One of the most commonly misconstrued passages of scripture is Revelation 3:15-16 (NSRV):
15 “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
Our manuals and the messages we hear from the pulpit invariably construe “lukewarm” to mean a halfhearted commitment to the gospel. Indeed, a speaker during the April 2017 General Conference cited these verses for this very proposition. While an apathetic or perfunctory attitude towards any righteous endeavor will always fall short of what is expected, a close reading of this text, and a careful examination of its historical—and geographical—context, reveals a message with multiple layers of meaning.
The traditional reading of these verses places “lukewarm” in the middle of a spectrum of spirituality where “cold” represents those who are completely lost and “hot” is emblematic of those who possess the requisite zeal and commitment. But the Lord, we are told, heaps the greatest scorn upon those in the middle. This makes no sense.
Why would God prefer that we be cold as opposed to lukewarm? Heck, if we’re putting forth some effort, why give up on us? Isn’t there a chance we’ll do better? Also, aren’t all of us, to varying degrees, lukewarm in our commitment to the gospel? How high must our thermometers rise before our efforts are deemed acceptable? And as to those folks freezing in the Polar Regions, has God ever written anyone off?
While the illogic of this reading of Revelation 3:15-16 is apparent, ascertaining its actual meaning requires an understanding of who the Lord is speaking to, where they lived, and their economic and spiritual condition.
The second and third chapters of the Book of Revelation contain short letters to seven churches located in Anatolia (aka Asia Minor): Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and last (and perhaps least) Laodicea—the one disparaged for being “lukewarm.”
Laodicea was situated near multiple important trade routes and was also the financial center of the entire region. Further, the town was home to a highly regarded medical school—one that specialized in ophthalmology—and its agricultural economy was thriving because the local farmers had developed a breed of black sheep whose wool was of exceptional quality. In a word, the residents of Laodicea were prosperous. But there was one thing the city lacked: good water.
The flow of the nearest river was not strong and often dried up in the summer. But according to biblical Scholar N.T. Wright, there were two nearby sources of available water: one in Hierapolis, the other in Colosse.
Hierapolis was blessed with hot springs to which people still flock today from all over the world. In the first century, aqueducts were built by the Romans to bring this water to Laodicea, but by the time it arrived, it was no longer hot. What was worse, the concentrated minerals it contained made it unsuitable for drinking.
Colosse, too, had a splendid supply of water, flowing down from melting snows on Mt. Cadmus: chilly, crystal clear streams of refreshing liquid. But again, by the time this water reached Laodicea it, too, had become lukewarm and acquired chemicals and sediment en route to the city, as revealed by the calcified pipes near the city’s water tower discovered by archeologists.
Thus, “lukewarm” as used in this passage does not refer to believers who lack zeal or are halfhearted, but to those who have no commitment to the gospel whatsoever and who have chosen to serve another master. And the rest of the letter makes it clear who this other master is: wealth.
17 For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. 18 Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.
With an accurate understanding of the water metaphor employed by the author of this letter, we see that the literalistic interpretation we have been taught from our youth—hot is good, cold is bad, and lukewarm is worst of all—is wrong. Reading the story in its historical context we learn that the tepid, polluted water of Laodicea is symbolic of the city’s corruption. By contrast, the hot springs of Hierapolis and the cold mountain streams of Colosse both serve a worthy purpose; though they are different, each is acceptable in the eyes of the Lord.
Our fundamentalist approach to this story is emblematic of our tendency sometimes to “juvenilize” our theology. We frequently treat the scriptures as a collection of aphorisms to be used to encourage certain behaviors or validate a particular belief, completely disregarding their original context and the author’s intended meaning.
Scriptural fundamentalism, in turn, can breed intolerance for those who interpret a holy text differently. For example, in the early 1980s, theological fundamentalists gradually began to take over the churches and seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention. Eventually they seized control of the governing bodies of the denomination. Liberals and moderates who eschewed literalism and engaged in a more nuanced reading of scripture were either pushed out or silenced and made to feel unwelcome.
Sadly, there are instances in our church where those who read the scriptures or interpret our history contrary to what is found in a manual or preached from the pulpit are disparaged or told to keep their mouths shut. For example, while most people are aware of the “dark skin” blunder in this year’s Book of Mormon manual, few know that before this debacle became public, a well-regarded, Mormon scholar communicated his concerns about this passage to employees of the Seminaries and Institute/Church Office Building.
He explained to them, in a professional and scholarly manner, why the Book of Mormon scriptures in question were being improperly construed by the Correlation Department. In response, church employees, on Facebook, bore their testimonies of the correlation process and berated anyone who dared hold any other opinion. When this scholar accused them of avoiding the central question he had raised about the “dark skin” quote in the new manual, one of them said that it’s “not just Correlation that reviews and approves curriculum, but the very Apostles and prophets you are using to attempt to straighten [us] out. Does it really not occur to you that the Quorum of the Twelve understands and approves these materials? The ‘ark’ does not need steading.” Strangely, these church employees seemed unaware that church manuals routinely invite feedback and constructive criticism.
