bit more clearly: Being right and doing right, if a community is doing so in an unloving manner, risks a churches’ status as a church in Jesus’ eyes—that is, they risk their community’s identity as participating in New Jerusalem. And yet, Jesus wants to make it clear—he hates, as the Ephesians do, the works of the Nicolaitans (just not the people). Nothing else is said at this point of who the Nicolaitans are, what they believe or practice.
The next ‘ugly’ church, Pergamum, provides a little more clarity. This community is quite unlike Ephesus. This community is under persecution, living in the pseudonymously named “Satan’s throne” … yet they are holding to Jesus’ name even as individuals within their community are being killed. For this endurance and faithfulness they are to be commended. But Jesus also notes that they have individuals within the community who hold to the teachings of a pseudonymously named “Balaam” (explicitly used to invoke the parallel OT narrative of apostasy and sexual immorality) and the result is the activity of porneuō (sexually illicit activity) and eating food sacrificed to idols within the Pergamum community. Within this letter joint activity of porneuō (sexually illicit activity) and eating food sacrificed to idols seems to be directly linked to the teaching of the Nicolaitans (which may serve to inform us about the freedoms which this group taught). Within this community, there are individuals holding to such teachings and for those who do not repent, Jesus promises that he will come make war against them with the sword of his mouth (2:16; also in later in 19:15).
Finally, we come to Thyatira. The Thyatiran community receives one of the most glowing reports of all the seven churches. Their works are prolific—they are affirmed for their love, faith, service, and patient endurance. Regarding their love, a clear contrast is set up between Ephesus and Thyatira—where Ephesus departed from the love that they first had, these works (including love) in Thyatira have only grown. But there is the catch. Jesus then rebukes the Thyatiran community for they are tolerating (in contrast with Ephesus) the pseudonymously named Jezebel who is a self-proclaimed prophet (probably invoking the Holy Spirit as an inspiration and authority for her teachings) that is teaching and beguiling individuals in the church to practice porneuō (sexually illicit activity) and eating food sacrificed to idols. Unlike Pergamum where adherents to teachings of “Balaam” were present, the false teacher herself, “Jezebel,” has taken up residence in this community—she has authority, and leadership, and is “beguiling” people away from the Lord. G.E. Ladd describes what is being observed as an “unhealthy tolerance” for the world. He suggests that, “The Ephesians had tested those who called themselves apostles and had rejected pseudo-apostles, but this had made them harsh and censorious. Here is a church abounding and increasing in love and faith which is tolerant of false prophets to her own detriment.”
The letter suggests that Jezebel’s judgment is set but for those that continue to commit adultery (presumably against God) with her, their reward will be death. Each will be judged according to their works (2:23; also later in 20:12). But the Thyatiran community is also unique amongst the churches in that they have a group among them who do not share Jezebel’s teachings (2:24), who remain resolute in their faithfulness, and may be beyond the scope of the initial rebuke. This is a divided community; some within the community affirm the teachings that lead to porneuō while others do not. To these who are faithful and find themselves in these divided communities, Jesus exhorts them to only hold fast to what they have until he returns as he seeks to “not lay on you any other burden” (2:24-25). As an aside, I think it is interesting to note that an allusion to the Apostolic Decree (Acts 15:28-29) is likely behind this letter to Thyatira based on particular linguistic and thematic elements.
In his third post, Lyons proposes a way for radical welcome as well as radical holiness [copied here nearly entirely]:
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.
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. 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.” 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. Holiness is the praxis and Paul suggests that porneia practice is antithetical to holiness at the most basic level. Embracing porneiais embracing an identity marker that is antithetical to holiness and thus is equated with rejecting God himself. 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. 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. 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) as we attempt to reimagine how to do life in a way that is both radically welcoming and radically pursuing holiness. 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. 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).
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.”
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.” 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. 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.