15 March 2012

Which matters in a church: good works, or sound doctrine?

by Dan Phillips

Revelation 2:19-20 makes for arresting reading. This is the glorified Lord Jesus, writing to the messenger of the church in Thyatira. First, verse 19 says: "I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first."

Who wouldn't want to hear that as an assessment of his church's health? Jesus Himself says that He knows their works. That right there is a sit-down-and-think-about-this revelation. Sure, it makes sense; He is after all omniscient. But He takes note, takes specific and personal note, of the works of this one church that probably entirely fit in someone's house.

Further, He specifies their love, faith, service and patient endurance. These are all wonderful qualities. They're central. He doesn't merely say "Nice choir, tasty pot-lucks, beautiful ambiance." These are central signs of the work of the Holy Spirit.

It gets even better: "your latter works exceed the first." They aren't resting on their laurels. They aren't reminiscing about the glory days, back when Brother X was pastor, or The Great Revival happened, conducting slide-shows of yesteryear. They were growing now, today, in the present tense. This is a splendid sign of life.

You want this to be the end. You expect Him to say, in effect, "So, terrific work, I'm happy with you, your reward will be great," and roll the credits.

However, surely as night follows day, verse 19 is followed by verse 20: "But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols."

It is beside this post's point to focus on interpreting Jezebel or her false teaching. The point is that, in spite of all the wonderful signs of robust spiritual reality in Thyatira, they had one problem, and to Jesus it was a big problem: they tolerated a false prophet, a false teacher.

The bare minimum of what we need to learn from this is, one would hope, fairly obvious. All the good works and character qualities in the world are insufficient if a church tolerates harmful teachers, and harmful teaching.

One clear and simple takeaway is that we should not focus on spiritual reality and hope that divine truth will take care of itself naturally and organically because of our generally terrific spiritual health. Remember Thyatira.

Another takeaway is that we cannot focus on discernment alone, and trust that spiritual reality will take care of itself because of our commitment to God's truth. Remember Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-11).

We must encompass both in our aims and concerns, both as church leaders and as church members.

Dan Phillips's signature


Magister Stevenson said...

Do I sense a first sermon preview?

Frank Rue said...

Excellent exposition, and timely for the current Christian climate. It's funny how many pastors want to play passive (I just teach the good stuff and hope the false stuff is obvious), play passive aggressive (I point out that there are "some" that believe "differently" but I let people make their own conclusions, though I definitely have a bias), or play permanent aggressor (I spend most of my time refuting false doctrine for my congregation).

It would do us all well to get some fresh humility from the critiques in Revelation every quarter or so—it certainly clears up a lot of the caricatures that abound. :)

Jonesy said...

The following sentence has me confused.

It is despite this post's point to focus on interpreting Jezebel or her false teaching.

Is something missing or am I putting the accent on the wrong word(s)?

It sounds like it should be punctuated as follows (new punctuation in []):

It is[,] despite this post's point [,] to focus on interpreting Jezebel or her false teaching.

But this doesn't make sense.

Or do you mean to say,

It is BEYOND this post's point to focus on interpreting Jezebel or her false teaching.

Or something else?

BTW: Thanks for your timely post. It's helpful in some discussions I'm having.

DJP said...


Nash Equilibrium said...

I would think that a church cannot focus on good works performed for the right reasons, unless they first have true doctrines. Agree, or disagree?

Halcyon said...

"Being" always precedes "Doing", and thus right doing is always a product of right being. And right being is always defined by God's word.

Hark! Do I hear the air being let out of some pomo's head?

DebbieLynne said...

I agree with Nash, as long as good doctrine spurs action. As my pastor says, all his good preaching means nothing unless his congregation applies, it. Faith without works is dead.

GrayDave said...

What are "good works?" Seems like each pastor I've heard has their favorite list. Work in the nursery, tithe, etc?

Nash Equilibrium said...

Debbie - if doctrine didn't spur action, it might not really be good doctrine, right?

Tom Chantry said...

Good question, Gray Dave.

"Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his Holy Word, and not such as without the warrant thereof are devised by men out of blind zeal, or upon any pretence of good intentions." Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XVI, Paragraph 1

Which, if you ponder it long enough, confirms the interrelatedness of good doctrine and good works.

T/C McG said...

Reminds me of one of my more favorite sermons:


DJP said...

The executive producer of the TV show "Supernatural" reads Pyromaniacs?


Mizz Harpy said...
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T/C McG said...

Not the EP of Supernatural, just a family name...

Question: Is there anything wrong with getting federal funding for a social service program to the poor set up if you are doing it for the Glory of God and as an expression of the love of Christ and as a means to verbally herald the Gospel?

Or... Would Federal Funding mean you couldn't do that?

Mizz Harpy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sean said...

I'm wondering, does the "encouraging them to eat food sacrificed to idols" sound like a contradiction of Pauls lack of concern in the matter? I say "sound like" because, obviously, there has got to be a way to work it out. I just can't make it click.

Any help would be GREATLY appreciated.

grace and peace

T/C McG said...

I get it. I wonder what the consequences of evangelizing in a federally funded environment would be... Certainly couldn't be any worse than getting thrown to the lions, right?

So... how can someone express the difference in motivation to someone they are ministering to in a secular, federally funded environment, alongside non-believers who are volunteering in similar service?

anonymous said...

