Are We Living in the Laodicean Age?
Whenever concern is raised about the lack of growth and progress in our fundamentalist churches, it is common to explain it by saying, "It's the Laodicean Age; we are living in Laodicea, so we cannot expect revival, only spiritual decline as we get close to the Rapture."
The concept of the Laodicean Age, the "final state of apostasy" and the last of the Seven Church Ages, has been popularized by the study notes in the Scofield Reference Bible. It makes a convenient excuse for our lack of fruitfulness in the ministry - no need to ask ourselves what we may be doing wrong, just blame it on the Laodicean Age.
Is there any scriptural validity to the theory of the Laodicean Age? Should we accept that as an excuse for failure in our movement and in individual congregations, thus leaving ourselves off the hook for other causes of failure and decline which we might be able to deal with, if we had the will to do so?
There are some who will automatically reject any question or challenge to any teachings in the Scofield notes. But before we do anything rash, let us take a closer look at just what Scofield did teach about the Seven Church Ages.
First of all, Scofield did not really teach that the letters to the Seven Churches in Revelation 2 and 3 represent 7 distinct, separate church ages. There is some overlap between the various ages.
For instance, the Age of Pergamos begins in 316 AD, and continues to "the end," presumably until the Rapture. So we are now living in Pergamos, according to Scofield. But when is the last time you heard a preacher use "We are living in the Pergamosian Age" as an excuse for the shrunken condition of his sadsack congregation?
Scofield teaches that "Thyatira is the Papacy." The Roman Catholic Church and the Papacy are still very much with us, which implies that we are still in the Thyatirian Age, even though Scofield arbitrarily cuts that age short in the year 1500.
Philadelphia, the age of revival, is, according to Scofield, "the true church in the professing church." In other words, the Philadelphian Age runs concurrently with that of the apostate professing church represented by Laodicea. Scofield also says that "Philadelphia is whatever bears clear testimony to the Word and the Name in the time of self-satisfied profession represented by Laodicea." (Notice the present tense - IS, not WAS. According to Scofield, the Philadelphian age of revival has not yet ended).
Moreover, Norman Douty has noted that Scofield, "in his booklet on Pre-tribulationism, says that Philadelphia represents the saved in the Sardis (Protestant) period (which is contemporaneous with Laodicea in its apostacy) - thus making the last 3 of the 7 [church ages] coexistent instead of successive."
In other words, according to the Scofield system, we are now living not only in Pergamos, but also in Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea, all at the same time.
The main point that we must grasp here is that we are still living in the Philadelphian Age, even according to Scofield's teaching. The Philadelphian Age is the age of revival. That means that those who teach that "Revival is not for today" and "Revival is not part of God's plan for this dispensation" have no basis for saying this from the Bible, or even from Scofield.
That means that we can no longer use the Laodicean Age as an excuse for our failure to see revival and church growth in this age. We are going to have to find ourselves some better excuses, or better yet, get to workfor revival and the expansion of Christianity.
Even if we accept the concept of the Laodicean Age with its deepening apostasy, there is no logical or scriptural reason why fundamentalist churches cannot experience revival and explosive growth, at the same time that the Catholic and liberal Protestant churches are slipping deeper into apostasy.
Scofield himself apparently did not believe that there was nothing more to be accomplished for the Lord before the Rapture, as evidenced by his role in the founding of the Central American Mission in 1890. Why bother to start such an extensive new ministry, if everything is fated to go to Hades in a handbasket anyway?
It is quite possible that those who think that life in Laodicea means that we should just sit in the mud and avoid trying to achieve anything great for the Lord, have misunderstood the teaching of their supreme master Scofield.
Having seen that Scofield does not really teach what some of us thought he was teaching, we should now go further, and examine whether or not the very concept of Seven Church Ages has any validity at all.
First of all, it must be pointed out that the interpretation of Christ's letters to the Seven Churches of Asia as actually descriptive of 7 church ages, is a totally non-literal and allegorical interpretation. There is nothing in the text of Revelation to justify such a fanciful rendering of what are obviously messages to known, literal church congregations in western Asia Minor.
This style of allegorizing is reminiscent of the wild, fantasizing interpretations of scripture that were standard among Roman Catholic theologians of the Middle Ages. They did not so much deny the plain, literal sense of scripture, but they ignored the literal sense in favor of allegorical speculations that could make any text of the Bible say almost anything the interpreter wanted it to say.
Thus it comes as no surprise to learn that the Seven Church Ages theory was originated (according to Trench's commentary on Revelation) with the Spiritual Franciscan monks of the 13th Century. They were disciples of Joachim of Fiore, whose specialty was dividing history into ages. Joachim divided the history of the world into 3 ages (that of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit). Joachim and his followers created a big sensation when they said that the age of the Holy Spirit would begin in 1260. (As it turned out, nothing happened in 1260).
