As Christians continue to debate to what extent they can be involved with gay weddings, advocates for participation as no-big-deal have been hurrying to the Gospels to look for a Jesus who is pretty chill with most things. It’s certainly great to go the Gospels. Can’t go wrong there. Just as long as we don’t ignore his denunciations of porneia (Mark 7:21), and as long as we don’t make Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John our canon within the Canon. For Jesus himself predicted that the Holy Spirit would come and unpack all the truth about the Father and the Son (John 16:12-15). The revelation of the Son of God was not limited to the incarnation, but included the pouring out of the Spirit of Jesus and the subsequent testimony written down by the Messiah’s Spirit-inspired followers.
But even if we were going to limit ourselves in ethical matters to only those things Jesus said, why doesn’t anyone talk about the letters to the seven churches? Grab a red-letter edition of the Bible and you’ll see: Revelation 2-3 is all crimson. They are letters from Jesus. To be sure, this Jesus warns against losing our first love, but he also rebukes several churches for being too cozy with the culture. Pergamum countenanced false teachers who encouraged sexual sin (Rev. 2:14-15). Thyatira was too tolerant of a Jezebel-like woman leading people into sexual immorality (Rev. 2:20-21). Many in Sardis had soiled their garments with the world (Rev. 3:4). Compromise was in the air, and only some of the Christians could say they didn’t inhale.
What did this compromise look like? We can’t be sure, but Greg Beale–who has written the best scholarly commentary on Revelation–suggests that, at least in part, the compromise had to do with participating in the festivals put on by local trade guilds. Christians who worked in professions belonging to these guilds were put in a precarious spot. Would they go along with the run-of-the-mill idolatry associated with the feasts? Or would they opt out and risk losing their livelihood, their respectability, or worse.
This was no mere issue of indifferent things and matters of conscience, as some propose was the case in 1 Corinthians 8. Perhaps token public acknowledgments to Caesar are in mind or participation in pagan festivals, or even both, since all the guilds formally recognized Caesar’s deity. (Polycarp was accused of being a “puller down of our gods, teaching many not to sacrifice or worship” [Martyrdom of Polycarp 12:1-2].) In particular, what may be included are trade guild festivals involving celebration of patron deities through fests and sometimes immoral activities. Refusal to participate in such activities could result in economic and social ostracism (cf. 1 Pet. 3:11-21). Therefore, there was much pressure to compromise. And just as Israel was influenced to fornicate both sexually and spiritually, the same was true of Christians in Pergamum.
Like Balaam, this was a group of false prophets who were encouraging participation in idol fests by teaching that such permission was permissible for Christians. We may speculate, as have others, that this course of action was rationalized by thinking that it was only an empty gesture that fulfilled patriotic or social obligations and was legitimate as long as Christians did not really believe in the deities being worshiped. And, like Balaam, they probably also believed they would be blessed for their prophetic instruction (cf. Num. 23:10).
Part of the false teachers’ effectiveness, perhaps, lay in their sincere belief that they were teaching correct doctrine; while possible, it is unlikely that they were intentionally trying to deceive the church. Of course, their teaching would ultimately dilute the exclusive claims of the church’s Christian witness to the world, which was still the church’s strength. Perhaps part of the motivation for the teachers’ attitude was the threat of economic deprivation, which may have facilitated the comparison with Balaam, since the original narrative and subsequent reflections on it associate his deceptive motives with financial gain. (NIGTC, The Book of Revelation, 249)
Granted, the issue in Asia Minor was not baking cakes for same-sex ceremonies. We shouldn’t think Revelation 2-3 was written to solve our controversies. But we shouldn’t assume they have nothing to do with our controversies either. High pressure social obligations, rationalizing participation as only an empty gesture, popular teachers urging permissiveness, the threat of social and economic ostracism—sounds familiar. Maybe our problems aren’t so new. Maybe the Bible isn’t so unconcerned with the parties we make possible. Maybe Jesus wouldn’t bake that cake after all.