Tolerating The Intolerable
By Shawn Thomas
A Christian parent asked their 15-year-old daughter: “What is a name that kids in your school do NOT want to be called? But the answer was very revealing: his daughter said, “The worst thing you can be called at our school, is ‘Intolerant.” That says so much about where we are as a society right now, doesn’t it; call me anything else, but don’t call me intolerant!
Toleration can be a good thing; but tolerating in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, what God has forbidden, is taking it too far. This is the message Jesus gave in Revelation 3 to the church at Thyatira: “The Church That Tolerated The Intolerable.”
As He did with most of the churches, Jesus initially commended the church at Thyatira for some things: their “deeds, and love and faith and service,” and so on. But then He says in 2:20 “But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols.”
The word “tolerate” here means “permitting, allowing.” Jesus used it in Matthew 3, when He told John the Baptist, “permit it at this time, to fulfill all righteousness.” But what they were “tolerating” in Thyatira was the woman Jesus calls “Jezebel,” undoubtedly not her actual name, but comparing her wickedness to that of evil Jezebel of the Old Testament.
What was this woman doing that was so wicked? Jesus said, “she calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bondservants astray.” There were two aspects to this “Jezebel’s” heresy:
— false teaching: “She teaches and leads My bondservants astray” – including teaching on “the deep things of Satan” as 2:24 says!
— immoral practice: “acts of immorality.”
Many have speculated that the false teaching and practice in Thyatira had to do with the trade guilds that flourished there. They were known for their manufacture of purple cloth. But if you wanted to work, you had to be part of the trade guild, and when these tradesmen got together they would offer sacrifices to false gods and eat the meat from the sacrifice, and the worship often involved cult prostitution as well. This “prophetess” may have taught that these things were ok for Christians to participate in. But whatever form it took, this “Jezebel” taught that immorality was ok for Christians.
There have always been those throughout church history who have tried to excuse immorality in the church — and that continues today:
— A few years ago there was a singles church group that taught that it was ok to commit immorality as long as you weren’t married. (A pretty convenient teaching for a singles group!) But it was obviously contrary to the teaching of the New Testament.
— Many in America today are seeking to justify homosexual practice for professing Christians. They assert that what the Bible prohibits is just “homosexual prostitution,” NOT a “loving, committed gay relationship.” Others teach that if you condemn homosexuality because of Leviticus, then you can’t eat shrimp either, because they both are Old Testament commands. This is a very common argument today. But the New Testament later specifically declared all foods clean — so you CAN eat shrimp despite what Leviticus says! — but the Bible NEVER reverses its ban on homosexual practice. In fact, the NEW Testament in Romans, I Corinthians, and I Timothy, specifically teaches that homosexuality is STILL a sin and prohibited by God.
These are the same kinds of things this “Jezebel” taught in Thyatira: that immorality was ok for Christians. Jesus had harsh words against that in this letter. Tolerating in the church what God has prohibited is NOT a virtue!
Now, we should understand that there are things we may tolerate in our society as a whole, that we do not tolerate in our churches. A certain level of tolerance is necessary for us to have a pluralistic, democratic society as we have here in America. John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace, wrote: “I am glad of liberty to worship God according to my light, and therefore am willing that others should have the same liberty.” (Letters of John Newton, Josiah Bull, ed., p. 371). We have a pluralistic society in America, with people of many different beliefs. In order to facilitate that, we have to exercise a degree of tolerance towards those who disagree with us:
— You may be a Republican politically, and may strongly disagree on issues with someone who is a Democrat. But you don’t go out and shoot someone because they are a Democrat! You tolerate their right to exist in a pluralistic nation like America. In fact, as the old saying goes, I’ll disagree with you, but I’ll die for your right to disagree!
— In the same way, Christians strongly disagree with Muslim doctrines about God and Jesus, but we don’t go around burning down Muslim mosques. We tolerate their existence in our society.
— Likewise, we disagree with homosexual practice — but we don’t go out and beat up homosexuals we see in the street.
We tolerate these groups, just as we wish to be tolerated when WE are in the minority. Tolerance to a point is a good thing and is needed to have the kind of society we enjoy in the United States of America today.
But tolerance in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an entirely different thing. The church is not a pluralistic democracy. The church is the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, and His word is our rule of faith and practice. We are not free to believe and practice anything we desire in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ:
— A person can support abortion in our society today. But in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, His word says He knits us together in our mother’s womb, and the life of the unborn child is precious.
— A person is free in America today to believe that Allah is the one God, and Mohammed is His prophet. But you are NOT free to believe that in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our confession is “Jesus is Lord” and “there is no other name under heaven, given among men, by which we must be saved.” Muslim teaching is not tolerated in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
— Similarly, a person is free to have whatever relationships our nation’s law allows — but one is NOT free to live immorally in the church of Jesus Christ. Followers of Jesus are bound by His word, which says sexuality is to be confined within the boundaries of marriage, and between a man and a woman. To believe and practice outside that standard is not acceptable in the church. To teach and to practice what God has prohibited in the church, is to tolerate the intolerable.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in I Corinthians 5 and said: “It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. (:2) You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst.”
The Corinthians actually boasted (:6) about how “tolerant” they were: “Why, we’re so tolerant we have people living in blatant immorality among us!” Paul says this boasting is not good! He said in:2 you should remove these people from your midst. You can’t blatantly break God’s moral commands and still be a member in good standing of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Tolerating the intolerable in the church is not a virtue. It is a sin against God. Jesus says in Revelation 2 that He will not overlook those things, but He will powerfully judge them.
Now, let’s be clear: there is a difference between forgiving a sin someone has repented of and tolerating a sin when someone has no intention of repenting of it. As Christians, we should be VERY gracious to anyone who knows they have sinned and who is seeking to repent of it. Who among us has not sinned? The Bible says: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” None of us are saved by how good we are. We are all only saved by the grace of God in Christ Jesus and His death on the cross for us. So as Christians, we should be the FIRST people to forgive anyone, and we should be the LAST people to ever look down on anyone who has sinned. The first step to even becoming a Christian is to admit our sin! So we can’t look down on sinners!
But this is entirely different than tolerating, and even approving, blatant, immoral behavior from which a person has no intention of repenting.
And this is just what many today are demanding: that Christians accept their immoral, unbiblical behavior just as it is, in the church — and not only tolerate it, but also approve of it, and consider them to be Christians in good standing. This is exactly what Jesus says in Revelation 2 that we must never do in His church, or we will become exactly the kind of “Jezebel” that He will judge. Allowing blatant, unbiblical immorality and teaching in the church, is to tolerate the intolerable.
Shawn Thomas has been a Southern Baptist pastor for almost 35 years, he currently serves as Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Angleton, Texas. You can read more from Pastor Thomas Here.
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