Understanding What Apostasy Is – And Is Not

By Dr Paul M Elliott

Part three of a series. Read part two.

To properly confront it, you must understand what apostasy is, and is not, according to Scripture.

In our first article, I explained the reason for this series: Today, every Bible-believing Christian faces a disturbing reality. Survey after survey shows that there is a high statistical probability that you will, at some point, need to take a stand against apostasy within your own church.

We saw, in Colossians chapter two and 1 John chapter three, that the proper motivation for such an act of courage and faith is agape love. The Bible defines this as a self-sacrificial love that appreciates the preciousness of your fellow believers in the body of Christ, a love that demonstrates itself through active concern for their spiritual safety. Demonstrating such love may require you to make the self-sacrifice of putting your personal reputation on the line by sounding the alarm against apostasy.

The truly loving response to apostasy is not to ignore it, but to confront it. As Paul told the Ephesian believers, “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them” to the light of the truth as it is found only in Christ (Ephesians 5:12-14). In order to do that, you as a believer need to understand five things that will equip you to do what God says you must do. We briefly outlined these five keys to a Biblically loving response to apostasy in our last article. Today we shall begin discussing them in more detail.

Understanding What Apostasy Is – And Is Not

The first key to a Biblically loving response to apostasy is this: You must be able to define and identify apostasy. You need to understand the Biblical boundaries. You need to understand what constitutes apostasy, and what is not apostasy, according to Scripture.

2 Timothy 4:3-4 tells us that apostasy begins with the acceptance of teaching that is contrary to the Word of God:

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.

Sometimes this acceptance of untruth begins in subtle ways, but the evidence will accumulate. Apostasy becomes more apparent when it manifests itself in a departure from a focus on Christ’s twofold purpose for the church. Those purposes are to evangelize the lost through the preaching of the one true Gospel, and to edify the saints through the expositional preaching of the entire Word of God. Sometimes this departure from the two commands of the Great Commission is gradual, but often in our time the slow beginnings lead to a rapid downgrade.

The results of of the descent into apostasy fall into two main categories. Firstly, as a church abandons Christ’s command to preach the one true Gospel in its fullness, the numbers of unsaved people within the congregation will grow. Over time, the unsaved can become a strongly influential minority, or even the majority within the congregation. Many of these people may think they are saved, but because the genuine Gospel is watered down or no longer preached, they do not really understand the meaning of repentance from sin and saving faith in Jesus Christ. Secondly, as a church abandons Christ’s command to edify the saints through sound Biblical preaching, those who are saved within the congregation are placed on a spiritual starvation diet. Under such conditions, true believers often simply leave the church quietly without confronting the problem, and so the percentage of the unsaved in the congregation increases all the more rapidly.

From the Mountaintops to the Abyss

Apostasy is the ride down the slippery slope from the bright mountaintops of strong faith in Biblical truth into the dark abyss of equivocation and unbelief. Apostasy always begins with some kind of compromise on the Bible. Apostasy begins by saying, perhaps in very subtle ways, that the Bible is not what it says it is – the very Word of God, and not merely the word of man. The ride down this slippery slope can begin very slowly, and with very subtle and seemingly harmless compromises.

It often begins by saying that some clear command of the Bible, or some clear principle in the Bible, or some clear point of doctrine in the Bible, perhaps isn’t quite so clear-cut as we thought it was, or it isn’t mandatory for the people of God. Apostasy often begins by subtly de-emphasizing the fact that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. Apostasy often begins by slowly shifting the emphasis from viewing the Bible as the Word of God to viewing the Bible mainly as the words of men. In other words, apostasy often takes the focus off of Divine inspiration.

That is where the ride down the slippery slope usually begins. It may take a short time, or it may take years, but sooner or later people start saying that the Bible isn’t completely accurate when it speaks about things like matters of science or history or geography. People start saying that perhaps parts of the Old Testament are just later versions of ancient stories and myths.

People start saying that the Bible is inspired, but only in such a way that God accommodated Himself to the supposed ignorance of ancient people on things like the origin of the earth and man and the universe, on the Flood, on the Tower of Babel, and on the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire that the Bible says accompanied Israel in the wilderness for forty years. Perhaps, they say, these things are just ways of saying things that aren’t actual reality; they’re just words that God used to express thoughts in ways that ignorant, primitive people could understand.

Let me tell you that all such thinking is entirely wrong, for at least two reasons. First, God does not promulgate or perpetuate a worldview that is based on falsehood. And second, our ancient ancestors were a lot smarter and more learned than we usually think they were.

