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Discerning Churches – Ephesus


To the angel of the church in Ephesus
Rev. 2:1


The Great Library in Ephesus

There is no other church for Jesus in the city of Ephesus, just this one ecclesia: “To the angel of the church in Ephesus.”

And so of course, there was only one actual Christian church in Ephesus, for the word ecclesia (“church”) meant, “gathering, assembly.” If there more than one church Jesus was addressing, i.e., two or more assemblies in Ephesus, how could He call them what they weren’t: a single ecclesia?

That’s not to say there weren’t other churches/assemblies claiming to be Christian churches in Ephesus. A little digging the New Testament reveal several, and they come in two types. There are the ones with false apostles in Rev. 2:2, and the ones with the Nicolaitans in Rev. 2:6.

These heretical churches probably formed when people left the one church Jesus addresses in Ephesus. Remember these guys in the city of Ephesus:

“some have suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith. Among these
are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan,
so that they will be taught not to blaspheme”
(1 Tim. 1:20)

Then there was this ugly scene that likely prompted another church in Ephesus:

“You are aware of the fact that all who are in Asia turned away
from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes”
(2 Tim. 1:15)

And to boot, a third heretical church in Ephesus formed like gangrene out of these two guys:

“But avoid worldly and empty chatter, for it will lead to further
ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene.

Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, men who have gone astray
from the truth saying that the resurrection has already taken place,
and they upset the faith of some.”
(2 Tim. 2:17)

Or was that the same Hymenaeus as led the first revolt mentioned above? Sheesh, I don’t know, it’s so hard to keep all these heretics and their churches straight. But one thing. Paul didn’t hesitate telling the one church in Ephesus that was Christ’s body who to avoid.

All of this was to be expected.  Thirty years earlier Paul had predicted two types of enemies threatening the singular unity of the church in Ephesus:

“I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in
among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own
selves men will arise, speaking perverse things,
to draw away the disciples after them”
(Acts 20:29-30)

This is important because none of the three churches mentioned above were planted by the church in Ephesus. And add to them the two churches in Ephesus mentioned at to the top of the article, the church of false apostles and the church of the Nicolaitans.

The church in Ephesus was a great church planting church. They planted Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea (Rev. 1:11). You see, when a church follows apostolic teaching, it only plants a church where the body of Christ is not yet in existence. So it didn’t plant any more churches in the massive city of Ephesus, with its estimated population of 250K to 500K. It planted churches where Christ was not yet proclaimed in all his saving glory (Rom. 15:20).

As well, it is clear from Jesus Christ that Ephesus is not a mother church to these others, but instead, each church is accountable to Christ alone for it’s obedience and disobedience. Oh, they are all connected, but only as Jesus holds their stars and stands in their midst. None of the churches are connected in any hierarchy, church courts, synod, or presbytery. If they were – the risen Lord would address the hierarchy, or the presbytery, or synod. After all, as men judge things, that’s where the really binding decisions are made. But Jesus addresses each church, independently of the others.

So how can we understand all the churches in the world – the majority, to be sure, who govern themselves by hierarchy and not as fully accountable to Christ?

  1. Recognize men tried to solve church problems by developing such systems, but not in arrogance;
  2. Recognize the episcopal systems worked for a time. Church problems were alleviated in the short run. Why, before connectionalism got going, the Council of Nicaea actually defeated the Arians theologically, though outnumbered;
  3. Recognize any system of church governance will have problems. Even churches like Philippians, set upon clear apostolic structure (Phil 1:1), had problems.
  4. Most of all, recognize that churches that utilize hierarchy still live as churches every Sunday. Which is to say, the synods, courts, presbyteries are all paper on the Lord’s Day, because the Lord’s Day is the only day when the church meets together for the Lord’s Table (1 Cor. 11:18, 24-25).


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