The Naked Church – Chapter 3 – The Emperors New Clothes
You say, “I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.” But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. —revelation 3:17
What an amazing paradox—while we were stripped of the vitality of our relationship with God, we were handed enough statistics and programs to think ourselves successful! Not only were we caught in a trap, but one so carefully constructed that we never recognized it as such even after it was sprung. Such a trick would be as difficult as convincing a naked man to walk down the street believing himself fully clothed.
Exactly! And no one has illustrated this phenomenon better than Hans Christian Andersen in his tale The Emperor’s New Clothes. The church today is more like this fictitious emperor than anyone would care to admit, and so are many of the people who fill its pews. How it happened to him could not illustrate any better how it also happened to us. The story is about an emperor who was more concerned about his appearance than about governing his people. seizing that opportunity, two swindlers convinced him they could weave the most beautiful clothes ever made and also fashion them in such a way that they would be invisible to anyone who wasn’t fit for his post or who was hopelessly stupid.
What could be better for the emperor? He could satiate his vanity and be a good ruler at the same time. He gave the self-proclaimed tailors money and the finest silk and gold thread. But the swindlers only pretended to make the clothes, pocketing the money and the material.
Fearing his own incompetence, the emperor sent his most honest aides to check on the progress of his clothing. The swindlers pretended to weave and sew, but the aides could see no clothes, for there weren’t any. Thinking they would be thought unfit or stupid, they lavished praise on the nonexistent garments. Eventually the emperor came to see the clothes. His aides were so enthused about them that he was sure of his own incompetence when he couldn’t see them. So he joined the pretense, as did everyone who thought they alone weren’t seeing the clothes. His aides suggested a parade to show the people his new clothes. Even though the emperor couldn’t see them or even feel them, he pretended to put them on and went off to parade naked before the crowd. Never had the emperor’s clothes been such a success. Everyone praised their beauty—until a little child said, “But he hasn’t got anything on!” the word quickly spread through the crowd as people realized they weren’t the only ones not seeing the clothes. When the emperor overheard their shouts he realized his own nakedness, but he could only say, “I must go through with it now, procession and all.”
The Power of self interest:
The point of this story is not vanity; it is self-interest. Though the ruse began with the emperor’s pride, this alone could never have convinced him to walk down the street naked. The swindlers sprang the trap by giving everyone a good reason to believe what was not true. But this is a fairy tale, you say; it doesn’t happen in real life. Anyone who has ever sat in a business meeting where personal interest rules the course will not only think it can happen but knows it does happen every day. Some of the strangest reasons can be used to defend the silliest project or idea as long as someone will benefit from it. How fast a project goes through depends on how many people get the benefits. The swindlers made sure that everyone in town would be hurt if they didn’t believe the lie. And we all know how easy it is to go with the crowd.
Well, maybe in business, but surely this can’t happen in the church! Not only can it, but it already has. This was exactly the problem Jesus addressed at the church in the Asian city of Laodicea: “you say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ but you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”
Church history is pocked with periods where the church was naked and didn’t know it. it’s easy for us now to look back at those generations, not sharing their vested interests, and see how believers sold out to political and personal corruption during the Middle Ages; to high finance prior to the Reformat ion; to terror and murder during the inquisition; to naturalistic reason during the enlightenment; and to liberalism early in this century. Those problems are so obvious to us now that we forget how articulately the church of those times was defended by well-intentioned people. But this book is not concerned with past moments of nakedness—only with our own. though our trade is different from the emperor’s—he exchanged gold for air, and we exchange intimacy with God for gold itself and popularity with the world—the trap is still the same: We stay captive to deception by the same appeal to personal interest.
In the tale, the first two officials to fall for the swindlers’ deception were described as honest and capable. Yet for fear of losing status and position they pretended to see what their eyes told them was not there. Once the most honest fell for it, the others went along. The reality of the clothes became a secondary concern to protecting their image. Anyone who does not gush with admiration for church institutions and activities today is accused of being arrogant, rebellious, or judgmental. That’s our modern equivalent of being stupid or unfit. So, even though our Christian experience feels empty, we think we’re the only ones to feel that way. To admit this is unthinkable, so we rationalize those nagging thoughts that tell us this can’t really be what God had in mind. After all, there is always more to be gained by exploiting a system than there is by exposing it.
