Live in the world, but do not become like the world. That is the calling of a Christian, and a formulation we have probably all heard all of our lives. (Did you know that phrase is not actually in the Bible? The concept certainly is.) We are called to be involved in the lives of non-Christians, not a detached group that vilifies, hates, and avoids those not like us. We are called to shape the culture in which we live for the sake of Christ. At the same time we are called to remain unspotted from the filth of this world. We are not to become so like our non-Christian neighbors that we are shaped by their culture.
That is a challenging balance to maintain!
In Revelation 2-3, John addresses the seven churches of Asia, each in turn, in what are most like little “letters” to each. A common theme running throughout these interesting sections is the way in which each church has interacted with the pagan, sinful culture in which they live. Life in the first-century Roman Empire required one to worship the pagan gods and the Emperor. Most of the publicly available meat came from sacrifices offered to pagan gods. Business required a person to be a part of a trade guild (like a union) that had a patron god. Public life was immensely immoral, especially sexually immoral. Like any large economy, it was important to turn a buck, one way or another. How do you live as a follower of Christ in such an environment?
Remember, the recipients of Revelation were persecuted Christians, targeted because they were identifiably different from their neighbors. An easy way to avoid that persecution, though, is to lessen the degree to which you stand out as different. A little cultural accommodation never killed anyone, right? Maybe it might even keep you alive to share the gospel another day. Jesus, who is in their midst (1:12), has seen their lives and has a message for each, usually focused on the way that church has chosen to live in their non-Christian society.
For ease of discussion I am including a chart that places each of the seven churches (and two other groups) on a continuum according to how they chose to interact with their culture (click on the graphic to enlarge and print from this PDF). As you read through the “letters” to the seven churches, see if you can tell why I have placed them where I have.
There was a group in the churches of Asia Minor who were extreme accommodationists. The Nicolaitans seemed to believe (like the Gnostics) that a Christian showed his superior spiritual strength by engaging in all the sinful practices of pagan life but without that affecting his soul. The followers of “Balaam” (2:14) and “Jezebel” (2:20) — surely, two code names — were likely Nicolaitans. It appears that this sort of thinking had been influential to various degrees in the churches of Thyatira and Pergamum. The Laodiceans had developed the same sort of arrogance those in their city had who have become rich and self-sufficient (3:17). Given that the Christians in Sardis were not suffering any persecution at all, it would appear they had chosen not to stand out from society in any great way. Jesus scolds these churches for their compromise of doctrine, purity, and zeal.
At the other extreme would have been Christians who were on guard against this sort of cultural accommodation to such a degree that they isolated themselves from society, becoming judgmental and unwelcoming to outsiders. While immensely pure, they also lacked the love for others that God so desired His people to have. The Pharisees (literally the “set-apart ones”) would have the best known example of this mentality, though they were not Christians. Of the seven churches of Asia Minor, the church in Ephesus was most known for this lack of love, and thus Jesus highlighted this compromise of attitude (2:4).
Only the churches at Smyrna and Philadelphia escape any criticism at all from Jesus. These centrist churches seemed to recognize their role as shapers of culture and were doing so admirably, even if that did mean that both of them would have to sacrifice their own comfort to do so.
Of course, this same continuum can be used to describe churches at any time in history and any place on the globe. God’s kingdom in always an alternative community, different from the cultural norm. He calls us to be the “kingdom of priests” (1:6) who stand in the gap as mediators with one hand on God and one hand in the world.