Things That Are Above

Gospel Thinking for Gospel Living

The First Century Ephesian Church and the Twenty-First Century American Church

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What is the most pressing problem that the American church currently has? Some might identify the twenty-first century American church’s biggest problem as the ongoing sexual revolution in our society. Respected Christian leaders have consistently decried the sexual slippery slope that our society is racing down, especially with the Supreme Court ruling on DOMA earlier this summer. Others might identify the church’s worst problem more broadly as the anti-religious liberty tendencies of President Obama’s administration or the anti-Christian bias of both news media and pop culture. I deny neither that these problems exist nor that they are pressing; however, I would identify a different problem as the most pressing problem that the twenty-first century American church faces.

The other proposed pressing problems all share this common trait: they are problems that are pressing the church from the outside. I believe that the church’s most pressing problem presses her from the inside. This problem is not new. It is a problem that has plagued the church since New Testament times. The most pressing problem that the twenty-first century American church faces is false teaching.

False teaching espouses both wrong doctrine (heterodoxy) and wrong practice (heteropraxy). Any combination of the two can constitute false teaching, and a combination of one or both of these elements of false teaching has threatened the gospel integrity of churches since the first century. For this study, I shall examine the first century Ephesian church as described in Acts, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Revelation. In the mid-first century, Paul warned the Ephesian elders of false teaching that was to come. Within ten years, that false teaching had arrived in Ephesus, and it was marked both by heterodoxy and heteropraxy. By the end of the first century, the church at Ephesus had corrected its doctrinal problems but was still threatened by practical problems: they no longer loved the Lord. Whatever varieties of false teaching are prevalent in your specific local church, bad doctrine and bad living are the most pressing dangers your church faces in America right now.

Coming False Teaching

Paul founded the Ephesian church gradually. He first visited Ephesus with Aquila and Priscilla as recorded in Acts 18:18-21, but he did not remain in Ephesus long enough to establish a church there. The first Christian convert in Ephesus was actually  Apollos, who himself was from Alexandria. Aquila and Priscilla evangelized him while Paul was away from the city (Acts 18:24-26). Apollos did not spend a long time ministering in Ephesus, either. He traveled on to Achaia and Corinth, where he exercised a fruitful ministry (Acts 18:27-28; 19:1; cf. 1 Cor. 3:5-9).

Like Aquila and Priscilla before him, Paul found disciples of John in Corinth. As Aquila implicitly had done with Apollos, Paul explicitly “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” the disciples of John that he evangelized (Acts 19:5). Paul remained in Ephesus there building up the church through preaching and healing people for over two years until he left Ephesus following a riot (Acts 19:8-41; 20:1). Before traveling back to Jerusalem, Paul summoned the elders (the leaders who labored in preaching and teaching) of the Ephesian church to Miletus so he could deliver a farewell address to them because he would never see them again (Acts 20:17, 25, 38). The theme of Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian elders was the contrast between coming false teaching and his previous sound teaching.

And when they came to him, he said to them:

“You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to al the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night and day to admonish everyone with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” (Acts 20:18-35)

Paul begins his farewell address to the Ephesian elders by reminding them of his faithful ministry in Ephesus. He reminds them that he faithfully preached the gospel and urged people to repent and believe for salvation (vv. 20-21). Despite the hardships he had faced and the hardships for him yet to face, Paul was determined to faithfully complete his ministry as an apostle (vv. 19, 22-24). In contrast to Paul’s concern for others, the false teachers will be concerned for themselves (vv. 29-31). Paul rightly prays that God would make the Ephesian elders faithful as they faced the false teaching once it arrived (v. 32), even though he knew that some of them would join the false teachers (v. 30). He thus rightly concludes his farewell address by reminding the elders of his own faithfulness and generosity, which should motivate them to be faithful and generous, as well (vv. 33-35).

Paul founded the Ephesian church on the true gospel of Jesus Christ. He had faithfully modeled a Christian lifestyle for the Ephesian believers to emulate. His three years of faithful gospel preaching and gospel living, by God’s grace, would be sufficient for the Ephesian Christians to withstand the false teaching to come.

