Old fashioned fuddy-duddies in a society that is enlightened and progressive. That is how many people would describe Christians today, especially in the areas of religion and sexuality. In matters of religion the contemporary trend is to either deny, or affirm, all of them. You can practice one, but don’t dare say it is the only one that is true. And in matters of sexuality, there are no rules, so long as it is consensual. If only the Church would get with the times and not be so stuck in the past! But is this fair? Has society truly progressed leaving the church stuck in the past? The letter to Pergamum in the Book of Revelation helps us answer this question.
While the faithfulness of the Christians at Pergamum is commended, there is something that Jesus must address:
But I have a few things against you: You have some people there who follow the teaching of Balaam, who instructed Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel so they would eat food sacrificed to idols and commit sexual immorality. In the same way, there are also some among you who follow the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Revelation 2:14-15 (NET emphasis mine)
Whoever the Nicolaitans were, the main concern is with their teaching on religion and sexuality. To understand why this is important, it helps to know something about religion and sexuality in a Roman city like Pergamum.
The word that could be used to sum up a typical Roman view of religion is confusion. Confusion because the gods were always in a mess. When men create gods in their own image, the gods start to look and act a lot like men. Character deficiencies are to be expected. If the gods could be in a mess, they would hardly be in a position to give moral guidance. You would be excused for being in a mess too. Further, you could be confused about whether the gods like you or not. You might pour out the proper libations to the proper gods, but if your boat sank, it was pretty clear they were not happy.
The Good News of Jesus Christ brought people from confusion in matters of religion, to clarity. God was not created by men, but He is the Creator Who has revealed Himself. His character and nature are clear. His moral guidance is clear. That you have the opportunity to stand in a love relationship with God is clear. Yes, you might pray and your boat might still sink, but that God loves you is still clear. The proof was not in a safe voyage across a sea, but in the cross of Jesus Christ which brings us safely from enmity towards God to intimacy with God. With the Gospel, confusion is replaced with clarity.
The word that could sum up a typical Roman view of sexuality is power. Adultery, prostitution, sex with temple prostitutes, sex with prepubescent boys; all of this was not just allowed, it was encouraged. The free Roman male should do all this, and should not blush. You had sex, not because you were in love with someone, but because you had power over them. What kind of a Roman man are you if you cannot prove your strength and power?
The Good News of Jesus Christ brought people from a place where sex is about power, to sex being about love. You might think that the Romans were free in matters of sexuality, and that Christianity came to replace freedom with rules. But the move is not from freedom to rules. Instead it is from a power trip to a journey of love. Paul in speaking about renouncing old ways has not changed gears when he says “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her . . .” (Ephesians 5:25 NRSV). Among other things, this is still on the theme of living a new way, and not the old Roman way. In Christ, husbands are called to sacrificial love, and this includes matters of sexuality. Loving your wife means giving up the prostitutes and whatever other sexual interests you had as a Roman man. In places like Pergamum the Christians were the enlightened and progressive ones calling people away from the old status quo of sex as an expression of power to a new way of sex as an expression of love. (1)
We clearly see this shift in matters of religion and sexuality at the Council of Jerusalem. The big question facing the Church at the time was whether non-Jewish people needed to become Jewish as they became followers of Jesus. Here is the conclusion they sent by letter:
It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell. Acts 15:28-29 (NIV)
In other words, you do not need to become a Jew and keep all the rules of Judaism when you become a follower of Jesus. But you can no longer live like a typical Roman! Roman confusion about “the gods” does not mix with Christian clarity about the love of God in Christ. Roman emphasis on power in matters of sexuality does not mix with the Christian emphasis on sacrificial and covenantal love.
At Pergamum, the Nicolaitans were pressuring the Christian community to ignore the wisdom of the Jerusalem council and keep living like typical Romans while also looking to Jesus. They are called to repent, keeping in mind that while Rome ruled with the power of the sword, the Romans themselves were accountable to a more powerful God.
These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword. . . . Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. Revelation 2:12,16 NIV
So are we being old fashioned fuddy-duddies, out of step with an enlightened and progressing society? Should we join with the Nicolaitans and mix our Christian faith with changing Canadian values in religion and sex? Actually, in throwing off the beliefs and ethics grounded in our Christian heritage, our society is not moving forward, but moving backward – to ethics recognizable to pre-Christian Romans. In throwing off an exclusive belief in Jesus as Lord, society is moving from clarity about God and His love to confusion. And in throwing off Christian ethics in sexuality, society is moving away from love as the anchor. When you unstick religion and sexuality from God’s Word, you quickly become unglued. As Christians, we are called to join God in turning religion and sexuality from confusion and power, to clarity and love. There is nothing old-fashioned about that!
(1) I am always indebted to the work of Biblical Scholars as I am in the habit of consulting various Bible Commentaries in the preparation of sermons. One book in particular helped shape this sermon: Sexual Morality in a Christless World by Michael Rueger, who points out the Roman view of sex as power, and the Christian call to love.)