In a sense, the theory of Seven Church Ages is nothing more than Roman Catholic allegorical folklore. The first known Protestant to pick up on the Seven Church Ages was Thomas Brightman in the 16th Century, and afterward it was propagated by Joseph Mede, and eventually by Scofield, Pentecost, etc. Edward Irving in the 1830's used the Laodicean Age concept to explain the backslidden condition of the churches of Scotland.
Do the Seven Church Ages of Scofield correspond with the popular teaching (based on a misunderstanding of 2 Timothy 3:13 about evil men and seducers waxing worse and worse) that the Christian churches are fated to decline as we near the end of the age? How come the Philadelphian Age of revival comes near the end of church history? Shouldn't the 2 good church ages (Smyrna and Philadelphia) come at the beginning, followed by nothing but decline in the last 5 church ages?
Do the events in Scofield's Seven Church Ages correspond to any known historical events in church history? Can anyone point to any time in the Age of Pergamos, starting in 316 AD, when the churches were officially teaching believers to eat things sacrificed to idols and commit fornication? (Revelation 2:14).
How about the Jezebel incident of Revelation 2:20 - can anybody point to such an event happening between the years 500 and 1500?
How about the reference to the synagogue of Satan in Revelation 3:9, which evidently refers to Jewish persecution of Christians in the Philadelphian Age? During the First Century, when Christ wrote this letter to the literal church of Philadelphia, such episodes of Jews persecuting Christians were very common (see Acts 13:50, 17:13, 18:12, 20:27, 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, etc). But when has there been a major episode of Jews persecuting Christians during the alleged Philadelphian Age, and are such events an identifying characteristic of that age?
There is nothing in any of the letters to the Seven Churches that can be pinpointed to any specific age of church history. There are references to faithfulness, hard work, persecution, immorality, lukewarmness, etc. Are not these characteristics to be found in every age of church history?
Meanwhile, the teaching of Seven Church Ages contradicts the teaching of the imminent return of Christ. It would mean that Christian believers over the ages who believed that Christ could return at any time, were under a delusion, if in reality Christ could not come back until 2000 years of church history were completed.
Finally, it should be noted that the explosive geographical and numerical growth of evangelical Christianity in the last 2 centuries is entirely contrary to the Laodicean scenario of inevitable decline and failure of the churches in the last days. We are living in a time of a tremendous harvest of souls, as the percentage of Bible-believing Christians (not including Catholics or liberals) continues to grow in most nations of the world.
Rick Wood, in an article entitled "Christianity: Waning or Growing?" published in 1992, stated that "Between 1950 and 1992, Bible believing Christians went from just 3% of the world population to 10% of the population. This is a jump from 80 million to 540 million. . .
"The number of African Christians has grown from just 3% of all Africans in 1900 to 46% today. Asian Christianity has grown from 16 million to 75 million in just the last 9 years. The evangelical movement in Latin America is currently growing at 3 times the general rate of population. When the Communists took over in 1949 there were only around 1 million Christians in China. While under intense and severe persecution, the number of Christians in China has grown to over 60 million."
If the Philadelphia age is the age of revival, then we are definitely in Philadelphia today. It is time for us to get to work and take part in the harvest, instead of making silly, defeatist excuses about a Laodicean age.
We must stop listening to the false teachers who say that nothing can change or improve until Christ returns, because we are in the Laodicean Age. They would have us surrender the mission fields of the world to the Devil, based on preposterous junk theology which cannot be substantiated from the Bible or even from the Scofield notes.
What the Scholars Say About the So-Called "Seven Church Ages"
"I do not perceive any metaphorical or allegorical meaning in the epistles to these Churches. I consider the Churches as real; and that their spiritual state is here really and literally pointed out; and that they have no reference to the state of the Church of Christ in all ages of the world, as has been imagined; and that notion of what has been termed the Ephesian state, the Smyrnian state, the Pergamenian state, the Thyatirian state, etc., etc., is unfounded, absurd, and dangerous; and such expositions should not be entertained by any who wish to arrive at a sober and rational knowledge of the Holy Scriptures." - Adam Clarke
"Interpreting the letters to the Seven Churches as prophetic of the unfolding of the history of the church age flies directly in the face of that principle [literal-grammatical interpretation]. . . . My grounding in the literal-grammatical method revolts against such twisting and contorting of Scripture. And what is true of the letter to Philadelphia is true of all the seven letters - only a high-handed allegorical refashioning of the sense of the text is adequate to make the letters to the churches correspond in any real way with the flow of church history. I have long been a student of church history and have read scores of books and multiplied thousands of pages on most aspects of the subject, and frankly, I must say that no one approaching Revelation 2 and 3 from the perspective of church history would ever suspect that these chapters were in any way descriptive of the flow of events in Christian history. It is indeed a pre-conceived allegory imposed on the text by clever interpreters but which is in no way related to its real meaning and sense." - Doug Kutilek
"There is not even a hint that the Seven Churches symbolize the future of the history of the church, as some claim. To begin with, their order is strictly geographical and not determined by content. The error of the representative idea is manifest as soon as one recognizes the incontestable fact that they are distinguished from prophecy. . . ." - Jay Adams
"The notion that we have in these seven epistles a prophetic outline of 7 chronological periods of Church history traceable through the Christian centuries may be safely discarded as the fiction of extremists, whose great error consists in spending more effort to discover what may possibly be made out of a sacred writer's words than to make sure of that which the scope and language most naturally require." - Milton Terry
"The Seven Churches are the churches of the actual 7 towns. Most of the fantastic schemes which twist the Revelation into a forecast of modern history begin by making each of the churches an age in the history of the church universal; for without this indefensible proceeding it would be difficult to get down to modern times at all." - Philip Carrington
"All these churches see their counterpart in churches of every age in the Church. But, there are not periods of Church history that are identified exclusively with one church." - Ralph Bass, in "Back to the Future - A Study in the Book of Revelation."
