Intolerable Tolerance

If we are to live together as the people of God, longsuffering in love is a necessity (Eph 4.2). Longsuffering is the evidence that the Spirit is at work among us (Gal 5.22-23). The old English word longsuffering better reflects what Paul is saying than our English word patience. Patience is a little more docile. Longsuffering reflects the struggle we have at times to tolerate one another; to put up with the abrasive personalities, quirkiness, the aggravations of just being with other people, and even enduring their struggles with sin in their lives of repentance. We are called to “suffer long” with people in love. God calls us to a loving toleration in the church.

But there is a time when toleration becomes intolerable, when longsuffering can be suffered no longer. There is a time when longsuffering becomes a sin. When Jesus addresses the angel (the pastor) of the church in Pergamum, he deals with this sin.

The angel himself is faithful. He has held fast to Jesus’s name right in the throne room of Satan himself (Rev 2.13). Satan had established his temple, his throne room, in the midst of the capital city of Asia, Pergamum. There many of the Greek gods were worshiped, the imperial cult (i.e., Caesar worship) found its center, and the synagogues of Satan, the Jews, were established. Being the rival temple, the throne room of Jesus, the church, wasn’t an easy life in Pergamum. However, even after Antipas was killed as a token of what the satanic forces in Pergamum would do, this angel did not waver. Jesus praises him for his personal faithfulness.

But he is the pastor of the church, so his responsibility extends beyond personal faithfulness. He is responsible to maintain the covenant boundaries of the church, keeping the bride clean. He hadn’t. Instead, he had been sinfully longsuffering with those who held the teaching of Balaam and the Nicolaitans (which seems to have been the same teaching).

The reference to Balaam takes us back to Numbers, toward the end of the wilderness wanderings of the children of Israel. Aaron, the high priest, died. When this happened, all of the blood shed on the land that cried out for vengeance was avenged, and all of the manslayers who were held up in the cities of refuge were freed (cf. Num 35.25, 28). Israel was free to conquer. And conquer they did. They defeated three kings and were marching toward Moab and the Midianites. Balak, king of Moab, took notice and called the prophet Balaam, hiring him to curse Israel. When Balaam couldn’t curse Israel, he taught Balak how to get Israel to curse itself: send in Midianite women to sexually seduce the men and, through this, to worship idols (Num 22–25; 31.16). It worked. God plagued Israel, and that plague wasn’t stopped until Phineas, the priest, speared a fornicating couple through their bellies (Num 25.7-8).

Our high priest, Jesus, died, emptying the saints from the old covenant cities of refuge. The church was on the march tearing down strongholds, overturning cultures. The Caesar cult–Balak– worked with the Jews–Balaam–to put stumblingblocks before the church, to commit covenant infidelity. Some were saying that it wasn’t a problem to participate in the civic feasts that included fellowship with idols, to burn a little incense to Caesar, or to mouth the words, “Caesar is Lord.” If the angel doesn’t take care of this, the true Phineas, Jesus, will come with the sword of his mouth and fight against all the fornicators. There will be no space for repentance after this.

The angel was tolerating these people in the church; people who were leading others to perdition. While personally holding fast to the faith, not participating in these activities, his allowance of them in the congregation was culpable. It was intolerable toleration.

The pastor of a church has a great responsibility for the church as a whole in this regard. But the principle behind what Jesus says to the pastor applies to each individual in the congregation; namely, that my responsibility extends beyond me being personally faithful to the health and well-being of the entire church. None of us can take a live-and-let-live attitude in the church when it comes to the toleration of sinful leaven. We must love one another and Christ’s church as a whole enough to be impatient with impenitence.

There are times when our longsuffering and grace are nothing more than spiritual facades for a self-love that doesn’t want to do the uncomfortable work of actively loving others by confronting sin. When we refuse to do so, we put their lives in danger. The discomfort of confrontation is not the problem. Sin is the problem. Sin kills. Sin kills individuals and churches. To tolerate what Jesus doesn’t isn’t grace or patience. It is sin.

The answer is repentance (Rev 2.16). Repentance is not merely a clipping around the edges. Rather, it is understanding with the mind of Christ, seeing the way he sees things, sharing his affections, and changing our actions accordingly. In short, we must love one another in the church the way Jesus loves us. And his love doesn’t tolerate infidelity.