After dictating a letter of warning to the church of Ephesus and an encouraging letter to the church in Smyrna, Jesus instructs John to compose a letter to the church in Pergamum (Rev.2:12-17). So he does.
To Ephesus, Jesus calls himself “him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven lampstands.”
To Smyrna, Jesus calls himself “the first and the last, who died and came to life.”
To Pergamum, Jesus calls himself “The One who has the sharp two-edged sword...”
This can’t be good.
The letter to Pergamum is a harsh warning (just wait), but Jesus is gracious at first. He commends the church for its faithfulness, even though they live in the city with so much occultism that “Satan’s throne” is there (which was most likely a large pagan temple on the acropolis), and have witnessed the brutal killing of Antipas, who was most likely a member of their church (v.13). They are clearly a church being led by the Holy Spirit, having been faithful despite massive governmental and spiritual persecution.
Then Jesus tells them “But I have a few things against you...”
Here we go.
Some within the church were holding to the teaching of Balaam, who encouraged others to eat food sacrificed to idols and commit sexual immorality. Some within the church also held to the teachings of the Nicolaitans, whose deeds Jesus earlier told us he hates (Rev. 2:6). Plainly put, the church had been faithful as a whole but it was harboring members who were still facing eternal torment for believing the lies of false teachers.
The parallels that we can apply to our modern context at Living Stones are numerous, but here are three:
1) We do our ministry in a spiritually dark place, too. Pergamum was home to Satan’s throne just like Reno is “so close to hell you can see Sparks” (You’re not off the hook either, Elko Church. Don’t get cocky just because no one has bothered to come up with a clever joke about your digs).
2) The church in mountainous Pergamum remained faithful to Jesus in a harsh party culture teeming with sexual promiscuity - and so have we - considering the fact that we minister in a State where the average BAC is higher than the average GPA and prostitutes get 401(k)s.
3) Just like Pergamum, there are people within the walls of Living Stones who have been tricked by false teachers.
The false teaching that we encounter as a church could be from anything - Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnessism (not a real word... yet), Freemasonry, Twilight novels, New Age philosophy -anything that is not true to the teachings of Christ as revealed in God’s Word. False doctrine distorts our understanding of God, which then distorts how we live. That, Living Stones, is the essence of apostasy. And "a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough" (Gal. 5:9).
So what do we as a church do about this? Do we find those with bad doctrine and boot them out like an illegal immigrant at a Tea Party rally?
Not according to Jesus. He tells us to repent for those within our fold who believe false teachers (v.16). The responsibility to correct the apostate lies on the faithful, with the warning that Jesus will “come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth” (v.16).
"The local church is responsible for the individual who is responsible for their own sins."
What this letter clearly demonstrates to us is how corporate and individual accountability intersect. We will all be judged individually (Heb. 9:27, 2 Cor. 5:10), but we are responsible for each other corporately (see Gal. 6:2). Let me put that another way: The local church is responsible for the individual who is responsible for their own sins.
This responsibility lies foremost on the elders (Heb. 13:17), and then the deacons (Acts 6:3-4). But in this letter, Jesus is speaking to the whole church in Pergamum. So, in our context at Living Stones (or any other modern church), this means that community group leaders and members, greeters, sound techs, and anyone else who considers themselves a believer and calls Living Stones their home share in this responsibility. As a large getting larger church, we cannot rely on one or two teachers to accomplish the task of training all in righteousness - we must do it together.
Now, there must be a distinction made between those who are believing false doctrine and those who are teaching false doctrine. This is very important. We are to have mercy on those who doubt (Jude 22) but false teachers are to be silenced like a ringing cell phone during a funeral (Titus 1:11, 2 Peter 2:1-22, Jude 4-9).
Additionally, those who have been warned but continue to live in unrepentant immorality are subject to church discipline (1 Cor. 5:13) and we are to remove from our congregation those who come as wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15).
How can we tell the difference? By the Word of God. Scripture is the sword that cuts the line between misguided beliefs, false teaching, and unrepentant immorality.
Living Stones, it is imperative that we as a church know the Bible well so that we can discern the leading of the Spirit, lovingly correct our misguided brothers and sisters in Christ, and identify and eject the wolves. If you don’t know where to start, seek the counsel of an elder. Or, get a study Bible. Or, pursue formal theological education. Do whatever you need to do to fulfill this responsibility well, because the weight of it is on all of us, not just the pastors.
Finally, as Jesus assures the church in Pergamum, to “those who conquer” He will give a white stone with a new name on it. This signifies the release from sin and the redemption of our once alienated souls that can only come through Him.
Like the faithful in Pergamum, we can hold to that truth even if it means losing our lives.