The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

WHEN INTOLERANCE BECOMES A VIRTUE

Delivered 11/10/96
Text: Rev. 2:18-29
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

I was intrigued with George Will's column in Newsweek this week: "Big Stick Conservatism."(1) Perhaps you saw it. He writes,

This could get conservatives' dander up. A category of small businesses is being subjected to injurious regulation in New York City. That city, the capital of liberalism and hence of overbearing government, is disrupting the free market by burdening, with the intent to discourage, a form of commerce involving a legal commodity. The government is doing this because it disapproves of the practice of supplying the particular commodity for which there is a demand. Furthermore, the government wants to engage in social engineering, shaping the social climate of neighborhoods by purging this commerce from most of the places where market forces have produced it.

He continues, "It is enough to make conservatives' blood boil. Or maybe not. [No, North Carolina, not tobacco.] The commodity is pornography and other 'adult' entertainment." Mr. Will, an ardent conservative himself, as you know, and outspoken advocate of LESS government, nonetheless heartily approves. In regards to New York's stance, he says,

A substantial amount of the recent decline in the nation's crime occurred in this city, which has not increased the number of police. What has increased is INTOLERANCE, which can be a virtue. The mayor understands that there is simply no such thing as a "minor crime" because all crime breeds disorder, which is an infectious social disease...

Hmm. "What has increased is INTOLERANCE, which can be a virtue." I like that line...despite the fact that one of the things we hold most dear in America is our capacity to be open, to be accepting, to be tolerant of others and their views. There are times when we have to say, "Enough is enough!"

The same is true in the church. Granted, we are concerned for people's rights to freedom of belief...not just in society, but even within the church. In our own Presbyterian Constitution, the affirmation is made that "Persons of... different theological positions consistent with the Reformed tradition...shall be guaranteed full participation..."(2) The Westminster Confession of Faith says, "God alone is Lord of the conscience."(3) But, even affirming all that, within the church there must be limits. We cannot allow folks to teach and preach anything they choose, no matter how sincerely they hold their beliefs - some beliefs are WRONG! I will grant that correcting theological errors is like walking on eggs, but sometimes it must be done, or the whole church is at risk - both sad experience and holy scripture make that abundantly clear.

We read about such a situation a moment ago. It was in a congregation in a city in Asia Minor called Thyatira. Thyatira was not a particularly important city for any reason other than its location. It was situated in a long valley which connected two rivers and thus did a good deal of commerce. But its real value was in the fact that it stood right in the way of any invading army that wanted to attack the provincial capital at Pergamum 40 miles to the northwest. Thyatira was not capable of any prolonged defense of itself. After all, the valley was open; there was no high hill that could be fortified. The folks there could only fight a delaying action that would allow Pergamum to meet any invaders. Thus, the city had a history of regular destruction. But it was rebuilt regularly as well. After all, even a conqueror would want to reconstruct it to protect his newly won seat of government.

About the only thing in which Thyatira could take any pride was the amount of business it did. And it did a lot. It was a great center for the woolen and linen trades and the dyeing business that went along with them. There were leather workers, tanners, potters, bakers, bronze smiths and slave dealers. Thyatira enjoyed a measure of prosperity despite its vulnerable location.

One of the off-shoots of all that business was a collection of thriving trade guilds - more than any other city in Asia Minor. Thyatira was a union town, and in many ways, a closed-shop town. It was like Detroit in the heyday of the United Auto Workers or Pittsburgh when the Steelworkers were at the height of their power. If you wanted to do any business, you had better be a member of the guild. If not, well...too bad.

The city had no special religious significance; as in every town there was a local deity (in this case, Tyrimnos) who was supposed to provide protection (although this one obviously was an underachiever). But, in general, religion was a laissez-faire kind of thing and no one got in anyone else's way. People could worship pretty much whom they pleased as long as they did not go crazy with it. It was much like what we experience in modern America.

Of course, there was a Christian church - not very large, not very influential. But it was there. And frankly, it was not a bad group with which to associate even though being a Christian and acknowledging the faith publically at this point in history was still dangerous. Even their bishop had words of praise for them.

One Sunday morning, those Thyatiran Christians gathered together for their regular worship and were told by their pastor that a letter had arrived from Bishop John who was in the prison camp over on the island of Patmos. The thrust of it was that, through the bishop's hand, their Lord Jesus Christ had some things to say to this little band of believers.

The letter started out in a most complimentary way. The Lord said, "I know your works--your love, faith, service, and patient endurance. I know that your last works are greater than the first." What a wonderful thing for this little church to hear - they were genuinely moving forward. They were showing the love of Christ to each other and to the world; they were looking to the needs of their community to see what could be done to make the lives of their fellow citizens more as God would have them; they were hanging in there in the face of the ridicule and persecution of those who would laugh at their efforts. And best of all, they were getting better at it. In short, Christ's word was, "Thyatira, you are making good progress."

The shame of it is that the Lord cannot say that about EVERY congregation. Lots do well at first - they get enough members to be self-supporting, build their buildings, initiate enough programs to convince themselves that they are passing on their faith to the children - and then "tread water." They become content...self-satisfied...and, often, not a little self-righteous. They have ARRIVED, and woe to anyone who would come along and challenge them to greater things...even the Lord.

Fortunately, that was not Thyatira's problem. These folks were forging ahead. But that in itself created a difficulty. They had become so interested in climbing new heights that they had begun to forget what flag they wanted to plant at the summit.

Needless to say, the Lord could not let that go unnoticed: "But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols." These folks had become SO loving, SO accepting, SO tolerant, that they had not been able to bring themselves to challenge one of their own number who was teaching clear heresy.