"St. John addresses his prophecy to the seven churches in Asia. It is obvious from the descriptions that follow (chapters 2-3) that he definitely has these actual churches in mind. The notion propagated by C.I. Scofield and others that these represent 'seven phases of the spiritual history of the church' is a mere fiction, with no objective evidence; and it is quite arbitrarily and selectively applied." - David Chilton
"Much more might be urged on the arbitrary artificial character of all the attempted adaptations of Church history to these Epistles. . . . The multitude of dissertations, essays, books, which have been, and are still being written, in support of this scheme of interpretation, must remain a singular monument of wasted ingenuity and misapplied toil; and, in their entire failure to prove their point, of the disappointment which must result from a futile looking into Scripture for that which is not to be found there." -Archbishop Trench
"As to Pergamos typifying the union of Church and state under Constantine, that which is supposed to symbolize it (the doctrine of Balaam) did not do so; for Balaam's advice had to do, not with the combining of the religious and the civil but of the true and the false in the sphere of religion." - Norman Douty, in "The Great Tribulation Debate."
"The Seven Churches are representative of all churches everywhere in all time. There is no sound reason to make these to represent 7 progressive historical periods of the church age. All attempts to do this are transparently artificial. There are churches having these kinds of problems in every generation." - Willard Ramsey, in "Zion's Glad Morning."
"The notion that these Seven Churches describe 7 successive periods of Church history hardly needs refutation. To say nothing about the almost humorous - if it were not so deplorable - exegesis which, for example, makes the church at Sardis, which was dead, refer to the glorious age of the Reformation; it should be clear to every student of the Bible that there is not one atom of evidence in all the sacred writings which in any way corroborates this thoroughly arbitrary method of cutting up the history of the Church and assigning the resulting pieces to the respective epistles of Revelation 2 and 3." - William Hendriksen, in "More Than Conquerors."
"For those who hold to a literal interpretation of Scripture, seven churches would seem to mean seven churches and not seven ages. . . . How do we know when the period of the Laodicean church begins? . . . If it's made to apply to a long period of time, then the church could be immobilized for centuries because of prophetic miscalculation." - Gary DeMar and Peter Leithart, in "The Reduction of Christianity."
John R. Rice Warns Against the Danger of End-Times Pessimism
"Thousands of tracts, magazine articles, sermons and radio messages tell the people, 'Jesus is coming soon!' 'These last days of this dispensation' and similar phrases are very common in the Christian magazines. . . . All these people, usually faithful Bible believers, earnest Christians, have been influenced and misled by a heresy that has become widespread in recent years. This mistaken teaching holds that we are now, according to what are regarded as definite signs, in the very last few weeks or months or years before Jesus must come; that this period which they call 'the last days' is more difficult than ever. . . .
"The defeatism of Christians, who are not bold in preaching nor bold in prayer because they believe that Christian work is less effective than ever before, that the gospel does not bring the results that it did before, and that great revivals are less likely than ever before, is tragic indeed. . . . This ultradispensational teaching that Jesus is certain to come soon, that certain signs prove the age is rushing to an early end, that the apostasy, world conditions and increased activity of Satan make gospel efforts less fruitful and revivals more difficult and unlikely, is a distressing perversion. . . "The custom has grown up among a lot of premillennial Christians of looking for Christ's return because we have had the First or the Second World War, or of looking for Christ's return because Zionists and infidel Jews have established the modern nation Israel. Some are moved more by newspaper accounts than by the plain command of the Lord Jesus.
"Indeed, some Christians rationalize the situation and subconsciously evade the facts of their powerlessness and unbelief with the doctrine that we are in the last days, and it is impossible to win souls in any great numbers. . . . So all the searching of the Bible and the searching of the daily newspaper to find some 'signs' that prove Christ will come within a certain specified time is contrary to the spirit of the Scriptures and does dishonor to the Lord Jesus Christ who left us here simply to get the gospel to every creature." - John R. Rice, in "We Can Have Revival Now."