The pastor is usually the first person who gets blamed when a church takes a downturn. And, admittedly, many times the pastor is the problem. That’s just a plain fact. There are, however, two other facts that are just as plain. Fact #1: The pastor isn’t always the reason for the downturn. Fact #2: Having good spiritual leadership isn’t enough to keep a church from hitting the skids. This brings us to the church of Ephesus.
As the capital city of the Roman province of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Ephesus was one of the leading cities of the ancient world. The city’s massive harbor and coastal roads made it the most easily accessible city in Asia Minor and as such a center of commerce. Furthermore, the great temple of Diana (Artemis), which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, was located there, and that made the city a religious center as well. At its height, Ephesus boasted a population of over 300,000 people.
The Bible’s first specific mention of Ephesus is found in Acts 18:19. The apostle Paul is traveling with Aquila and Priscilla, a married couple he has recently met in Corinth (18:1-3). Like Paul, Aquila and Priscilla are tentmakers by trade. The group arrives in Ephesus and Paul immediately heads to the local synagogue to teach the Jews about Jesus (Acts 18:18-19). His ministry is well received there and he is asked to stay on a while, but he declines the invitation because he has committed himself to returning to Jerusalem to observe the coming Feast (probably the Feast of Passover) (Acts 18:20-21). As he departs Ephesus, though, he does two things. First, he promises that if it’s God’s will he will return to the city one day. Second, he leaves Aquila and Priscilla there to continue the spark of ministry he had begun.
All indications are that Aquila and Priscilla remained in Ephesus, worked as tentmakers, and housed a church in their home (1 Corinthians 16:19). Scripture never uses the title “elder” (“pastor,” “bishop,” “shepherd,” “overseer”) in reference to either one of them, but they were instrumental in helping an eloquent Jew named Apollos, a man well learned in the Old Testament scriptures, come to a full and correct understanding of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 18:24-28).
Sometime later, Paul made good on his promise to return to the city, and at that time he took over the leadership of the fledgling church (Acts 19:1-10). He remained there for a total of three years and God worked all kinds of unusual miracles through him (Acts 19:11-20; 20:31). In typical Paul fashion, he left the city in the wake of a virtual riot that was stirred up by Demetrius, a silversmith who made his living fashioning silver shrines of the goddess Diana (Artimus).
Upon Paul’s departure for Macedonia, he turned the reins of the spiritual leadership of the church in Ephesus over to his young protege, Timothy (1 Timothy 1:1-3). Unfortunately for students of the Bible, it is here that the scriptural record of the spiritual leadership in Ephesus runs dry. Timothy most likely remained on in Ephesus for a while, but all we know for sure is that a few years later Paul wrote Ephesians, his letter to the church in Ephesus. That would have been sometime around 60 A.D. give or take a couple of years either way, which would have been approximately six to eight years after his first visit there.
Here is where the apostle John likely comes into the picture. Post-Biblical church tradition consistently states that John ministered at Ephesus into his advanced age and probably wrote his three epistles of 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John there. According to the same church tradition, he was arrested in Ephesus by the Romans during the reign of the emperor Domitian and banished to the island of Patmos, where he wrote The Revelation sometime around 94-96 A.D.
By putting all this information together, we learn that the church in Ephesus had a rich background in regards to spiritual leadership. Despite this background, however, what is it that Jesus says to the Ephesian church in The Revelation? After complimenting the church for their labor, patience (perseverance, endurance), intolerance of evil doers, and spiritual discernment concerning genuine and false apostles, Jesus says, “Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Revelation 2:4, N.K.J.V.). He then encourages them to repent and get back to doing their first works or else He will remove their lampstand from its place, which means that they will cease to exist as His church (Revelation 1:12-13, 19-20).
At the time Jesus spoke those words the church in Ephesus was only about 40 years old. And while any city’s “church” (singular) in that day was the sum total of all the city’s small house churches (Romans 16:3-5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon verses 1 and 2), surely having the likes of a Paul, a Timothy, or a John serving as the spiritual leaders in a city would ensure that the overall church there wouldn’t lose its love for Jesus, right? Wrong. Just four decades into its existence, the church in Ephesus was already veering off course.
If this proves nothing else, it proves that having good spiritual leadership isn’t enough for a church to avoid backsliding. If all the church history about John and Ephesus is true, how it must have broken John’s heart to hear Jesus utter those solemn words about the church in Ephesus, “You have left your first love.” Surely John hadn’t taught them to lessen their love of Jesus. Neither had Paul or Timothy, for that matter. But it had happened. Somehow, someway, somewhere along the line, it had happened.
So, the next time you hear of some local church backsliding, declining in attendance, or getting caught up in a scandal, don’t just automatically assume that the spiritual leadership there must be the problem. Perhaps it is, but it could just as easily be that the leadership is what has been keeping the problem from bubbling to the surface until now. Any pastor’s leadership is only as good as his church’s followship, and sometimes that followship really does leave a whole lot to be desired.