“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. (Revelation 3: 15-16)
A dear friend and colleague’s screen saver was, “Nice is the enemy of the good”. A tombstone with the motto, “He was nice” is not one for the ages. All people with a backbone were decidedly not nice at times, yet “nice” is the supreme compliment. “Nice” means pleasing, agreeable but in a sort of bland way: “’Have a nice day!’ ‘No thanks, I have better plans’” (Woody Allen). The Lord has a much better plan for us all.
I think “lukewarm” is synonymous with “niceness”, neither hot nor cold. Unlike Goldilocks’ “neither hot nor cold, just right”, this “just right” of niceness is not just quite right for the Church’s life and preaching. Matthew Henry, the 16th/17th Century non-conformist minister, in his enduring commentary, bluntly wrote, “They may call their luke warmness charity, meekness, moderation, and a largeness of soul; it is nauseous to Christ, and makes those so that allow themselves in it.” So, because you are nice, neither good nor bad, I will spit you out of my mouth. Lutheran pastor and scholar, Paul Kretzmann on the same text:
He (Jesus) is constrained to vomit them out of His mouth. That is the judgment of the Lord upon all such as are not seriously concerned about their Christianity, that still profess to be Christians, usually from some ulterior motive, and yet will not oppose the godless ways of the world. They want to mediate between Jehovah and Baal, between God and the world, between Christ and Belial, between light and darkness, between faith and unbelief, between righteousness and unrighteousness. Such people the Lord cannot bear, and unless they change their tactics very decidedly, His disgusted attitude will result in their punishment, in their being excluded from the blessings of the Kingdom.
The lukewarm and the nice will be excluded from the Kingdom?! Hey, that’s not nice!
We don’t want to, using ‘60s vernacular, “turn someone off” to the Church by our strident attitudes. After all, “It is nice to be nice to those who are nice” (“Colonel Frank Burns”, M*A*S*H). In that sitcom, Frank Burns’ statement was meant to be nauseating because it is.
The Lord, in the epistolary section of the Revelation, is speaking to congregations, not individual Christians. We have a churchly hangover from the ‘50s and ‘60s of “nice congregations”, “lukewarm”. My Father grew up in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod in southern Minnesota. When I was a child visiting Minnesota, he would argue with his in-laws (who were not Lutherans) about church. My aunts and uncles complaining about you “German Lutherans”, all that “sitting, standing and kneeling”, especially the kneeling and the worst: “We can’t even receive Communion!” I knew as a kid, hmmm, we’re different. We were not “nice”, but that was going to change. Downplay the doctrine and the practice to get new folks in. I would be catechized well and as a pastor I went along with the program. I confess: I was nice. Offer first the programs of the congregation, later the promises of Christ, and practice open communion. We waffled between “Christ and Belial, light and darkness, faith and unbelief, righteousness and unrighteousness” to “reach people”. If niceness has become a synonym for lukewarmness, then it is a sin, especially in light of the 1st Table of the Law.
Here is one congregational example of such waffling to get people in and not offend. My first call was as assistant pastor in a large LCMS/AELC congregation. The sanctuary was quite a charming colonial edifice which was desirous for weddings. Now, the senior pastor’s wedding policy was complicated in his “schedule of fees and donations” for member and “non-member weddings”. Most weddings were of the non-member category. The spring and summer seasons sometimes included several weddings each weekend. The justification was that these unchurched couples would, “at least hear the Gospel”. Pre-marital counseling sessions were required, (it was part of the program) and I began to realize that my sermon would have to be one helluva sermon for the couple, nervous, even nauseous, to “hear the Gospel”. I do not remembering ever seeing those many newlyweds come back to Church.
I began to be discomfited with this practice, but I was single at the time, and an extra $100 or so every weekend, or more, plus a gift from the couple, was kind of nice…oh-oh. Anyway, I never said anything to the senior pastor about my misgivings because those wedding services paid.
Now the next verse in the Revelation 3 text is not usually cited:
17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.”
Yes, pastors and congregations prospered and we were decidedly less poor by “reaching out” in this nice way under the guise of “evangelism”. I think that mega-churches are not new but are old, as they are actually retro mega-throwback ‘50s congregations, the ultra-nice church but using better marketing tactics to sell their niceness now on steroids: see Joel Osteen. Merging lyrics from the sitcom “Cheers” and Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” applies: “Come where everybody knows your name and to forget about life for awhile”. It is so nice. It pays but at a price for the soul of a church: “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked”. The church thus has acquired immune deficiency syndrome to the onslaught of virulent atheistic secularism under the guise of niceness. After all, “…even a frank enmity against the Christian religion is more promising in a person than the luke warmness and spiritual indifference which these people showed (Matthew Henry)”.
In writing this, I looked up similar articles and came across a good one: “Have a Nice Church” by Fr. Peter Toon. I will be citing his article. “Have a nice Church” is something our Lord never said. The Lord has a better Church than our nice one.
“We have sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind”. We went along with the prevailing winds to get along so the “cultured despisers of the faith” would accept us and we them. Many parents and pastors eschewed saying and meaning, “no”. In regards to marriage and weddings, we were nice a long time before Obergefell Day, June 26, anno Domini 2,015. The Pill was the answer to coitus non fecundus and so coitus non interruptus.[i] Divorce and remarriage in the 70s was accepted. “Living together” meant that a couple could really find out if they were meant for each other. We called it ala Henry: “charity, meekness, moderation, and a largeness of soul”, that is, we were nice. Fr. Peter Toon,
“Since much modern mainstream “orthodoxy” feels the need to be nice, this means that it only can be bold to make a stand and to speak out for the Lord when this action comes within (what most conservatives in the pews perceive as) the spectrum of being nice. So, for example, homosexual practice may be condemned but not the modern contraceptive culture in which both homosexual and much heterosexual sex thrive. Apparently, this is because many conservatives do not like the former and, in the main, exist within the latter.
Our largeness of soul accepted much that was small and dark and dirty, as if it were charity on our part.
The solution is not to be nice but nasty? No, for being purposely nasty and mean is not in keeping with the Decalogue. We are not to go out of our way to be nasty but we are baptized in the Way to preach, teach and live in the Word of God, spoken, written and Incarnate and it won’t be at times ‘nice’. The goal is goodness. Even “ET” got that much right, when he said, “Be good” to the children, it wasn’t “be nice”. It is about the “hard and narrow way” and in the Way, it is about daily repentance and contrition and His costly forgiveness, putting to death the sin of niceness.
I close with Fr. Peter Toon’s last paragraph of his article.
“Maybe all who claim to be conservative and orthodox ought to try not to use the word nice for a month and see whether or not this helps us to think and to act as faithful Christians in the modern troubled Church.”
[i] An aside regarding contraception: From Pope Paul IV’s 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, Of Human Life, (the one about The Pill), the section, Consequences of Contraception and in my opinion this is prophetic:
“Let them first consider how easily this course of action could open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards. Not much experience is needed to be fully aware of human weakness and to understand that human beings—and especially the young, who are so exposed to temptation—need incentives to keep the moral law, and it is an evil thing to make it easy for them to break that law. Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.
Finally, careful consideration should be given to the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law. Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty? Who will prevent public authorities from favoring those contraceptive methods which they consider more effective? Should they regard this as necessary, they may even impose their use on everyone. It could well happen, therefore, that when people, either individually or in family or social life, experience the inherent difficulties of the divine law and are determined to avoid them, they may give into the hands of public authorities the power to intervene in the most personal and intimate responsibility of husband and wife.”