Jezebel was not her real name, of course. People back then would no more have named their daughter Jezebel than people today would name a son Judas. You remember: the real Jezebel had been the daughter of the king of Tyre and Sidon and became queen of Israel when she married Ahab. When she moved into the palace, she brought her pagan rituals with her and ended up causing such religious havoc that the prophet Elijah was driven to a broken-hearted prayer: "The Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away."(4) Jezebel became the most hated women of the Old Testament, the Lady Macbeth of the Bible. She turned Israel against God. No, no one would name their little girl Jezebel. But the name became synonymous with evil, and for the Lord to call a teacher in his church "Jezebel," meant that she was the worst of the worst.

What made her so awful was that she was counseling compromise. To these Thyatirans whose livelihoods were so dependent on their union membership, she was saying do not worry about what goes on in the guild hall. Do not worry that the social activities of the union are bound up with the worship of heathen gods. Do not worry that the dinners begin and end with a cup of wine poured out as an offering to some pagan deity. Do not worry that the meat to be eaten is first presented as an offering to an idol - these so-called "gods" are not really gods anyway, so there is no harm nor unfaithfulness involved in participating. Do not worry about all the drunkenness and carousing and hot-and-cold-running sweeties that are the after-dinner entertainment. After all, you are SAVED BY GRACE, not by what you do or don't do, right?

It was an appealing message, and particularly to people whose hearth and home were so tied to their unions. After all, to resign from the membership or to refuse to participate in the ceremonies could be commercial suicide. These Christians could be faced with bankruptcy...poverty. "We've got to live, don't we?" It was not an appealing choice.

Modern Christians are faced with similar difficulty. Young people are told that to be accepted they must go along with the crowd - drugs, sex, alcohol. To refuse is to be excluded. People in business live and die by the almighty "bottom line." If there is some activity or practice that might not be on the up-and-up, so what...as long as the "bottom line" is satisfied. "We've got to live, don't we?" In the church, this theology should not be taught, or that behavior ought to stop, but "We might offend her" or "He's a generous giver; we don't want to get him upset." The list of problems could go on and on.

But compromise WAS not and IS not what the Lord can tolerate. To the church at Thyatira he made that abundantly clear: "Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve." Harsh language! The Lord's message was that SIN HAS CONSEQUENCES, sometimes even physical. Compromise is unacceptable.

What a sad thing for Jesus to have to say to a church that appeared to be doing so well. But it is a message that has borne repeating through the centuries. It bore repeating a thousand years ago when the church had become so politicized that, in the name of Christ, we became aligned with princes and kings in their international land-grabs. It bore repeating 500 years ago when the leaders of the church became so concerned with their own personal power and prosperity that a reformation was set off. It bore repeating 70 years ago when the church in Nazi Germany allowed itself to be used to further the demonic aims of a mad man. It bore repeating 10 years ago when the revelations came out about sex and blackmail scandals involving all too public TV preachers that brought about their downfall. The church has STANDARDS, and compromising those standards cannot be tolerated!

There is no question that the people of Thyatira faced a difficult problem. After all, nobody likes heresy hunters. They tend to be mean-spirited, nasty back-stabbers. Perhaps these folks were aware of what had happened in their sister church over in Ephesus - rooting out heresy there had become so high on their list of priorities that the congregation had no love left. The Thyatirans did not want that. No church does. But those folks got caught in an exceedingly common trap, the trap that grabs people and says, "Don't rock the boat." Every congregation faces it...the attitude of "Let's not make anyone mad. It is better to do nothing than risk antagonizing somebody. We do not want to split the church, do we?" That is why the Thyatirans did not confront this obviously powerful woman.

Of all Christians in the world, modern Americans probably can empathize with the Thyatirans the most. After all, tolerance is a part of us. It goes against our grain to openly challenge anyone over what they believe. Freedom of conscience is a precious national treasure. But the Lord's message to them and to us is that, within the fellowship, and as George Will notes, even in civil society, there are limits. The church...or a people...that stands for nothing will soon fall for anything.

You see, we become paralyzed when too great a concern for tolerance takes hold. Our witness as a church neither comforts the afflicted nor afflicts the comfortable. The church's very reason for existence is called into question. Instead of being "salt and light" for the world; instead of reaching out to those around it with the word of the Gospel; instead of trying to meet people's needs, whoever they are and wherever they might be; we become a private lodge whose only aim is the pleasure of our members.

One commentator describes the Thyatiran Christians this way: "On the surface, the church was strong, thriving, and energetic. But it is possible for a church to be crowded with people there to be entertained rather than instructed, to be soothed rather than confronted - a club rather than a congregation."(5)

But the good news is that churches who are tempted toward that sort of thing are not beyond hope. The Lord's message to Thyatira remains just as valid for the churches of the 20th century. "To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end, I will give authority over the nations; to rule them with an iron rod, as when clay pots are shattered--even as I also received authority from my Father. To the one who conquers I will also give the morning star...[the herald of hope]." What a glorious promise! Those who refuse to compromise, those who refuse to tolerate an indifferent witness, those who are willing to take a stand, will share in the joys of an eternal life with the Savior. In THAT circumstance, INtolerance does become a virtue.

The church at Thyatira could have been a great one. It was a loving, caring, serving fellowship. But it became too concerned about not rocking the boat...more concerned about keeping the peace within the church than sharing the Prince of Peace with a needy world. Yes, having a peaceable congregation is a wonderful thing, but NOT when peace is achieved at the expense of faithfulness. After all, the most peaceful place in any town is the cemetery.

"Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches."

Amen!


1. Newsweek, 11/11/96, p. 96

2. Book of Order, Presbyterian Church (USA), G-4.0403

3. Book of Confessions, Presbyterian Church (USA), Westminster Confession of Faith, 6.109

4. I Kings 19:10

5. William Barclay, The Revelation of John: Daily Study Bible Series, Vol. 1, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), p. 104

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