The ride down the slippery slope picks up speed as it manifests itself in other ways. People will begin to say, or to imply, that the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament aren’t necessarily the same God. So perhaps it is not important to believe in the Trinity. Perhaps Jesus Christ wasn’t really God Himself, born of a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps Jesus was just a very righteous man, an outstanding moral example, a very skilled teacher. Perhaps He didn’t really die on the cross. Perhaps He didn’t really rise bodily from the dead.

And so people will begin to say that perhaps there are other ways to God. Perhaps Jesus isn’t the only way. Perhaps other religions are also valid ways to God. And perhaps good works do help to gain eternal life. And so perhaps, people who buy into this thinking will say, all I need to do is to try to do the best I can, and be tolerant of other people. Perhaps people aren’t really as bad and sinful as some parts of the Bible say they are.

Thus the ride down the slippery slope of apostasy continues into the abyss. People in the church begin to doubt the Bible on moral matters. People begin saying that perhaps the things that the Bible says about the evil of homosexuality don’t really apply today. Perhaps the things that Paul says about the proper role of women in the home and in the church don’t really apply today. Perhaps the Bible isn’t quite so clear as some people say it is about divorce. And perhaps it’s not a problem to live with someone and engage in a sexual relationship outside of marriage.

Perhaps, people will begin to say, the Bible isn’t quite so clear as some people say it is about the way we are supposed to worship God. Perhaps things are a lot more wide open. And perhaps the Bible isn’t so clear as some people say it is about abortion or euthanasia. Perhaps the thing that is really important is not recognizing and repenting of our sins, but building up everybody’s self-esteem in the church.

These kinds of thinking are the fruits of apostasy, according to the Bible. It begins with subtle denials of the Bible as the inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word of God. And it goes downhill and gains ever greater momentum toward the abyss of Hell, as that abandonment of God’s Word works itself out in more and more areas of the church, more and more areas of its teaching, and more and more areas of people’s thinking and living. These are things that you need to respond to with agape love by exposing them and reproving them.

“It Can’t Happen In My Church”

Now perhaps you are saying, “This will never happen in my church!” Dear friend, think again.

In Deuteronomy chapters 27 and 28 we read that the people of Israel swore loyalty to Jehovah and to His commandments in a great ceremony. One half of the nation stood on Mount Gerizim, and the other half on Mount Ebal directly opposite. They pronounced the curses of God upon those would would disobey His Word, and the blessings of God on those who would keep it. But just one generation later, we read this:

So the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great works of the Lord which He had done for Israel…When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the Lord nor the work which He had done for Israel. Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served the Baals; and they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; and they followed other gods from among the gods of the people who were all around them, and they bowed down to them; and they provoked the Lord to anger. (Judges 2:7, 10-12)

What happened in ancient Israel is happening all around us today in the church. Many nominally Evangelical and Reformed churches, even some that would have been described as rock-ribbed fundamentalist churches – churches that were sound even a decade or two ago – have gone far down the slippery slope today.

You owe it to the next generation never to think, “It can’t happen here.”

What Apostasy Is Not

Now before we leave this first of the five keys to a Biblically loving response to apostasy, let me also say a few words about what apostasy is not. Apostasy is not differences among believers about things that are neither specifically required nor specifically prohibited in Scripture. It is not apostasy if someone believes it is permissible to eat Sunday dinner in a restaurant. It is not apostasy if someone believes that all foods are permissible to eat while someone else does not. (That was the issue Paul dealt with in Romans chapter fourteen.) It is not apostasy if someone believes it is alright to read secular literature on a Sunday afternoon. It is not apostasy to observe the Lord’s Supper once a month instead of once a week. It is not apostasy for one church to have elders and deacons while another church has deacons only.

Now some of those examples may seem ridiculous to some of you. But I have known people who will break fellowship with other believers over such things, and that is wrong. They call such things apostasy, when they are not. But let me also give you what some of you might consider to be more weighty examples: It is not apostasy for believers to differ in their views about eschatology, as long as those views do not contravene clear Bible doctrine. It is not apostasy to differ on the mode of baptism.

If you are going to put your reputation on the line by lovingly exposing apostasy in the church, first of all make sure it is really apostasy. That is the first of the five keys to a Biblically loving response to apostasy.

Next: Truth Is the Issue – Not Personalities

HL –  http://www.teachingtheword.org/articles_view.asp?columnid=5449&articleid=76270

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