T/C McG: "Question: Is there anything wrong with getting federal funding for a social service program to the poor set up if you are doing it for the Glory of God and as an expression of the love of Christ and as a means to verbally herald the Gospel?"

T/C....I could be wrong but what I know of it is if you get federal money you cannot proselytize...which means you cannot share the gospel..which means any church taking federal money is not doing their "good works" in Christ's name which in turn is not glorifying to God...then they just become "good works". If they do take the federal money and proselytize anyway they are not glorifying God either..that is called lying to the federal govt. and we are to obey the govt.

Christ's church does not need federal money to help the poor. We are supposed to help the poor anyway...it is one of the minumum things we should be doing as Christians.

Robert said...


Jezebel encouraging people to eat food sacrificed to idols would actually be contradicting Paul's teaching. Paul said that the mature believer should not do anything that might cause a less mature believer to do anything that violated their own conscience/beliefs, thus causing them to sin by doing what they believe to be wrong. The long term goal is for the less mature believer to grow to maturity through reading Scripture and receiving solid, Biblical teaching.

Nash Equilibrium said...

Maybe you should just evangelize anyway, Federal Funding be *darned*, until they ask you to leave? Problem solved.

Tom Chantry said...

Paul said that the mature believer should not do anything that might cause a less mature believer to do anything that violated their own conscience/beliefs, thus causing them to sin by doing what they believe to be wrong.

Robert, in all kindness and respect, that's a spectacularly uncomplicated and, I think, dangerous summary of Paul's teaching.

Eating food sacrificed to idols was against the divine law in place in the Old Covenant; Paul clarifies that it is not against the divine law in place in the New. We must be clear on where we are in redemptive history before we can understand the "food offered to idols" question.

I'm not sure how this conversation went in the direction it went. It was supposed to be about whether works can be divorced from doctrine and whether either without the other can characterize a healthy church. But however we got on the issue of cooperation with federal programs (is anyone else lost in that discussion?), let's not redefine Paul's entire teaching on Christian liberty by flattening out the contours of redemptive history.

T/C McG said...


That makes sense.

So what about the private sector - I am a boss and a new Christian. How can I share Christ at work with my employees with words?

trogdor said...

Wow, does this post hit home. After final appeals to change course (including this passage), we finally decided we had to leave our church because of, well, this. It's been a gut-wrenching process and an agonizing decision, but we're moving on. So here are some things from this passage which I think apply to Harvest and churches which similarly fall into error.

1) Recent error does not undo past faithfulness. This church has been around for over 20 years and has brought forth plenty of good fruit (Biblical fruit, not "it's big!"). Those who have been saved and sanctified through this ministry do not magically become reprobate because the pastor now foolishly believes TD Jakes is OK. The fruit that had been borne is real, and what happens now and in the future can't undo the past.

2) Error in one area does not negate present faithfulness in others. As is clear from the text, even a sin this bad doesn't mean that everything the church has done, or everything they are currently doing, is complete garbage. In fact, much else can be going on that's quite praiseworthy.

That's what made this ordeal so difficult to process. There is a lot to love about Harvest. Not was - is. When talking with people about this whole thing, one of the hardest questions to answer was usually "So how does this affect [ministry]?", because generally it doesn't - yet. More below.

3) Allow for repentance. Jesus gave Thyatira time to repent. We should do the same.

4) If repentance does not come, the consequences will be severe. Jesus promised severe judgment for the unrepentant, and we should expect no less. Even aside from judgment, you can't expect to keep disobeying God's Word for very long without consequence.

Think of this type of sin as cancer. When it's small and relatively isolated, the rest of the body may be perfectly healthy. But as it metastasizes, the toll on the rest of the body increases, until it's overwhelmed and dies. So will this be if it's not stopped.

It's best to prevent it from ever happening. Next best is to catch it early and stop it. The longer it's allowed to grow, the more painful the treatment becomes, and the chance of death skyrockets.

So for now things at Harvest are still largely unaffected by this. Most people are at best vaguely aware of what's happened/happening, and the various ministries working in relative isolation from the public/extension ministry side are relatively fine. But if repentance doesn't come, the eventual toll will be incalculable. And that's a shame.

5) The sin is plenty bad on its own. No need to make other stuff up. Some of the accusations thrown out there about Harvest have verged on the ridiculous. It's as if this was an open door for everyone with a bone to pick to just say whatever they wanted, and they did. Because endorsing a heretic isn't enough to complain about, we have to make completely baseless accusations about everything else under the sun? Discernment is never an excuse for slander.

OK, I'm done.

Scott Barber said...

I am not sure I am following this Lutheran reading of the text. In the text, isn't Jezebel leading them into practical error, rather than doctrinal error?

Rick Potter said...

Maybe it's not so much as a christian service (in the practical sense) as it is a persevering witness (in the doctrinal sense). And Jesus does emphatically say that they are being deceived. The verb means to “seduce” a person into sin by leading that one into error.


DJP said...

Ohh, Trogdor, I know that's been a rough, gut-wrenching path for you. The more MacD dug in his heels and thumped his chest, the more I felt you were probably headed for this. I'm sorry, all the same. It isn't as if a lot of good folks didn't try to reach the leadership, including you.

God guide you to a good, Christ-centered, stable church home.