Today we are so impressed by our own efforts that through endless hours of talk shows and endless pages of fundraising letters we congratulate ourselves: “look how much we’re doing for Jesus!” When we believe this thought, the trap is fully sprung. Our visions of a powerful and relevant church, with love enough for all and selfless sacrifice for God’s kingdom, are filed away under the heading “too idealistic.” We settle for the status quo as if it were all God intended—like a baby crocodile born in the zoo pond. The emperor’s nonexistent clothes were more successful than anything the emperor had ever worn. No real clothes would have gained such universal acceptance, because people’s tastes differ too widely. Since nothing was there, each person made the pretense of seeing the loveliest garment he could imagine. So it is with the church today; many people are making Christianity just what they want it to be, whatever best fits their interest. Widespread satisfaction with the church may only testify to its lack of substance.
The first person to be honest about the emperor’s clothes was not all that courageous; he just didn’t have any personal stake in the deception. He was too young to understand the necessity of denying reality to save face. It doesn’t take great wisdom to unmask deceit—only a desire to look at things as they really are, not the way we want to see them. But even when the truth was out, the emperor couldn’t face it. He knew the little boy was right, but he had come too far now. He would really look like a fool if he had given half the realm’s money for no clothes at all. What to do? What every self-respecting (there’s a key!) leader would do: stay the course, hoping by outward confidence to convince others that the clothes were really there and that the common people were stupid for not seeing them.
The church is naked. Who hasn’t seen its deficiencies and wondered why we keep going on with it? But this is difficult to admit. If it is true, what do we do with our multimillion dollar mortgages and operating expenses, our singing celebrities and their adoring fans, our committees and their policy statements?
So we go on, ever more ardently defending what is working so poorly. We risk becoming like the Pharisees to whom Jesus said, “You have no room for my word” (John 8:37). Their systems were set in concrete, providing a foundation for their own personal prestige. They would allow nothing to change that, not even truth.
Like the emperor, we conclude that it just might be better to make the best of a bad situation than to admit the mess we’re in. but let us not be fooled: the world sees right through our empty confessions. Don’t worry about them laughing at us for admitting it; they will only continue to laugh if we don’t, and all the while blame God for what we are.
The church at Laodicea:
Since we too have fallen victim to the complacency of our imagined successes, it would be well for us to take a closer look at the church in Laodicea.
“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’“ Wealth marked this congregation, probably with finances as well as with the influence in the community—two things that neither Jesus nor any of his disciples ever enjoyed. “But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” their external wealth blinded them to the true status of their spiritual depth. What Jesus says to them in revelation 3:1422 applies to us no less.
I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth (vv. 15, 16).
This passage has made “lukewarm” the most feared accusation in Christendom even though we don’t understand why a cold person is better than a lukewarm one. At least he’s heating up, isn’t he?
No, and that misses the point entirely. A cold person is hard and rebellious. He makes no pretense of religion and offers it no lip service. Whether by indifference or outright hostility, a cold heart lives up to its confession: “there is no God, and even if there is, I’m going to do it my way.”
A hot person is a zealot—one who burns with conviction. Like the cold person, he has no room for pretense or lip service. He doesn’t merely talk about Jesus; go to church weekly, or watch Christian television. He seeks God whole heartedly and obeys him even at great personal cost. Jesus must be first, and everything which distracts from that objective must go. such people are uncomfortable to be around because their very lives expose our rationalizations for what they are—excuses to mix our Christianity with the attractions of the world. In contrast to both of these, the lukewarm person’s confession never matches his lifestyle. In fact his words are a substitute for his actions. He finds safety in pretense and lip service. The reason that Jesus would rather have us cold than lukewarm is because the lukewarm are no closer to him than the cold ones, but they don’t even know it.
The lukewarm are those who redefine religion to fit themselves. To such people God cannot draw near. That’s why Jesus chided the Pharisees for their pretense of religion almost in the same breath that he used to forgive the harlot. Being lukewarm allows people the dubious luxury of thinking they have the life of God yet still being free to pursue the objectives of this age. They can give God precedence with their mouth (saying the right thing is easy), their ceremonies (going to the right places is habit-forming), and their actions (doing many right things keeps the conscience at bay), but they still don’t have to surrender their will in everything. The effect of their lukewarmness was measured in the impotence of their spirituality. Jesus pointed to three key areas in which they were deficient, and in doing so he gives us additional insight into their nakedness.
Gold refined by fire. Fire-refined gold is a common biblical analogy for an active faith that can stand the test of difficult circumstances. It is a far cry from the pseudo faith touted today that attempts to compel God to give us whatever we desire. Faith is not a gimmick; it is an intimate trust and dependence on God that is not hinged to circumstances but is grounded deep in God’s nature.