Rampant False Teaching

Sadly, not everyone in the Ephesian church were true Christians. Unregenerate church members, now as then, sow false teaching in the church both in doctrine and in practice. Within a decade of bidding the Ephesian elders adieu, Paul’s prophecy had come true. False teachers had arisen in Ephesus. Paul has already excommunicated two Ephesians, Hymenaeus and Alexander, for their participation in the heresy (1 Tim. 1:19-20). False teaching is a prominent (if not the prominent) theme of 1 Timothy, and Paul bookends this epistle with extended charges to Timothy to correct the false teaching that was rampant in the Ephesian church (1 Tim. 1:3-20; 6:3-21). This false teaching espoused both false doctrine and false practice.

As a false teaching, the Ephesian heresy of the mid-first century taught false doctrine. This false doctrine was devoted “to myths and endless genealogies” (1 Tim. 1:4). The false teaching was essentially a “vain discussion” about the law, which the false teachers had no understanding about “either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1 Tim. 1:6, 7; cf. Titus 3:9). Since the Ephesian heresy concerned the Jewish law, it seems that the myths and genealogies were also Jewish constructs. Paul similarly warned Titus in Crete of “the circumcision party” (Titus 1:10) whose members “devot[ed] themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth” (Titus 1:14). Although Paul had excommunicated Hymenaeus before he wrote 1 Timothy, in 2 Timothy, we read that Hymenaeus continued to teach false doctrine in Ephesus: he taught that “the resurrection has already happened” (2 Tim. 2:18). The false teachers led “foolish, ignorant controversies” that Timothy was to “have nothing to do with” because “they breed quarrels” (2 Tim. 2:23; cf. 1 Tim. 6:3-5). The false doctrine that the false teachers taught in Ephesus seems to be an odd admixture of Jewish legalism and antinomianism. They insisted upon following the Jewish law of circumcision, but they participated in and encouraged greed, ecclesiastical disunity, and sexual immorality because they denied a future bodily resurrection. Mounce rightly characterizes this false teaching as not being “a well-thought-out, cohesive system of belief” (William D. Mounce, The Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary 46 [2000], lxix).

In responding to the false teaching, then, Paul emphasizes how the false teachers’ false gospel results in false living.

Paul must deal with the Ephesian opponents differently from those in Galatia who had a formulated teaching that could be described and evaluated. Paul cannot logically and theologically argue against empty chatter and quarrels about words. He must focus on the opponents’ behavior, which reveals the error of their teaching. (Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, lxxv)

In 1-2 Timothy, Paul warns Timothy that the Ephesian heterodoxy was so dangerous because of its heteropraxy. Consider Hymenaeus as a case study. In 2 Timothy 2:16-18, Paul warns Timothy:

But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some.

Why should Timothy “avoid irreverent babble”? Why should he not join the false teachers in “saying that the resurrection has already happened”? Because such talk “lead[s] people into more and more ungodliness.” It upsets their faith. False teaching is dangerous because it leads people into false lifestyles that ultimately lead people astray into hell. Paul made this point specifically regarding greed:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Tim. 6:9-10)

As I have argued previously, “destruction” refers to eternal punishment. Wandering away from the faith, by extension, likewise results in eternal punishment because it shows that the apostate was never truly saved (cf. Mark 4:14-20; 1 John 2:18-19). False teaching is dangerous because it results in behavior that contradicts sound doctrine (Titus 1:9; cf. Titus 1:10-16). Behavior that contradicts the gospel is dangerous because it results in condemnation because it shows that such a person was never truly saved (2 Cor. 5:17; Heb. 10:39).

Within a decade of Paul warning the Ephesian elders of the coming false teaching, it had arrived and was rampant in Ephesus. In 1-2 Timothy, Paul tells Timothy, whom he had “urged” to “remain at Ephesus” (1 Tim. 1:3), to combat this false teaching both doctrinally and practically. The over-realized eschatology of the Ephesian false teachers excused them to indulge abuse of their power in the church by greed and sexual immorality. However, they insisted upon their followers getting circumcised. Timothy was to combat these doctrinal and behavioral errors in Ephesus so that the church would return to “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness” (1 Tim. 6:3).

