If you’re new to this series, go here to catch up:
Please note that throughout this discussion, I am using “Church” to mean all the people who proclaim Christ, not any of the denominations or sects that have come along. I adhere to the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church myself, but I do not believe Jesus or any of the Apostles founded a denomination. Nor do I think any denomination has any special corner on the big issues addressed in all seven letters, which are about personal sanctity and individual salvation, not about specific doctrines or practices.
Book of Revelation, Chapter 2, Verses 12-18:
To the angel of the church in Pergamum, write this:
The one with the sharp two-edged sword says this:
I know that you live where Satan’s throne is, and yet you hold fast to my name and have not denied your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was martyred among you, where Satan lives. Yet I have a few things against you. You have some people there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who instructed Balak to put a stumbling block before the Israelites: to eat food sacrificed to idols and to play the harlot. Likewise, you also have some people who hold to the teaching of [the] Nicolaitans. Therefore, repent. Otherwise, I will come to you quickly and wage war against them with the sword of my mouth.
Whoever has ears ought to hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the victor I shall give some of the hidden manna; I shall also give a white amulet upon which is inscribed a new name, which no one knows except the one who receives it.
Continuing with Pergamum as a type for the church during the Early Middle Ages (roughly 313 AD to 1,000 AD).God’s complaints against his people are familiar ones – i.e., sexual laxity and putting politics ahead of religion.
As to the first complaint:
The Nicolaitans appeared earlier in the letter to Ephesus. For an explanation of the reference there and here, see https://polination.wordpress.com/2012/11/17/who-were-the-nicolaitans/
Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity sheds light on the problems of sexual laxity (aka, the Nicolaitans) in the Church during the Early Middle Ages.
The idea that the clergy should remain unmarried developed only slowly. … [At first] abstinence from marriage was left a matter of personal choice. … By the third century, celibacy was beginning to be valued as a mark of holiness. … In the fourth century, moves were made to restrict marriage after ordination. … Many so-called celibate clergy in fact lived with women who were not their wives (called subintroductae), a practice repeatedly condemned by church councils and writers. …
In the fifth century and after, two codes of practice evolved. In the Eastern churches, presbyters and deacons were allowed to marry before ordination, but bishops were always chosen from among the celibate clergy (very often they were monks). In the West there was strong pressure for complete clerical celibacy. … Celibacy of the clergy continued to be praised as an ideal, although it was not enforced legally and effectively until the time of Hildebrand (Pope Gregory VII, 1073-85).
[Eerdmans, pages 215-216]
As to the second complaint, putting politics ahead of religion:
Balaam was an Old Testament dude who was used here and elsewhere in the New Testament (2 Peter 2:15, Jude 11) as short-hand for a religious official who lets God’s work slide to appease political leaders. His story is recounted in Numbers: 22-24, 31. Most of the time, Balaam seems to have been faithful to God, though in one case God has to send an angel and give Balaam’s donkey a voice to get him back on track. (The talking donkey is one of my favorite Bible stories!) However, in Numbers 31:16, Balaam is cited as the instigator of “the Israelites’ unfaithfulness to the Lord in the affair at Peor” as a result of which the people were punished with a plague.
Eerdmans has a great deal to say about relations between Church and State during the Early Middle Ages:
The Balaams in the East were the imperial suck-ups:
“The Emperor, ‘the living image of Christ’, stood at the head of the church. The notion that his office was sacred, a mixture of priest and king, was not originally a Christian idea. Pagan Roman emperorors carried the title of chief priests, and carried out special religious duties as part of their office. Constantine was seen as God’s chosen deputy. The imperial power was an earthly reflection of God’s heavenly sovereignty. The Emperor, as head of the church, presided over certain local synods at Constantinople, and over all general councils. He had the right to approve all candidates for the post of patriarch.” [Eerdmans, page 240]
The Balaams in the West were more about being politically powerful themselves:
“From 400 to 600 the Emperors in the West increasingly relied on bishops to assist in secular matters. The fall in population and the penetration of the German peoples into the interior of the Roman Empire helped create a need for new leaders. It was the Christian bishop who increasingly filled this role. … The bishops of Rome [came] to enjoy great power in Rome and in Italy as a result of the decline and eventual disappearance of the Emperor in the West and through extensive landholdings in and around Rome.” [Eerdmans, page 218]
This situation didn’t last and it works into the theme of the “repent or else” segment of the Pergamum letter. The references to surprise invasion and war are interesting in the context of the politically turbulent Early Middle Ages; likewise, the references to “the sword of my mouth” and “ears … to hear” during this period of history in which the Church assembled and disseminated the New Testament.
It would hardly be out of character for God to use a foreign invader to chastise His people for straying from the revealed truth. And, in fact, He seems to have made good on His threat.
- By 800 AD, three of the five great centers of Christianity — Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem — were under Muslim rule.
- In the East, Muslims tried, but were unable to conquer Constantinople until the 15th century, which is part of the story for the letter to Thyatira.
- In the West, Charles Martel stopped the Muslims from crossing the Pyrenees into Gaul in 732. Martel was no friend to the Church, but his heirs, who were raised in the monastery of St. Denis near Paris, stimulated the renewal of religious and intellectual life that is now known as the Carolingian Renaissance. The Carolingian King Pepin went so far as to use his own troops to protect papal lands and to donate to the papacy territory in north-east and central Italy that his forces conquered.
Unfortunately, the Carolingian Empire fragmented before the end of the 9th c. and left the West vulnerable to attacks by Muslims from the south, Magyars (Hungarians) from central Asia, and Norsemen from Scandinavia.
Everywhere church property was either devastated and ransacked by foreign invaders, or fell into the hands of catholic nobility. Noblemen treated bishoprics and monasteries as their private property to dispose of as they wished. The clergy steadily became indifferent to duty, and their ignorance and immorality increased. [Eerdmans, 233-235.]
One very famous incident illustrates how bad things got for the Western Church. In 897, Pope Stephen VI had his predecessor’s rotting body disinterred and brought before a synod, where it was propped up in a chair for trial. Following conviction, the corpse was thrown into the River Tiber. A year later, Stephen was deposed, imprisoned and strangled. Incredibly, despite incidents such as this, the Roman Church still managed to operate and even to be respected throughout the West.
But with the near total collapse of civil order and culture in Europe, the end of the world seemed at hand. Not surprisingly, it was seriously expected by many as the year 1000 approached, which perhaps helped fuel the tenth century spiritual renewal that swept through the Western world.
Starting at the monastery in Cluny, it sought to restore purity to the Western Church, to stamp out corrupt practices and to re-establish the celibacy of the clergy.
You’d think I’d be done with Pergamum by now, wouldn’t you? Such a short letter and such a lot of blogging! But the “hidden manna” and “white amulet” stuff is fascinating and will need yet another blog to do them justice. CYL!
Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity [Eerdmans Publishing, 1977]
The New Bible Dictionary [Eerdmans Publishing, 1962]
New American Bible online @ http://www.usccb.org/bible/
Carolingian Renaissance @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carolingian_Renaissance
The Siege of Constantinople @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Constantinople_%28717%E2%80%93718%29
Charles Martel @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Martel
Byzantine Empire @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Byzantine_Empire
Pope Stephen VI @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Stephen_VI