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6. The Ecclesia in Sardis (Revelation 3:1-5)

The letters to “the angels of the seven ecclesias” in Asia Minor are the only messages sent personally by Christ to his ecclesias. They are very important in molding our ecclesial outlook and philosophy, for they are fundamental in their application to present-day situations.

How is this so? Firstly, each ecclesia is treated as being responsible for its own affairs only. Even when the Spirit comes to the decidedly lukewarm, almost lost Laodicea, even then there is no call upon the other six ecclesias to disfellowship this erring group. The brotherhood in Asia Minor in the first century apparently knew nothing of “block disfellowship”: each of the seven ecclesias was “in fellowship” with the other six, despite internal problems in some cases far more severe than any we have ever witnessed in the latter-day revival of the Truth.

And, even more to the point, each of the seven “stars” is in Christ’s right hand (Rev. 1:16; 2:1)! A hasty excommunication of a whole ecclesia (or group of ecclesias) might very well put us in the awkward position of arm-wrestling with the right hand of the Savior! The ecclesias are Christ’s dominion; he has warned that no man can pluck them out of his hand (John 10:28). In supporting the Christadelphian stand on worldly politics, we often argue (rightly) that God rules in the world’s kingdoms, so why should we interfere? Is it not just as easy for us to grasp the further Biblical principle that Christ rules over the ecclesial world, and that our interference here may also be a fighting against God?

Consider now the special situation in Sardis:

“Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.... Be watchful, and strengthen those things that remain, that are ready to die.... Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments.... They are worthy....
Become watchful” is the exhortation of Jesus Christ, the Spirit of the ecclesias. Watch and pray through a dark and dangerous night, watch for and be prepared to combat the “wolves” that attack the flock (John 10). “Strengthen those things that remain”: Build up what is left of the protective wall, and encourage those who are willing for the common work (Neh. 2:18). Do not withdraw from the ecclesia, even though it seems ready to die.

“Thou hast a few names in Sardis”: The few names, or faithful remnant, are still a part of the ecclesia — let it be noted! “They have not defiled their garments.” Oh, but this is precisely what the “minority” “fellowships” would say they had done, being ‘defiled by association’! Notwithstanding, the judgment of Christ stands sure and firm on the page of Scripture: “THEY ARE WORTHY” — despite their “unsavory” associations.

Brother C.C. Walker, past editor of The Christadelphian, drew upon this passage when asked by a correspondent concerning the respective merits of the various “fellowships”:

“You will be in no danger by obeying the Truth in the fellowship of The Christadelphian and the Birmingham ecclesia. Even should this community be as dead as the Church in Sardis, if you walk worthily you will be saved (Rev. 3:4)” (“A Pure Fellowship”, Vol. 95, No. 1128 — June 1958 — p. 258).
It should be easily perceived that Brother Walker’s position parallels that of Brother Roberts in the following quotation:

“ ‘He that hath the seven Spirits of God’ — the symbolic affirmation of omniscience — has little to say in the way of commendation to the brethren in Sardis. ‘Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.’ Men knew the reputation of the Sardian ecclesia: the possessor of ‘the seven stars’ — the seven Spirit lights kindled in the seven ecclesias — knew their state. ‘I have not found thy works perfect before God.’ Jesus watches and discerns the developments of probation. He requires not to bring men to the judgment seat to know, though he will bring them there to reveal them. There were a few exceptions in Sardis: ‘Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy’; from which we learn that membership in a dead ecclesia will not interfere with individual acceptance where worthiness exists” (Thirteen Lectures on the Apocalypse, pp. 20, 21).
The above quotations are not apologies for error! They are, however, hypotheses for the worst possible position to which an ecclesia or a group of ecclesias might fall, without losing fellowship with God. (Can any Christadelphian honestly go on record as believing that the Central fellowship — or any other “group” of Christadelphians, for that matter — is below the standard of these seven ecclesias, which, despite their faults, were still addressed as “ecclesias” and symbolized by “lampstands”?)

Positively speaking, the above quotations are also a corrective to that futile and depressing search for an impossible “purity”, which many have been taught is necessary.

In all of Revelation 2 and 3, Christ gives no hint of a command to any one ecclesia to excommunicate any of the others, not even Laodicea. The reason may be easily determined: The avowed basis of faith and fellowship of each congregation was nominally sound, despite internal problems (which could not and should not be judged at a distance). Christ himself firmly holds the prerogative to punish or cast out erring individuals and ecclesias in other localities.

Do we really believe that Christ rules today in the ecclesias — in Bible terminology, that we walks among the seven lampstands (Rev. 1:13)? If we do, then consider this: Christ warned the seven first-century ecclesias of their possible removal due to apostasy (Rev. 2:5). They are not in existence today, because they did not continue to heed the exhortations delivered through the Apostle John. It was not persecution that removed these lightstands; it was their failure to honor God. Can we not also have the same confidence today that Christ has control of every situation, that Christ can handle such matters as he did in the first century, without our imperfect meddling and second-guessing in matters too difficult for us? Let us also remember 1 John 2:19:

“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us.”
I have quoted above from Brother Thomas as follows:

“The Apostolic Christendom, then, to which John wrote, was divisible into these two sections, which were more or less commingled in the ecclesias generally — real and nominal christians....” (Eureka, Vol. 1, p. 422).
To this I will add a further short quotation:

“Antipas still retained his original position in all the ecclesias, which, although teeming with ‘false brethren’ both in the presbyteries and among the multitudes, had not yet been ‘spued out of the mouth of the Spirit.’ Antipas was the remnant of the Woman’s Seed contending earnestly for the faith....” (Ibid., p. 335).
A view of our duties in regard to ecclesial fellowship that is in harmony with Revelation 3:1-5 is presented by Brother John Carter:

“We must keep firmly to two rules, which might be considered by extremists to be contradictory, but which are complementary. All ecclesias as a basis of co-operation must acknowledge the same fundamental truths, while at the same time each ecclesia must have the right of judging any doubtful case. The first maintains the truth; the second provides for an ecclesia taking account of all the factors in any borderline case, those factors being only known to the members of that ecclesia. There must then be mutual respect for each other’s judgments” (“A House Divided”, The Christadelphian, Vol. 94, No. 1115 — May 1957 — p. 187).

“In an attempt to justify such action [i.e. disfellowship of ‘erring’ ecclesias] it has been suggested recently that although we are not informed of such a move, it may be assumed that after reading the Spirit’s letter, the faithful few in Sardis would withdraw from the dead majority. But even if they did withdraw after hearing the Spirit’s judgment, would that justify us in withdrawing before any judgment has been passed? For our own part we will not venture to judge that any who hold the One Faith are dead or unworthy. If any man sins we accept the judgment of the majority of his ecclesia as to whether he should be rebuked or cut off from fellowship, but even in the latter extreme we should have his ultimate salvation as a main object and so be most ready to restore him ‘in the spirit of meekness’. As for wholesale condemnation of an ecclesia as ‘dead’, we would not venture so to judge even of those which appear most negative. Christ has not passed judgment on the brethren of the latter days. When he does give his verdict undoubtedly there be some dreadful surprises” (I. Collyer, “A Pure Fellowship”, The Christadelphian, Vol. 68, No. 807 — Sept. 1931 — p. 410).
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