Rev 2:4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.
This is the second installment in the series of posts I want to share with you about how local churches become enslaved to evil, even to the point of no longer being true churches at all. I am going to draw from Scripture and, for illustration, my personal experience in Christ Reformation Church as it existed over 25 years ago when I first came here as pastor.
Today, I want to call your attention to Christ’s letter to the church of Ephesus. Here it is:
Rev 2:1-7 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands. (2) “‘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. (3) I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.
(4) But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. (5) 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.
(6) Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. (7) He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’
The church at Ephesus was what we would call it – a doctrinally sound church. And in fact it had a history of standing firm for Christ’s truth. This was a church where heresy was simply not tolerated and the Lord gives them high marks in this respect. They were true to their confession of faith, and that confession was a good one.
And yet, festering among them, was something that was so serious that Jesus not only called them to repent of, but told them that if they did not He would depart from them. Put them out of His presence. I suppose this is something akin to what we see back in Ezekiel when the Lord departed from the temple (Ezekiel 10). Their sin then was of such gravity that it would result in the Spirit leaving them if they did not hear and heed the Lord’s warning.
So what was their sin? As the ESV puts it, they had abandoned the love they had at first. They had left their first love, as other translations phrase it. Let me see if I can illustrate what it seems to me this sin is.
1Co 13:2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
Many times, in fact even typically, we read announcements like this:
- “We will be studying Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 tonight”
- “This morning’s sermon will demonstrate how the Gospel of John is the most Calvinistic book”
- “Our church does not preach decisions, we preach regeneration”
- “What are the means of grace and how many are there?”
- “The nature of the covenant and infant baptism”
- “An examination of the date John wrote Revelation”
- “The concept of covenant in the London Confession of Faith”
And on the list could go. Now don’t misunderstand. I am not one of these people who teaches that sound doctrine and subjects like the ones listed above are unnecessary and unimportant. Absolutely not. After all, this is what the Lord commended the Ephesians for! They stood for sound doctrine and opposed the heretics. What we believe and what we confess is vital. The gospel has content and that content cannot be “tweaked” in the slightest.
And yet, we can have all this and still be put out of Christ’s presence. How can that be?
Over the years, our church watched as the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches in America disintegrated. We were once members of this fellowship of churches but we resigned several years ago. Why? What happened? They left their first love. The leadership focused upon subjects much like the ones I have listed above. Strict adherence to the minutia of the London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) was enforced. Ultimately this spirit came to a head in several ways, one of which was the leadership council insisting that everyone confess adherence to their particular view of what is called the doctrine of the impassibility of God, or you can just get out. Reams of paper were written on this by the theology committee. Churches like ours began to leave.
That is just one example of this spirit we saw. At the last general assembly we attended before we resigned, the subject of the conference was “the means of grace,” what they are and how many there are. There was disagreement, but the appointed speakers remained intent on presenting their position and essentially announcing, this is what you all better believe. And of course all the while, unknown to most of us, there was this evil thing with Tom Chantry, now convicted child abuser, whose sins were being covered up by the leadership.
ARBCA had left its first love, if that love ever existed in the “pillars” at all. When I addressed the subject of sexual abusers in the churches and when I wrote my first book on domestic abusers hiding in churches, all I heard from ARBCA was crickets. Nothing. More than nothing – more like, “we don’t talk about such things here.” But what I was talking about was love for the brethren. Love for the widows and orphans and the oppressed. Hunger and thirst for righteousness. Nope. We want to hear about how Andrew Fuller dealt with hyper-calvinists.
That is just one example that I witnessed firsthand. I am sure many of you have seen the thing as well. Conferences are held. The main subject is some doctrine of the faith. Justification. Sanctification. The gifts of the Spirit. Arguments are stated. Scripture is cited. The errors of the opposition are exposed. But all the while, behind the scenes, those same churches are casting aside the oppressed. They are enabling through their doctrinal zeal which is devoid of love, wicked men who thrive on such spiritless data. They will confront a doctrinal heretic at the drop of a pin, but they refuse to hear the plea of the abuse victim and continue rather to welcome in among themselves her abuser.
This is what a church that has left its first love looks like. This is still another path to a local church becoming enslaved to wickedness.
When I first came as pastor to Christ Reformation Church, a loveless atmosphere lurked behind a facade of “family friendly happy” church. Most of the people were relatively doctrinally ignorant because they had not been taught soundly. Many if not most were not genuine believers at all. And yet, there in the doctrinal statement all must adhere to if they were to be members, a statement written decades before by people of name unknown, were certain shibboleths that must be uttered. This was a dispensational church (almost no one there had any idea what that meant). The Pre-tribulational rapture of the church. The cessation of miraculous spiritual gifts. The inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture. And yet, it was all the annoying clanging of a symbol in the Lord’s ears. Because love was absent, as I was soon to find out.