Christianity has always had to contend with other worldviews. This is clear even in the New Testament when Jesus faced opposition to his teaching. The situation continues in the book of Acts and beyond, all the way to the book of Revelation. Decades after Christ’s crucifixion, churches still had to contend with difficulties that presented themselves. Revelation 2-3 addresses the seven churches of Asia, all of whom had to contend with their fair share of problems. The three that stand out most clearly still exist today.
Persecution. The early Christians had to endure numerous challenges, one of which was persecution for their faith. At first, the Jewish religious elite, who probably saw the early Christians as an unacceptably sectarian movement were the main culprits. The New Testament makes it clear that religious leaders provided much of the opposition to the church, even though the first followers of Christ were also Jewish. In time, the Roman authorities stepped in. They seemed to have viewed Christians as being under the same umbrella as many other sects within Judaism (e.g., Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, etc.). Before long, they realized that the Christians were distinctive, and posed a particular threat to Roman peace of mind (and possibly national security). By refusing to honor Caesar or worship the Roman gods, Christians ran the risk of provoking the ire of the gods.
The congregation in Smyrna seems to have had difficulty along these lines. Even though early persecution was local and sporadic, persecution is not a reality for Christians in the West today. Contrary to what we may like to believe, there is no war on Christianity (or Christmas, for that matter). There is a kind of discrimination leveled against Christians in some places (e.g., in some areas of the entertainment industry, by some professors in public institutions of higher learning, by secular groups and publishing houses), but this is not the norm. Other believers in the world have it far worse than we do. In the Middle East, a person may be jailed, killed, or pressured to leave their home if they choose to follow Christ.
Conformity. Christians in Pergamum and Thyatira do not seem to have suffered persecution, but they did have to contend with pressure to compromise. The Roman Empire had no parallel to our modern concept of “separation of church and state.” Residents were expected to participate in religious events. If not, the Romans feared their refusal to honor the gods would incur divine wrath.
Believers have always been pressured to conform, or not stand out quite so noticeably. The religious elite of Jesus’ day would have been quite happy for him to recant. The same leaders tried to silence Peter and John in Acts 4. Others in Acts 23 formulate a plan to murder the apostle Paul. They had done the same with Lazarus in John 12. The same holds today, although the pressures we may feel in the West pale in comparison to those in the first century. Rather than having authorities try to silence Christians using force, we can appeal to the legal system in defense of our Constitutional right to freedom of religious expression.
Pressures today are more subtle, and, consequently, potentially more effective. Christians in the first and second centuries went to their graves rather than renounce Christ. Today, some will conceal or downplay their faith to avoid negative attention in public or the workplace. I often wonder whether early Christians would be more ashamed or astonished if they could see the behavior of some professing believers today.
Complacency. Laodicea seems to be a clear example of a group of believers who did not stand out because they were afraid, but because they were too comfortable. The Christians there didn’t experience persecution. They don’t seem to have been pressured to conform. They did make compromises, but it was because they may have seen little reason to stand out or remain strong in the faith.
Complacency might be one of the most potent enemies of churches in America. We often hear that we live in a Christian nation, founded upon Christian principles, by Founding Fathers who were themselves Christians. The first and last of those assertions are patently false. But because we take Christianity (and our understanding of history) for granted, some see little reason to stand out. Statistics show that the “nones” (those with no religious affiliation) are increasing in number, as are those who identify as secular. Islam is becoming more dominant in many areas of the country. It is fashionable to mock Christianity and use it as fodder for comedy in awards shows and late-night television.
Christ is needed more than ever in our country. We cannot sit back and rest on our laurels as more challenges to the church present themselves. The early church faced many challenges. So does the church of the 21stcentury.