Dealing With Spiritual Infection
Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Rick Renner’s book A Light in Darkness, Volume Two. In this newest work, Rick writes in depth about the history of the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira and the riveting message of Jesus Christ to each of these ancient congregations.
“And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges; I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth. But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which thing I hate. Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.” —Revelation 2:12-17 (KJV)
From the words of Christ in Revelation 2:12-17, it is clear that a very serious false doctrine — a spiritual infection — was being advanced in the Pergamum congregation by certain unnamed leaders. It only takes a few spiritual leaders getting off track to affect the longevity of a church. It is important to recall that physical infections begin at the microscopic level with a relatively small number of contagions and that many are often very treatable if they are addressed in their early stages. However, if they are left untreated, infections can quickly grow out of control and lead to serious physical complications or even death. In Christ’s words to Pergamum, it is clear that a spiritual disease had infected the church of Pergamum, but it was still in its early stages.
The spiritual infection had entered the Pergamene church through a “few” church leaders whose influence in the congregation provided a platform from which they could spread their false teaching to fellow believers. Although their numbers were still small at the time Christ delivered His message to John on the island of Patmos, they were already in the process of multiplying inside the church — exactly like an infectious disease. If this multiplication was not stopped by the power of the Spirit, it would spread from one believer to another until it finally affected not just “a few,” but the entire congregation. Just as a physical infection can be stopped in its early stages from fully developing, Jesus was calling for the Pergamum congregation to hear what the Spirit was saying (Revelation 2:17) and immediately stop the spread of this infectious teaching.
Similarities Between the Human Body
and the Local Church Body
In First Corinthians 12:12-27, Paul likened the local church body to a physical body, and indeed there are many similarities. For instance, just as the human body exhibits distinct symptoms when an infection begins to spread, a local church will demonstrate many telling signs that a spiritual infection has begun to take root in its midst. Consider the many parallels that exist between a physical infection that has invaded a human body and a spiritual infection that has invaded a local church body.
- Physical infection can be defined as the injurious colonization in a human body by a foreign species that begins to utilize the host’s resources to assist in its own infectious multiplication. Once inside a human body, an infecting organism quickly begins to multiply inside its host. Normally, the human body has multiple systems of defense designed to protect the body from infection. But when the human body is physically weak, malnourished, or exposed to fatigue over a long period of time, the immune system is compromised, and the body becomes susceptible to infection. Ultimately, an infected person becomes contagious to others.
- Persistent infections occur when a body is unable to completely purge the harmful organisms after the initial infection. Such infections may appear to go into remission, but in actuality, the infectious organisms merely remain dormant in the body, fully capable of being reactivated if the immune system is weakened once again. For persistent infections to be eliminated from the body, serious, directed treatment is often required.
- Infection can be transmitted in a variety of ways, but the most common means is horizontal transmission, or the direct or indirect transfer of an infectious organism from one person to another. Transmission through direct contact may occur when a healthy individual comes into physical contact with an infected person’s body or bodily fluids. This can occur in numerous ways, but two very common causes of direct transmission are unprotected sexual contact and breathing air that has been contaminated by an infected person’s cough or sneeze.
- Infections can also be transmitted through indirect contact. This occurs when a person touches a physical object that an infected person has previously handled. Common examples would be actions as simple as touching the same furniture, doorknobs, or toys or sharing foods or liquids. Although a person may not directly contact an infected individual, environment alone can be sufficient to transmit infection in extremely contagious cases. In these instances, the germs can be so robust that they are able to survive outside the human body for long periods of time and still retain their infectious nature. This fact demonstrates the necessity to thoroughly cleanse and sanitize any areas, items, or people that have beenexposed to the environment of an infected person.
- The longevity of an infection is dependent on whether the infecting organism is transmitted from one person to the next. If this transmission is stopped, the infection is stopped. Therefore, it is essential to stop that transmission process.
- In order to stop an infection from being transmitted to others, an infected individual must be willing to undergo treatment. Even in the ancient world, medication was used to treat infected individuals. Although the medication may be distasteful and unwanted, it is absolutely necessary to annihilate the infecting organisms in order to stop the spread of disease to others.
- If an infection progresses to a point in a person’s body that medicine alone is no longer sufficient to stem its advance, the infected person may need to submit to a surgical procedure. As unwanted and painful as this step is, it may be the only way to stop the spread of disease to the entire body. Removal or surgical correction is never easy to endure, but this procedure may save the life of a person in that dire condition.
