Thyatira: A Church Living in Love and Faith

Mon, 28/01/2019 - 09:05 -- James Oakley
Revelation 2


In February 2017, General Synod refused to take note of a report by the House of Bishops on human sexuality. I wrote on this at the time: It really is time to choose.

The two archbishops responded by writing an open letter to the Synod, about which I also wrote: The Church of England needs a decision, not more of the same.

In that letter, they spoke of their desire to commission a document to teach definitively on the subject of human sexuality.

Secondly, we, with others, will be formulating proposals for the May House of Bishops for a large scale teaching document around the subject of human sexuality. In an episcopal church a principal responsibility of Bishops is the teaching ministry of the church, and the guarding of the deposit of faith that we have all inherited. The teaching document must thus ultimately come from the Bishops.

The bishops had not spoken definitively on this since Issues in Human Sexuality in 2003, and 14 years is a long time.

Note the thinking here. The archbishops recognised that one of the responsibilities undertaken by bishops at their consecration is to be teachers. They are to be guardians of the faith. This is what we find in the service of consecration for a bishop in the modern, Common Worship, rite:

Will you teach the doctrine of Christ as the Church of England has received it, will you refute error, and will you hand on entire the faith that is entrusted to you?

It is also what we find in the 1662 service for ordaining or consecrating a bishop:

Be you ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God's Word; and both privately and openly to call upon and encourage others to the same?

The archbishops recognise that, and that they therefore have a responsibility to teach and to guard the deposit. They propose to do this, in the area of human sexuality, by commissioning a teaching document.

From teaching document to textbook on diversity

In July 2018 the group working on this announced a change of name, and a change of purpose.

"Episcopal Teaching Document on Human Sexuality and Marriage" was considered a bit of a mouthful. The snappier "Living in Love and Faith" was chosen.

Also, the document has changed from being a teaching document to being a mapping exercise. That's to say, instead of telling us what we ought to think, as loyal Anglicans, it is going to map the range of views that exist. We need to note that the group stressed they are not just mapping the views that currently exist, but the views that might potentially exist.

This begs an important question. All good theology is evaluative. For example, we don't simply describe what various groups thought about the natures of Christ in the 5th century; we do that, but we also evaluate which of those views is legitimately a Christian view. It was not clear here how much the document's authors would simply describe the different views that exist on human sexuality, and how much they would also evaluate which of those views may legitimately be held as Christian views.

The evolution was not complete. On January 4th this year, an article appeared in the Church Times reporting on the progress of this work. We discover the answer to the question about evaluation:

The group commissioned by the Archbishops to look into sexuality will not pronounce on the rights or wrongs of same-sex marriage. But neither is it engaged merely on a mapping exercise of the different views that exist, or burying the issue in the long grass.

Instead, what it will do is help people learn how to think. This …

is what I have described as a pedagogical process — in other words, it is helping people to learn how to think, and how to better understand.

The result will be something they hope will have wide appeal. As well as a more technical document, they aim to produce something “like a beautifully produced text book”, including audio interviews with individuals giving their views and experiences. But what will be the objectives of this text book?

Here's what Christopher Cocksworth, the Bishop of Coventry who is chairing Living in Love and Faith, says:

“I would hope that, as we articulate and explain different views, that they would be framed in such a way that people can see the Christian reasoning behind them, so that they can be seen in their truest Christian light.

“Now, there’s still a judgement to be made on validity. There are all sorts of positions that I don’t necessarily agree with, but can we see what’s driving them theologically, can we discern in them a Christian character, can see what is of the gospel in them?”

So the aim is to help us understand the different views that are out there, and to help everyone to see what is Christian in each of those views.

This completes the answer to the question as to how evaluative this material will be. A range of views will be articulated. We won't be told that some are legitimate, and some are not legitimate, as Christian views. Instead, we'll be encouraged to see what is Christian in each of these views, and so to see that they all have a certain kind of legitimacy.

This also completes the morphing of the shape and purpose of the document. What started out as a teaching document, with bishops discharging their weighty duty to guard and to teach the faith, driving out erroneous views, has turned into a textbook to encourage us all to embrace and learn to live with the diversity we find today.

What's in a name?

I was intrigued by the title. Why "Living in Love and Faith"?

Of course, these things are often arrived at by committee, and committees often produce pantomime horses rather than titles with a clear vision. Quite possibly we have a bit of several suggestions mixed up in here. One can imagine them wanting us to think about the broader question of love, and what that looks like when lived out, and then someone else pointing out that we should add "faith" to the mix.

