The First Love Get-Back: Ephesus, Evangelicals, and the Players of the Church Game

What did it take to foil a church, sever a culture in two, and frame the message of Jesus, turning it into something to manipulate others for material gain? Was it fundamentalist legalism? Baby boomers? Abusive church leaders? Donald Trump? Nancy Pelosi? The gender revolution?

We could journey through the prior decades and gives scores of potential answers, particular moments in time, individual “anti-Christ’s” 1 John mentions, and deflect the personal blame for the institutional ruin the American Church has been left to deal with.

But in reality, we can look to the book of Revelation where the Son of Man in a revelation to John tells the Church of Ephesus in flashing neon lights to see where white Evangelicals screwed it all up:"I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil people. You have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and you have found them to be liars. I know that you have persevered and endured hardships for the sake of my name and have not grown weary. But I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first." 
Revelation 2:2-4

Polarized Players

Too easily, we can use these verses to point out the mistakes of our friends who no longer show up to the church. We can preach this message to a “fallen American culture” formerly led by Evangelical giants like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell Sr., only to now be run by secular institutions and cable news personalities like Chris Cuomo and Tucker Carlson.

Except, this letter is not written to lost people. It’s not written to former Christians, former players who left the field in the middle of the match or quit the game altogether. No, the letter is written to “The Church.” It’s written to people who play the game, following the rules but miss the purpose. 

It’s like the stories you hear of Little League superheroes or Pop Warner powerhouses who made it to the Big Time, only to flame out after chasing money and fame. When they left the field with so much promise, we ask why, but the answer always seems to be crystal clear. The player’s love for the game was lost, and a new love of money and fame was put in its place.

In this current iteration and form of Evangelicalism, there is a new variant in the cult of personality that embraces the brand, glorifies the individual, disgraces the community, and dwarfs the first love of the Church.

The show has continued to go on. The game has remained in play. We, like the Church of Ephesus, will cast out the “evil people.” We will still test the truth of some men and women’s call to lead congregations, only to find them wrong or liars. We have endured through the struggle and hardships throughout the years; it’s an undeniable effort.

But evil is still present in this world, and millions of Evangelicals have pushed past the dark only to elevate individual goals. We will call out false teachers who disagree with our doctrinal strongholds while we won’t bat an eye to the wolves who agree with us as they creep around our sheep.

Our definitions of “evil people” will depend on who you ask. For some, it may be a woman in church leadership who challenges the status quo. For others, it may be an alt-right pastor who condemns the truths of immunizations and science. But all at once, we can play the game. We can find our crowd and be lifted up as a leader, a hero even. To others, however, we can be cast out as a heretic and false prophet at the same time.

But how did we get here? How did we allow ourselves to swear on the Bible in every court of law but lie as we approach the stand? We’ve left our first loves. Those loves may take different forms or fill up various vessels, but an idol is an idol all the same.

We Are Mars Hill

I came across these verses from Revelation listening to “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” a podcast series from Christianity Today documenting the meteoric rise and dramatic fall of Seattle megachurch Mars Hill Church, led by its charismatic and problematic pastor Mark Driscoll.

The verses came from episode six, “The Brand,” where former Mars Hill media director Brian Zug shares a story of Mark preaching a video series on the Letters to the Seven Churches at the historic sites where they met. Only hours before filming the gospel-centered messages, Zug, Driscoll, and the team spent their sweet time in relaxation and luxury at an other-worldly lavish Turkish resort.

Zug quickly realized Mars Hill left their first love and elevated Driscoll to that position. As Driscoll preached the message, he preached to his church about his church, allowing Christ only to be swept up in the dust storm of Driscoll’s intense celebrity stature and dynamic drive for success.

We can look at Mars Hill and point out their flaws, missteps, and mistakes. We can look at their dramatic fall in a self-righteous lens and justify our church culture as one far more edifying and holy, but, for better or worse, we are all Mars Hill. We are all the Church at Ephesus. We have all fallen time and time again, even though our implosion stories most likely will never make national headlines.

Our individual idolizations of approval, acceptance, selfishness and brand-building greed may be known to only a few of the people closest to us, but Christ himself is witness to all of it. In the restlessness of the public square or the comfort of our own home, our sweaty runs to “the things of the world,” raising them like golden calves do not make us the victim. We are the instigators of our own destruction. Institutions may fall in the process, but we should foot the blame.

Pick Up the Phone

But where is the hope in all this? Is there a silver lining on the symbolic, metaphysical horizon? Concerning the layout and formula of the Letters to the Seven Churches, the Son of Man doesn't finish his message without a solution. "Remember then how far you have fallen; repent and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place unless you repent. "Let anyone who has ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God." Revelation 2:5,7

The first step is to remember how far we have fallen. Our minds must begin to comprehend both the sinful nature we have been saved from and the ongoing struggle of our mental sanctification, but he continues on.

Repent. Turn around. Do the little 180-degree spins in our life and get back on track. Far too often do we simply recognize how fallen we are, only to refuse to take our baggage and lay it at Jesus’ feet. It requires both actions, but like every great sermon, there’s a third point.

“Do the works you did at first.” So, we have recognized the sin in our hearts, turned from it, but to truly demonstrate that we have genuinely turned back to our first love, there has to be a demonstration of that rekindled love. The Son of Man, Jesus Christ, calls us now and forever to 100-percent follow him with our minds, hearts, and hands.

Faith without works is dead. Salvation requires allegiance. God demonstrated his love with the action of sending Christ to die for us. We should show our love to God by our actions giving glory to him. To our idols, gods, and loves in the world, we demonstrate that allegiance with hours on our phones, thousands of dollars to make us more presentable, and millions of stares in check for approval.

There is a true love that stretches past our inward brokenness and cleans up our shame. It’s a messy love that died on a cross and tossed death aside for you. It’s a love that calls us, calls you, to allegiance and obedience. And, seen in verse seven, it’s a love that rewards his people with life in communion and paradise with God himself.

We decided to cast that love aside and play the church game, but he is calling us. He’s calling us back to himself, back to the source of the almighty, perfect, and beautiful love. God is calling the saved and lost alike to approach the throne and begin again. Our first love is calling, and we have to pick up the phone.

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