The guidance that Ephesus gives us is do not, in our effort to grow and then sustain a church, fall out of touch with Jesus--He is our first and only love. Anything that threatens that love--too busy of a schedule, doing lots of church-centered activities, spending every moment trying to rescue the world, less time for devotions and Bible study--will bring God deep grief; so much so He calls such a church to repentance. That's a strong word; God does not want His love nor relationship to us to be replaced by church.
One last comment here. God commends the church for their hatred of the "practices of the Nicolaitans," which He equally hates. Yup: That's the word used: hate. Look at Vine's definition:
(b) of a right feeling of aversion from what is evil; said of wrongdoing, Rom 7:15; iniquity, Hbr 1:9; "the garment (figurative) spotted by the flesh," Jud 1:23; "the works of the Nicolaitans," Rev 2:6 (and ver. 15, in some mss.; see the AV);
Obviously, this church was well-grounded in the Word. To see, understand and respond to the things that are detestable to God, we must know the Word--not our culture, not our traditions, and not our personal bias. God's Word is the only standard. Irrespective of what the world says, God does hate sin and wants those who practice it to turn away from it and turn to Him. Church leaders that affirm that process are commended by God.
Let's go the next letter.
“To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death." (Rev. 2:8-11)
I go to a football game, but that does not mean I am a football player.
I go to university, but that does not make me a student.
I go to church, but that does not make me a Christian.
Clearly, this church is under heavy fire by those claiming to be Jews but are emphatically not. They slander this church and in doing so, are joining forces with Satan to demean its message about the saving grace of Jesus. Satan always joins forces with those who denigrate the Gospel. Are the afflictions a result of this slander? Or is the pagan community already hostile and this slander just adds fuel to the fire?
Persecution is coming and God is warning His leaders and people. A "victor's crown" is promised; prison and torture will not diminish the power of God in His church in any way.
Jesus had earlier promised: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Matt. 16:17-18) The "rock" was Peter's declaration of who Jesus is, and His Lordship cannot and will not be removed nor diminished, despite all that Hell may throw against it.
The Smyrna church, and us as well, are included in that promise.
Now, as then, leaders should expect persecution, even from those who use the same theological terminology. Calling a church "Christian" or people calling themselves that simply does not make it so.
However: If someone uses the Word is used to evaluate a church and it falls short, that is legitimate. If the church is of Jesus, its leaders should be "teachable," one of the qualities Paul cites that characterizes a pastor/leader. (1 Timothy 3:2)
If the leader responds by slandering those who are evaluating him with the Word, this moves him precariously close to the "synagogue of Satan" mentioned in this letter. Satan will do everything in his power to hamstring the leadership in a church. Expect it.
Leaders should expect temptations that will lead to "prison" if the leader succumbs. Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:1-7:
OK, leader/pastor: Here we go:
Satan will tempt you to compromise your walk any way he can, making your behavior questionable.
Satan will tempt you to commit adultery, whether with a person, in your head or on your computer. The method matters not; imprisoning you in sin and regret is Satan's goal.
Temperate? No. Be free in your use of alcohol. You are not like other people; you have this under control. But if you do behave badly, (whether in secret or not) you will reap the whirlwind.
Self-controlled? Nah. Tweet with a vengeance those who mock or call you out. Being self-controlled is weakness; be assertive, aggressive and let people know you will not tolerate any accusations or trash-talk--even from your own people.
Respectable? Hey, don't worry if you are conforming to the culture. The world will see you as hip, progressive, relatable. In fact, at first glance, the world might not even know you are a pastor. Good thing, huh?
Hospitable? Kinda hard to do that if you have thousands in your church. Just delegate. Besides, who has time to give water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the prisoners, if you have such a megachurch? Let others do that. Your main concern is the church stage and how your music and message will fill your church.
Teachable? Gotta know the Word to do that. Gotta teach the Word in its fullness to do that. Gotta live the Word to model it to your sheep. But if you are limited in your knowledge or are trying so hard to be relevant, (is that another word for shallow?) then it is hard to see error in yourself or in your theology. Satan loves shallow.
Drunkenness? No, you don't get, well, drunk. Whether your weaker sheep are stumbling over the leadership drinking, well, that's their problem.
Violent? Not you! Not at least in person. But when you get on Twitter or Facebook, whoa...watch out. Or, despite all of your sweetness and light in the pulpit, if anyone talks to your wife or children off the record, another portrait of you emerges entirely.
Quarrelsome? Well, not if people stay off your bad side. Everyone has a bad side--whether it is under the Lordship of Christ is another matter.
Lover of money? C'mon. God wants to open the coffers of heaven and rain wealth down on you. Cars, jets, houses, you name it! If God is blessing you, who has the right to question that? Jesus? Well, yeah, He lived a simple and devoted life to serve us, but He wants you as a follower to look nothing like Him in lifestyle. In fact, you look remarkably like the 1%.
Respectful kids, well-run home? How can anyone do that in today's culture? Satan has seen to that, for sure.
Celebrity pastors? New-born renegades who get an immediate platform? You can handle it, gentlemen! You got God! (His Word doesn't agree with you, but ya gotta know it to see that!)
So, we are called, just as the leaders in Smyrna were, to be faithful.
To who? Christ alone and His Word, even if it costs us everything. But no worries! A victor's crown awaits us!