The Residual Dangers of False Teaching

Timothy apparently enjoyed success in Ephesus to an extent. By the end of the first century, the Ephesians had corrected many of their doctrinal and behavioral problems. In the letter that he dictates to the apostle John, Jesus writes to the church in Ephesus:

“‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. (Rev. 2:2-3)

The Ephesians had rooted out (and kept out) the false teachers for a few decades. They even “hate[d] the works of the Nicolaitans,” (Rev. 2:6) who ate meat previously sacrificed to pagan deities and practiced sexual immorality (David E. Aune, Revelation 1-5, Word Biblical Commentary 52A, 148). Since the false teachers in the late 50s/early 60s were sexually immoral, the Ephesians’ double rejection of earlier false teachers and the current Nicolaitans demonstrates genuine repentance of false teaching, both doctrinal and behavioral.

However, all was not well in Ephesus despite the Ephesians’ return to sound doctrine. “But I have this against you,” Jesus wrote them, “that you have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev. 2:4). As John MacArthur has commented:

the clear penetrating laser vision of Christ found a fatal fault that probably nobody else saw. Their hard hearts, that labor of passion and fervor was becoming the cold orthodox function. That was deadly, dangerous. The service had started to become mechanical.

Bad doctrine and bad works are always dangerous, but even good doctrine and good works are dangerous when they are done by someone who doesn’t love Jesus. We can depict this truth with the following diagram:

Love Spectrum

Genuine love for Jesus results in good doctrine and good works, but those who don’t love Jesus are either legalists (good doctrine and good works) or antinomians (bad doctrine and bad works), both of which are condemned for eternity. Paul had earlier warned the Ephesians of the antinomian danger of false teaching in Acts 20 and in 1-2 Timothy, but Jesus now decries the legalistic danger of false teaching in Revelation 2. Good doctrine and good works must flow from a genuine love for Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, or else it is false. To put this truth another way, the gospel does not merely command faith that results in works; the gospel commands loving allegiance to Christ that manifests itself by faith and works. As Paul said in Galatians: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). As he put it even more succinctly for the Corinthians: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13).

Implications for the American Church of the Twenty-First Century

False teaching is rampant in the twenty-first century American church. Depending upon your local church context, you may battle false teaching more at the doctrinal level, the behavioral level, or the motivational level. Whatever form false teaching takes in our contexts, it is the most pressing danger we American Christians face. Maybe for you the temptation is more legalistic, for another it may be more antinomian. Whatever form false teaching takes in your situation, be on guard against it because the consequences of false teaching are eternally disastrous.

Jesus warned the Ephesian church, “Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Rev. 2:5). “This is nothing less than a threat to obliterate the Ephesian congregation as an empirical Christian community” (Aune, Revelation 1-5, 147). “Christ threatens to ‘come’ to them (not in the Parousia but in an act of temporal judgment; see 2:16) and blot their community out of existence” (ibid., 155). Jesus had indeed promised his disciples that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” the church (Matt. 16:18), but Jesus was referring to the universal church, not to local churches. Local churches, as not only Revelation 2-3 but also history and, all too often, personal experience testify, are subject to dying from unrepentant false teaching, whether coldly legalistic or passionately antinomian.

May we in our twenty-first century American churches take to heart the lesson the first-century Ephesian church is trying to teach us. False teaching is inevitable (Acts 20:17-38). False teaching may be antinomian in that it tells us to deny the faith and to live in sin (1-2 Timothy), or false teaching may be legalistic in that it tells us to keep the faith and do good works but apart from genuine love for Jesus (Rev. 2:3-5). Either way, unrepentant false teaching results both in eternal condemnation for apostate Christians (1 Tim. 6:9-10) and in the temporal nonexistence for apostate churches (Rev. 2:6). Nevertheless, Jesus ends his letter to the Ephesians with a note of resounding hope: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To throne who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7). “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).

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