- In most cases, it is relatively simple to avoid an outbreak of infection by making minor adjustments to one’s lifestyle. For instance, germs thrive in unsanitary environments, so regularly cleansing one’s hands and making an effort to live in a clean, sanitary environmentare helpful in preventing infection. In addition, it is important to eat food that is well prepared, healthy, and clean since unhealthy, dirty food is often a major contributor to the transmission of infection.
- In the human body, some infections are easy to detect because they are accompanied by immediate symptoms, whereas others produce no symptoms until the infection has already spread inside its host. Bodily aches, tenderness to the touch, chills, fatigue, inflammation and fever, loss of appetite, nausea, pain, weight loss, and vomiting are all common, easily detectable signs of infection. These symptoms alert a person that a foreign entity has penetrated his body and is now multiplying inside.
So how does all this apply to a case of spiritual infection in a local church?
When spiritual infection finds its way into a local church, it quickly begins to multiply inside that congregation unless it is quickly addressed and stopped. God has designed the Body of Christ to supernaturally withstand most attacks by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. However, if a particular congregation has undergone a difficult period and become fatigued, spiritually malnourished, and weak, that congregation’s God-given “immune system” may become more susceptible to infection from deceptive doctrines. Ultimately, if these destructive forces are allowed to propagate within a church, they will gain strength and spread to the entire congregation, even though they may have initially been embraced by only a few.
Persistent spiritual infections occur when a church is unable to clear itself of an initial outbreak. This chronic condition may seem to go into remission — but if true repentance hasn’t occurred, it will only be a matter of time before difficult conditions cause that toxic poison to be reactivated in the congregation. If this situation isn’t dealt with properly — if the infection isn’t eliminated as soon as it first becomes evident within the congregation— the infection will simply go into “sleep mode” — and will be certain to reawaken at a later time. This is why it must be dealt with immediately and directly if it is to be permanently eliminated from the church body.
In order to stop spiritual infection from metastasizing inside a congregation, the person spreading the disease must be willing to “undergo treatment” by submitting to authority and correction. If the church itself has become diseased due to a long-term toxic condition, the spiritually infected person may also be required to submit to a stricter discipline. In extreme cases, the only way to bring correction to a church may be to remove from the church the person at the source of infection. Although unwanted and painful, this corrective action may prolong the life of the church.
The prevention of spiritual infection is relatively simple in most cases. Making minor adjustments to one’s lifestyle, avoiding temptations to compromise, refusing to bend on one’s moral positions, spending time daily in prayer and the Word, and keeping one’s heart right toward the local church are all critical elements in preventing outbreaks of spiritual infection. Furthermore, it is very important to be fed a balanced, well-prepared, untainted diet of God’s Word.
Churches experience distinct symptoms when they have been invaded by a spiritual infection. For instance, just as a physical body might experience a lack of energy or weight loss when it has an infection, a church body can experience a lack of power or a drop in attendance when a spiritual disease has infiltrated the congregation. Or in the same way that a person dealing with infection might experience a loss of appetite, a church usually experiences a diminishing of spiritual hunger when it is infected.
There are other striking similarities between the symptoms of physical and spiritual infection. Inflamed, infected tissue often produces swelling and becomes hot and painful. The spiritual counterpart to this physical phenomenon would be the tendency for infected churches to experience swelling crowds of uncommitted believers with itching ears because a spiritually contaminated congregation often appeals to others with perhaps different but equally diseased “ideas.” Church attendance may increase in size yet be completely devoid of healthy growth. But in an infected church, “quantity” fails to reflect “quality” as people flock only to what feeds their selfish interests. Eventually the blend of these inflamed, swelling ranks becomes a toxic soup that spills out to infect ever-increasing numbers of people.
In addition, the tenderness or pain displayed in an infected physical body may manifest as a spiritual infection in a local body of believers as a combination of touchiness, agitation, and anger. This “soreness” is often reflected in the attitude of spiritually infected individuals who become belligerent with anyone who questions their erroneous beliefs. Their touchiness is always on display because they view every conversation as a potential challenge to their perspective. They become insufferable and cantankerous, feeling the need to take on the world to prove their point and producing “dis-ease” and discomfort among all who even slightly bump into them. Their irrational words, attitudes, and actions resemble the disorientation of a fevered person who can make outlandish statements and reflect bizarre behavior because of the way the inflammation has affected his or her brain.