While the error in the manual was ultimately acknowledged and corrected, the instinctive embrace of inerrancy by these church employees when correlated materials were questioned is not uncommon in our church or others. Indeed, it is one of the biggest reasons why young people are abandoning organized religion: when they have serious doubts regarding certain religious teachings, they are told those dogmas are carved in stone and cannot be questioned, and that doing so will not be tolerated.
For our part, while we sometimes give the appearance of welcoming those with questions and misgivings, we frequently counsel those whom we presume are of “weak faith” that all doubts are of Satan and they should simply erase them from their minds. But when we respond in this fashion, we act as if religious identity is little more than a matter of passive adherence.
In reality, questioning religious teachings has always been and always will be part of every successful and vibrant faith, according to Timothy Beal, a highly respected professor of religion. And one of the chief methods by which institutional reinvigoration and growth can be accomplished is through the reinterpretation of a faith’s scripture, traditions, and history in light of new learning and understanding. Those churches that believe otherwise frequently struggle to survive. Witness the stunning loss of more than one million members by the Southern Baptist convention after the fundamentalist wing gained control of the faith.
President Hugh Brown once said: “I admire men and women who have developed the questing spirit, who are unafraid of new ideas as stepping stones to progress. We should, of course, respect the opinions of others, but we should also be unafraid to dissent—if we are informed. Thoughts and expressions compete in the marketplace of thought, and in that competition truth emerges triumphant. Only error fears freedom of expression….”
President Brown understood the value of welcoming multiple perspectives in our collective pursuit of wisdom and knowledge. But reaping the benefits of both the crystal clear streams emanating from the snow-covered heights of Colosse and the comforting hot springs of Hierapolis is only possible if we exhibit tolerance for those who think differently.
 Sabin, Elder Gary B., “Stand Up Inside and Be All In,” LDS General Conference, April 2017.
 Wright, N.T. Revelation for Everyone. West Minster John Knox Press, 2011, p. 38.
 Revelation 3:17-18 (NSRV). There is some not-so-subtle sarcasm in the Lord’s searing indictment of the Laodiceans. Admonishing them to conceal their nakedness with white robes of righteousness and to anoint their eyes with the balm of his gospel are clear references to their vaunted school of ophthalmology. “Your understanding of how the human eye functions may be without peer, but you are spiritually blind.” Revelation for Everyone, p. 39.
 Merritt, Jonathan. “Southern Baptists’ Midlife Crisis.” The Atlantic, June 2019. Print.
 Stack, Peggy F. “Error in Printed LDS Church Manual could revive racial criticisms.” Salt Lake Tribune, January 18, 2020. https://www.newsbreak.com/news/0NslkTaq/error-in-printed-lds-church-manuals-could-revive-racial-criticisms
 Spackman, Ben. “Inerrancy among Church Employees about Church Materials.” January 22, 2020. https://benspackman.com/2020/01/22/inerrancy-among-si-about-church-materials/
 Book of Mormon: Come Follow Me—For Sunday School. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, 2019, copyright page (“Comments and corrections are appreciated. Please send them, including errors, to comefollowme@ChurchofJesusChrist.org.”).
 See, e.g., Spackman, Ben. “Inerrancy: a Follow Up.” January 31, 2020. https://benspackman.com/2020/01/31/inerrancy-a-followup/ See also, Mason, Patrick, “The Courage of Our Convictions: Embracing Mormonism in a Secular Age,” FairMormon Conference, 2016 (“We have treated our prophets too often as demigods. We do not believe in prophetic infallibility. This cannot be said enough, and it cannot be taken seriously enough. We give it lip service but too often do not believe it, nor consider its implications, other than the intellectually lazy conclusion that the whole thing must either be all true or a complete fraud…”).
 Beal, Timothy. “Can Religion Still Speak to Younger Americans?” Wall Street Journal, November 16, 2019, p. C-2. Print.
 Montoya, Elder Hugo. “Overcoming the Danger of Doubt,” Ensign, Vol. 47, No. 6 (June 2017). See also, Riess, Jana. “Mormon leader says doubt is dangerous, of Satan.” June 8, 2017 https://religionnews.com/2017/06/08/mormon-leader-says-doubt-is-dangerous-of-satan/
 Beal, Timothy. “Can Religion Still Speak to Younger Americans?”
 Merritt, Jonathan. “Southern Baptists’ Midlife Crisis.”
 Hugh B. Brown, The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown, ed. Edwin B. Firmage (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1988), 137-139.