Monday, January 22, 2007


Over two decades ago, Alan Bloom, in his highly controversial book, THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND, spoke to what he saw as the situation among the students of his day. I don’t think it’s changed much since then.

He says, on page 25: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. … The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to openness.”

He talks about how young people can’t even understand it being any other way. The most horrible moral danger, as they see it, is to hold to absolute values. Absolutism leads to intolerance, which is the cardinal (or only) sin.

Well, those who were students when Bloom wrote are the leaders in today’s society. I’m sure that Bloom was painting with a broad brush and not all of the generation he speaks of are relativists, but it’s still frightening.

I know too that this sort of thinking has penetrated the church. Christians bring it to their worship, to their study of Scriptures (see WHAT IS TRUTH, 4/10/2006).

If I question students as to what beliefs are held by the churches they attend, I sometimes receive puzzled looks. The question makes no sense to them. Churches don’t believe! They worship. They have programs. They are “tolerant” of others’ beliefs. It’s no big deal!

But, lack of correct belief can be fatal spiritually. And this is not just a current problem. The third church which Christ addresses in the book of Revelation nearly 2,000 years ago, the church at Pergamum had a problem similar to that of many churches today.

Revelation 2:12-17:
12. And to the messenger of the church in Pergamum write: These thing says the One who has the sword, double-edged, sharp:
13. I know where your home is, where the throne of Satan is, and that you’re holding tight to my Name and you haven’t denied your faith in me – even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness who was killed among you, where Satan’s home is.
14. But I have a few things against you: that you have there those who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to throw a stumbling block in front of the sons of Israel: to eat idol sacrifices and to commit fornication.
15. In the same way you have also – you - those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans likewise.
16. So then, repent. And if not, I am coming to you quickly and I’ll wage war with them with the sword of my mouth.
17. The one who has an ear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches: To the overcomer I will give the hidden manna and I will give him a white stone, and on the stone a new name written which no one knows except the one who receives it.

This was a church on the cutting edge of missionary activity. They had planted themselves right in the middle of Satan’s territory (verse 13). Pergamum was a center of idolatry at the time this letter was written. There were temples to Asklepius, to Zeus and even a center of emperor worship. Yet they’d held tight to Christ’s Name. They’d “kept the faith.” Jesus says he understands their tough working conditions and praises them for their boldness. They had already lost one of their own – a martyr because of his faithful witness.

But when we work close to the enemy, there’s danger. Perhaps new believers were coming into the church carrying their previous beliefs and lifestyles. Perhaps the church folks were simply trying to be open and tolerant toward the members of their community.

There were within the church, two groups holding to false and dangerous beliefs: “Those who hold to the teaching of Balaam,” and “those who hold to the teaching of the Nicolaitans.” Not all of the church people were in these parties, but apparently all tolerated them.

Balaam was a “prophet for profit” who had lived 1,500 years earlier, who was hired by the king of Moab to curse Israel. When he was prevented from this, he counseled, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Satan has many strategies. If outright persecution doesn’t work, he uses compromise and in this way, nearly destroyed Israel. Those who held his teaching in the church apparently taught that freedom in Christ is freedom to sin.

Who the Nicolaitans are, we don’t know, but we’ve already seen their “works” in the church at Ephesus (verse 6).

Jesus give an “or else” threat. Repent! Deal with these people! Stop being so tolerant! His threat is that He will judge by warring with the sword of His mouth. He doesn’t say exactly how He’s going to do this, but if the sword as elsewhere (Hebrews 4:12) represents the written Word of God, then He is applying it to the problem.

All teaching in the church must be judged by the Scripture. Right theology is the basis for right behavior. Sin is always (among other things) a violation of the Word of God.

Jesus ends this letter, however, not with the treat, but with a promise (verse 17). Though there is much symbolism here, it seems to all point to intimacy with Christ.

Intimacy, however, demands a conformity to His Word.

Bill Ball

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