Probably every church has a corner stone on it that says “to the glory of God” or some similar phrase or perhaps even a verse of Scripture. Psalm 127:1 might be on some. I Corinthians 10:31 perhaps, or texts reflecting the desire to make much of the Lord Jesus. The corner stones are testimonies to the fact that the church was, and maybe is, a fellowship of people who truly love Jesus and have been saved by Him. It could be that the desire for God to be glorified like the corner stone says is nothing more than a distant memory. And that brings us to the point of this. Is there such a thing as a church that God deems has gone so far afield from what it is supposed to be that in His providence, He sees to it that it closes? Can you think of churches who in your opinion have forfeited the right to continue to operate? In answering the question, it is very important to keep tenaciously close to the Scriptures, because it is very easy to make conclusions about churches and their right to exist that are not biblical. Most of the time we think and act as if a church that ceases to have the right to exist has to do whether they agree with us or not. But we can get it wrong. The Bible indicates that there are certain truths absolutely essential to believe and for a church to abandon them would be to forfeit its right to call itself church any more. But we need to be very specific. Does the Bible ever say that God closes down a church?
Probably the church whose problems we know the most about is the Corinthian church. They had problems of every variety. They lacked the unity that ought to mark a true fellowship of God’s people (1:10). They tolerated sexual immorality (chapter 5), probably in the name of grace being greater than sin. They were suing one another in court (6:1). They had people who did not believe in the resurrection of the saints (15:12). They had turned the Lord’s Supper into an abuse of the poor and a drunken party (11:21). It had become so bad that some in the church had even died because of their abuse of the Lord’s Supper (I Corinthians 11:30). They got the proper purpose and use of the gifts of the Holy Spirit all twisted out of shape (chapter 12). They pursued certain gifts more than the love that they should have pursued (12:31). Their worship services were disorderly (14:26-40. It may be that their giving was less than generous (16:1).
The Ephesian church, unlike the Corinthian church, seemed to have its act together fairly well. They worked hard. They demonstrated patience. They would not tolerate evil in their church. They knew how to test for true orthodoxy – and did. They knew their doctrine. They endured opposition for the sake of Christ and did not grow weary in all that they were doing (Revelation 2:2-3).
Now then, you tell me – which church would you rather be a part of? Right. Me too.
And yet, Paul tells the Corinthians in I Corinthians 1:2 that they were the sanctified in Christ Jesus. He tells them that he always gives thanks for them (1:4), that in every way they were enriched in speech and all knowledge, that they lacked no spiritual gift and that they would be sustained to the end – guiltless. Paul saw no cause for them to think that they were in danger of closing down. In fact, even though Paul had been more harsh with this church than any others he knew, the churches in Galatia excepted, he expresses great love for them, writes them at least three letters and quite possibly four, one of which was very severe, because he had hope that they would repent of their sins and become the church that God had called them to be. Closing down the Corinthian church was never on Paul’s, or God’s, radar at this point in their history.
The Ephesian church, on the other hand, despite all their glowing qualities, is told by Jesus in Revelation 2 that if they do not get their one problem fixed, He will shut them down (Rev. 2:5) The fact that they do not exist anymore may be some indication of just how well they listened to Jesus’ threat, although, be it noted, the Corinthian church does not exist either. In any case, why not threaten Corinth with closure because of all their issues, and leave Ephesians alone? Or at the very least, if Ephesus has to close, Corinth should expect the same treatment.
The sins of both the Ephesian church and the Corinthian church are well documented. We have already noted what some of Corinth’s were, sins that would prevent any decent Christian father from sending his children to their Sunday School. But what was the sin that caused Jesus to threaten closure upon the Ephesian church? You already know, I know – but there it is in red and white – they have abandoned their first love.
Does this mean the love they had at first or the love that should be above all other loves? It amounts to the same thing really. The love they had at first would be the great love for the Saviour who had given Himself for them. The love they had at first was a great love for God. The Ephesians are threatened with closure because they have committed the greatest sin of all. They have broken the greatest commandment. Not only broken it. They have fled from it. They have seen it and run in the opposite direction. They have rejected it as the most important thing. How can loving God supremely be the most important thing when there are false apostles running around? How can our top priority be loving God when the Nicolaitans are weaselling their way into the homes of our people? Well, this thing is already too long and so we must resist the temptation to get into such things. The point is, that the Ephesian church got so busy working for God that they stopped loving Him. This in contrast to the Corinthians who were so busy being worldly that they stopped loving each other.
Doctrinal precision is essential in Christ’s church in the world. But when it comes in the absence of the first love it is a dangerous thing. It is so dangerous that Jesus would rather not have a church like that continuing to exist, regardless of what they are doing and believing that is right. This may have been a problem for the Ephesian church for some time. Paul told them many years before that they should speak the truth in love. To love without truth is an impossibility (I Corinthians 13:6). To speak truth without love is to aim a cannon at the gut of the recipient. So this church examines false apostles and Nicolaitans and never tires of the job and endures opposition and bears it patiently. And Jesus has plans to lock the doors.
What makes the Ephesian church more a candidate for closing than the Corinthian? Several things, I suppose, but what we have here is Pharisaism. They can look at the false beliefs of others and articulate where they are heterodox and know that they are not worthy. All good so far and Jesus commends them for it. But they do not do their work of inspection and examination out of love for God and His glory. And the truly frightening thing about that is just how much of the Ephesian church is in all of us, in our churches and in the individuals who make up the churches. They inspect others, not out of a love for God that leads them to love their neighbours. Not at all. They inspect people because they see themselves as spiritual police officers. Doctrinal precision accompanied by austereness, rigidity, aloofness, and a sense of self righteousness. It is a horrible thing. It brings disrepute to the Gospel, teaches bad things about who and what God is and makes people live in cowering fear. And Jesus will not have it.
I know I can be like the Ephesian church in Revelation 2. I have to fight the temptation to desire to know what you believe before knowing you as a living breathing human being created in the image of God. I am tempted to see you as someone who needs to know as much as I do. I am tempted to draw very narrow corridors through which only real believers can travel. Unless the lines are being drawn for me. Then the corridors seem to get a little wider. I suspect it is true of some of you as well. I know that in the particular Christian tradition into which God has led me, it is very much a thing we are known for. It needs to die. At least Jesus said it did. “Get that fixed or else I will shut you down as a church” (Ken Davis paraphrase). I would never close down the Ephesian church. But Jesus would – and He did. And He was loving enough to us to record what led to it, in the last Book of the Bible. You know, the Book we go to to figure out when He’s coming back. Maybe we should be more concerned that He is still here inspecting the church that goes by His name. It’s a frightening thought, but not as frightening as the possibility that He has closed some churches already and they just don’t know it yet. Lord, help us.