A local church often views the symptoms described above as demonic attacks. Although this is definitely true in part, the church leadership must still determine how the devil found access into the congregation in the first place. Seeking God in earnest prayer is essential to obtaining an answer to this question. Once the answer is known, repentance is required to rid the local body of whatever is allowing the enemy to poison and destroy from within.
The most difficult type of spiritual infection to detect and treat is when one or more church leaders within a congregation become infected. False doctrine that finds its way into the heart of one leader, if it is not corrected, will begin to pass to others, just as an infection is passed from one host to the next. If this transmission isn’t stopped, it has the potential to eventually infect an entire congregation.
A spiritual leader who is infected with false doctrine is only one person — but he is an influential person that touches many lives. If the infection in his soul isn’t eliminated, it is likely that others will be contaminated through his touch. His diseased influence will spread like germs until it infects people who gather to worship. If correction doesn’t come to his life, his words and teachings have the potential to become food that makes others sick. Because his influence is strong, it is likely that those who are close to him will pick up whatever has contaminated him and become infected with the same spiritual problems.
The point is that it doesn’t take too many erring individuals to transmit sickness to a church body when they hold positions of influence.
In cases where spiritual infection is extremely contagious and dangerous, quarantine may even be required to prevent the infection from spreading throughout the rest of the congregation. The person who is the source of infection may not understand the severity of his condition, or he may refuse to put sufficient space between himself and others to prevent the spread of contagion. To avoid putting the entire congregation at risk, the infected individual may have to be removed from the midst of the congregation to stop the destructive poison from spreading further.
As for the church of Pergamum, we don’t know the specific names of the leaders who were the source of false doctrine in that congregation. However, we do know that although their number was few, Christ took this threat very seriously. At this point, only a small number in the congregation had been affected. But if this threat wasn’t corrected, Jesus knew it would begin to spread like an infectious disease until the entire church was adversely impacted.
It might be difficult to imagine that a congregation who had paid such a monumental price for their loyalty to Christ would simultaneously be infected with an internal spiritual disease. However, Satan had learned that if he couldn’t destroy a church with external pressure, he would attack it from within. The believers in Pergamum had been so focused on combating the enemy from without that they had overlooked the greater enemy that had risen up in their midst. Thus, Jesus didn’t soften the impact of His words when He addressed this issue. His words were intentionally strong so those who were guilty of these damaging influences would understand the severe repercussions that awaited them if they didn’t repent.
In Revelation 2:14, Jesus continued as He warned the church of Pergamum, “But I have a few things against thee….”
The word “against” is the Greek word kata, which affirms how personally Jesus felt about the leaders in Pergamum who were spreading infection in that local congregation. Christ was so deeply disturbed by this erring contingent of the church that He had positioned Himself against (kata) them. The word kata is a forceful word that implies He would resist them until they repented of their deeds. Furthermore, kata carries a strong sense of domination and subjugation, meaning that if repentance wasn’t forthcoming, Jesus would conquer this situation threatening His church — even if it meant He must extract the infected leaders from their influential positions within the congregation.
Jesus’ point was absolutely clear — He will not tolerate those who propagate doctrinal error or teaching that leads to compromise. Jesus died for the Church, and as the Great Shepherd of the sheep, He will guard it and stand against those who jeopardize its holiness, power, and accurate representation of Him to this world.
This again explains one reason why Jesus appeared to this church having “the sharp sword with two edges” (v. 12). He was poised and ready to surgically extract those who didn’t submit to His authority and choose to walk away from the teaching of compromise that was beginning to weaken the Pergamene church. The purpose of this sword was not to wound, but to cleanse and heal the church, restoring individuals who would otherwise be destroyed because of the spiritual disease that was ravaging them from within. Christ was warning those who were promoting compromise within the congregation: If they didn’t repent, He would personally lift His blade to extract this poisonous infection before the entire church became sick with it.
Those who refused to hear what the Holy Spirit was saying would soon learn that Jesus will act in mercy and compassion to attack spiritual disease and cleanse it from His Church. Christ loves the Church so much that, if necessary, He will remove those who resist Him and eradicate the false doctrine and worldly compromise that has spread like a disease so His churches can once again be healthy.