Most Christians, unless they've been immersed in this process, will struggle to say the title correctly the first few times. Somehow, you want to say "Living in faith and love" instead. There's a reason for this: We know 1 Corinthians 13:13

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Arguably, here's a precedent for putting love first. Love is "the greatest of these". In context, this is because when Jesus returns we'll no longer need faith (we'll see him face to face, so we won't know him by trust in his word), and we'll no longer need hope (because everything God has promised will be fully here). This verse may also make one wonder whether there's any hope in the Living in Love and Faith project!

But the order the words occur in has been lodged in many a Christian's psyche, because they know this famous verse by heart: "Faith, hope and love". So "love and faith" trips over itself.

In fact, 1 Corinthians 13 is not unique. If we look at the New Testament as a whole, there are 19 verses where "faith" (πιστις) and love (ἀγαπη) exist together as virtues that Christians should exhibit (either on their own, or in a longer list).

Of those, all but three have the order "faith" then "love"

  • “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love”. (1 Cor 13:13)
  • “But since you excel in everything- in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you- see that you also excel in this grace of giving.” (2 Cor 8:7)
  • “For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God's people” (Eph 1:15)
  • “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love” (Eph 3:17)
  • “because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God's people” (Col 1:4)
  • “We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love” (1 Thess 1:3)
  • “Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love.” (1 Thess 3:6)
  • “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate”. (1 Thess 5:8)
  • “We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing.” (2 Thess 1:3)
  • “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” (1 Tim 1:4)
  • “… if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” (1 Tim 2:15)
  • “But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.” (1 Tim 6:11)
  • “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus”. (2 Tim 1:13)
  • “Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace. (2 Tim 2:22)
  • “You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance.” (2 Tim 3:10)
  • “Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.” (Titus 2:2)

I've not included Galatians 5:22, where πιστις is correctly translated as "faithfulness".

There are other verses containing the words faith and love, but not presented as a list of virtues (1 Cor 13:2; Gal 5:6; 1 Tim 1:5). There is also Eph 6:23, which talks of "love with faith", which again is different.

That leaves 3 where "faith" and "love" are listed as virtues but in the other order: "love and faith"

  • “Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” (1 Tim 4:12)
  • “because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus.” (Philemon 1:5)
  • “I know your deeds, your love and faith,” (Revelation 2:19)

Of those, only the last one has the simple phrase "love and faith"; the other two have those two qualities in a more complicated phrase. So, whenever the New Testament wishes to commend "love and faith" or "faith and love", as a pair of virtues, we always find "faith and love" except in one place.

You can see why "Living in Faith and Love" trips off the tongue whereas "Living in Love and Faith" is more of a tongue-twister.

WWJD: Jesus’ document “Living in Love and Faith”

Let's ask: "What would Jesus do?" If Jesus was asked to address a church that wanted to know all about "Living in Love and Faith", what would he say?

Happily, we don't have to guess. The one occurrence we do have of this pairing, Revelation 2:19, is the opening phrase of a short personal message from the risen Jesus to the church in Thyatira. He first commends the church for the way it is living in love and faith, and then comes what he wishes to say next. Here's what he says (from Revelation 2:19-29):

I know your deeds, your love and faith, your service and perseverance, and that you are now doing more than you did at first.

Nevertheless, I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.

Now I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, to you who do not hold to her teaching and have not learned Satan’s so-called deep secrets, “I will not impose any other burden on you, except to hold on to what you have until I come.”

To the one who is victorious and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations – that one “will rule them with an iron sceptre and will dash them to pieces like pottery” – just as I have received authority from my Father. I will also give that one the morning star. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

This is a church that is commendable in many ways. Not only are they living in love and faith. They are serving (actively giving of their time and energy for the benefit of others), and persevering (which presumably includes continuing in the face of persecution and other pressure).

Yet for all that is good, Jesus has one thing against this church:

There is a woman who is teaching the Christians at Thyatira. Her teaching is leading Christians into sexual immorality, which translates a word referring to any kind of sexual activity outside the God-ordained context of the lifelong marriage between a man and a woman. The fault of the church at Thyatira is not that they have all been so led into immorality, nor that they all teach that such "sexual immorality" is legitimate. No, there are many Christians at Thyatira who are neither committing sexual immorality nor teaching that others may do so with impunity.

Their fault is that they tolerate Jezebel and her teaching. They treat her particular strand of teaching as one legitimate option. As they map out the various views being held in Thyatira, they say that there is something legitimately Christian in what Jezebel is teaching. The risen Jesus would not agree. He closes by reminding them of Psalm 2, and his ultimate authority over all nations.

Here we have the risen Jesus writing a personal letter to a church that specialised in living in love and faith. We do not need to guess what he would say. This tells us, therefore, what the risen Jesus would want to say to the present-day Church of England.

As to what will appear in the actual Living in Love and Faith documents, and how closely it will align to Revelation 2: We'll find out in a little over a year.

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