Apostasy is generally defined as a falling away, a withdrawal, a defection. In Christianity, apostasy is seen as a withdrawal from faith and trust in God. Although it is not found in the English Versions of the Bible, a translation of the term is used twice in the New Testament, in the Greek original, to express abandonment of the faith.
Paul was falsely accused of teaching the Jews apostasy from Moses (Acts 21:21). He also predicted the great apostasy from Christianity, foretold by Jesus (Matthew 24:10-12) which would precede "the day of the Lord" (2 Thessalonians 2:2).
We've heard of recent examples of prominent authors, band leaders, and Christian philosophers leaving the faith. So let's dive into this controversial topic and what exactly can cause apostasy in the church.
Definition of Apostasy
The Merriam-Webster definition of apostasy includes two senses of the term:
1. An act of refusing to continue to follow, obey, or recognize a religious faith
2. The abandonment of a previous loyalty: DEFECTION
Now that we have a worldly definition, let's discuss a biblical one.
Bible Meaning of Apostasy
Before we dive into the question of whether people were believers from the start and fell away or were never believers, to begin with, we have to highlight some verses that describe the act of apostasy.
- John 6:60-66 shows many disciples leaving Jesus after they cannot digest some of his more difficult teachings. This was before the Holy Spirit indwelling in believers.
- Galatians 1:6 describes believers who are eagerly abandoning Christ and their faith.
- 1 Timothy 4:1 says many will fall away in the end times, going after the teachings of demons.
- 2 Peter 3:17 warns us to stay on guard against false teachings that can cause us to fall away from our faith.
In these verses, we learn apostasy has always been a problem within the church and will continue to be an issue into the end days.
What Can Cause Apostasy in the Church?
Causes of apostasy: persecution (Matthew 24:9,10); false teachers (Matthew 24:11); temptation (Luke 8:13); worldliness (2 Timothy 4:4); defective knowledge of Christ (1 John 2:19); moral lapse (Hebrews 6:4-6); forsaking worship and spiritual living (Hebrews 10:25-31); unbelief (Hebrews 3:12).
There are plenty of examples in the Bible of people who appeared to be saved who eventually walked away from the faith. This does not mean that they could never return to it, but we didn't have any examples of that appear in Scripture.
Always Saved vs. Never Believed?
The article alone cannot cover the breadth of the debate, not even close. In essence, this debate struggles with the question, “If a believer falls away, were they a believer to begin with? Were they saved and either lost their salvation or lost their way for a brief time? Or were they never Christians to begin with?”
Both sides to the argument have Scriptural support they’ll turn to.
- One may point to Hebrews 6:4-6 which may seem to indicate that if a person falls away from Christianity, committing apostasy, that they lose their salvation.
- Others may point to 2 Timothy 2:13 which seems to indicate God is still faithful even when we are faithless.
Some will bring up the question about what is belief versus saving belief? Even the demons believe, but that does not save them (James 2:19). Theologians often will point out differences in belief in the head and heart, showing how a cognitive belief in Jesus isn’t enough, it requires a deeper kind of belief.
Part of what apostasy may stem from is a lack of a deep kind of belief, only having a surface level kind of faith (see the parable of the sower in Matthew 13:1-23). That’s why many Christians will argue that those who leave the faith never had a true faith, to begin with.
But that does bring up difficulties with Christians who appeared to be strong leaders in the faith. Did they truly have no real faith or are we missing something else in this debate?
Detecting the Signs of Apostasy in Your Church
No easy answer exists for many of these questions. Scripture does, however, make it clear we need to study the Word without ceasing so as not to be swayed by teachings that could pull us away from our faith.
The following are some ways you can detect a fellow member of the faith falling away:
- They will twist Scripture or pervert the truth to fit an agenda
- They live a life counter to the ideals set in place for Christianity
- They’re often marked by pride, flattery, cause division, and are more focused on things of this world than things from above.
Although we may have spiritual mentors and teachers who guide us in the faith, we have to remember salvation comes from God alone. Many will fall away in the end times, including some people who we believed to be strong Christians of great faith.
Bible Verses about Apostasy
1 Timothy 4:1 ~ Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons,
2 Thessalonians 2:3 ~ Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction,
2 Peter 2:20-22 ~ For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.”
Hebrews 3:12 ~ Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.
Hebrews 6:4-8 ~ For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. For land that has drunk the rain that often falls on it, and produces a crop useful to those for whose sake it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, and its end is to be burned.
2 Peter 3:17 ~ You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.
Luke 8:13 ~ And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away.
Galatians 1:8-9 ~ But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
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