Fire-refined faith takes us through the death of loved ones, unemployment, and persecution with a confidence that continues to trust God’s love even when we cannot reconcile it with our circumstances. Such faith will find rest in God’s presence and will give us wisdom to either help us bear the crises with God’s strength or else show us how he wants to change those circumstances by his miraculous intervention.
- White clothes to wear. The robes of righteousness are well known in scripture. Yet Christ said that they had none at Laodicea. Laodicea was not known for sin, but its righteousness was like that of the Pharisees—external, motivated only by the desire to increase spiritual status. Today the church can’t even claim to look righteous, for promiscuity, greed, bitterness, and gossip abound. The list goes on and we try to excuse it by a bumper sticker theology that says, “Be Patient, God isn’t finished
With me yet!” or “Christians aren’t Perfect, Just Forgiven.” shouldn’t we be tired of falling victim to the same sins year after year, without seeing any hope of change? God wants us to wear his robes of righteousness, which spring up effortlessly from within people who are caught up in loving him. That’s why true righteousness makes someone holy and not pious, humble and not prideful, compassionate and not disparaging. And though it is a lifelong process, every month we can see progress and find ourselves bearing God’s image to people around us.
- Salve for your eyes. Finally, the Laodicea’s lacked discernment. Not only couldn’t they see their own spiritual wretchedness, but they could see little else about God’s working in their world. Discernment is the first thing to be covered by the crust of lukewarmness. The still, small voice diminishes and we learn to get along without it, living by principles and rules of conduct rather than by the direction of the Holy Spirit.
A call to repentance:
Though Jesus’ letter to the Laodicea’s is scathing, it also holds great promise. He gave them the opportunity to bury their nakedness in repentance and to buy back the spirituality they had squandered.
Did he literally mean they could cash in their wealth for faith, righteousness, and discernment? Of course not; we know these can’t be bought with money. However, his choice of words was not arbitrary, for their pursuit of true wealth would cost them the false wealth they had gathered. If they were going to be honest they would have to risk their image to those who might be offended by a Christianity that offers challenge instead of mock comfort. The same need and the same call to repentance await us. Our trappings look just as successful as those of the Laodicea’s, and just as many lukewarm people fill our pews:
The church of Jesus Christ, now grown lukewarm and indifferent in pursuing its redemptive priestly ministry and corrective prophetic authority, largely has tolerated or participated in the dominant evils and errors of this sin-filled age.
This statement was part of the Manifesto for the Christian Church, signed on July 4, 1986. It was produced by the coalition on revival, an organization whose steering committee includes such people as e.v. hill, James Kennedy, Jay Kesler, Tim Lahaye, Harold Lindsell, and many others. The manifesto paints a bleak but accurate picture of the state of Western Christianity. Here are some other excerpts.
We have built our own egos rather than advancing the kingdom of Christ.
We have failed to confront falsehood and unrighteousness consistently in the church or in the world because of our fear of man and of losing prestige or security.
We have been content to reduce the value of the transcendent gospel to mere creedal form, devoid of spiritual content or present reality by our harlotry with idols of personal peace and affluence.
We have heaped to ourselves teachers and pastors to tickle our ears with pleasant falsehoods and entertaining fables rather than convicting us of our sin and demanding that we live righteous lives of obedience to the bible.
We have adopted the covetousness and materialism of our surrounding culture, seeking the approval of men and neglecting the fear of the lord.
We will take a more specific look at some of these areas in future chapters as we see how naked they make us and what other options Jesus offers. The manifesto calls on the church to repent and recapture a vibrant faith firmly grounded in God’s Word.
Ten years after its signing, the failures of organized religion in each of these areas have only grown worse. Though scores of books have been written in the meantime pointing out the emptiness of church life and calling believers to renewal, the church as a whole continues to parade naked in our culture. Even those who begin to see it, fear it’s too late to face up now, and, like the emperor, pull their pretend garments of power, prestige and success more closely around them and keep going down the doomed path.
Ultimately the call for repentance is a personal one. Structures will only change when enough individuals abandon the priorities they service and discover again the simple joy of knowing the living God. The same offer that Jesus made the Laodicea’s still stands for us. We can return to him and recover what we have lost. He’s not interested in condemning our nakedness, but rather in covering us with his glory.
Where does our life fall short? Do we want to live the way God has called us to? We can ask him to forgive us and restore to our life the faith, righteousness, and discernment he promised. Then we will rise again in this day to demonstrate the joy of devotion to Christ. We will wield his wisdom and power in our daily lives with such simplicity that others around us will know that the kingdom of God has come near them.
We will no longer be naked, but clothed in God’s splendor!
Recorded with permission from Wayne Jacobsen.