Was There a Great Apostasy?
“Apostasy” comes from the Greek work apostasia, which means “a defection, revolt, or falling away” The Bible warns against apostasy: against those who secretly bring in destructive heresies (2 Peter 2:1) and despise authority (2 Peter 2:10), rejecting God’s Word by adding to and taking away from it (Deuteronomy 4:2). The Bible warns against those who distort the Gospel of grace (Gal. 1:7)—adding leaven to the Gospel (Matthew 16:12), seeking justification through works, and bringing bondage (Gal. 2:4).
There will also be those who turn away from the truth for myths (2 Tim. 4:4), who seek teachers to suit their own passions (2 Tim. 4:3). Many will greedily exploit with false words (2 Peter 2:3), boasting of false visions (Col 2:18). Some will forbid foods and marriage (1 Tim. 4:3). Others will be taken captive by philosophy (Col 2:8). Man-made forms of religion that promote asceticism have and do entice the Church (Col. 2:23). Predictions are made of those who will become lovers of self, pleasure, and money, lacking self-control (2 Tim. 3:2-4)—love grown cold because of lawlessness (Matthew 24:12).
Too many have a dying love for God; a growing love for the world (2 Tim. 4:10). The love of the world will choke many, and prove them unfruitful for God (Matthew 13:7). The Bible warns against false teachers, prophets, apostles, and Christs, of false signs and wonders—the counterfeit creeping into the church (2 Peter 2:1; Matthew 24:24; 2 Cor. 11:13). Some will devote themselves to doctrines of demons (1 Tim. 4:1), while others will pervert God’s grace into sensuality (Jude 1:4). There will be those among the Church who are not of the Church, who will forsake her for the world (1 John 2:19).
Many have become dull of hearing within the Church (Hebrews 5:11), but the bride of Christ is to remain awake (Matthew 24:42), continually sanctifying herself from the world (2 Cor. 7:1) while looking forward to the return of Christ (2 Peter 3:12). We are to abide in the Word and bring forth fruit (John 8:31; 15:4). The devil hates the Church, and since its beginnings has tried to destroy her (Rev. 12:17). We certainly see evidence for the multi-century war waged against Christ’s bride, the Church. The spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places seek her destruction (Ephesians 6:12; Luke 22:31). The saved are the wheat, and the devil seeks to sow tares among the wheat (Matthew 13:25). The seed is the Word, and the devil seeks to snatch away the Word sown in our hearts (Matthew 13:19). He wants humanity severed from Christ (Gal. 5:4)—branches not abiding in Him (the vine) that wither and die and are thrown in the fire (John 15:6).
Among the Church today are those who seek the riches of this world (Mark 4:19) instead of the riches of Christ (Ephesians 3:8). There are leaders who greedily manipulate, coerce, and deceive for power and money. The gate is straight and the way narrow (Matthew 7:14), but we find God’s Word compromised for the sake of inclusiveness (1 Kings 18:21). Women teach and usurp authority over men (1 Tim. 2:12). Sinful lifestyles are embraced and celebrated—authority of scripture denied.
The New Covenant standard of teaching is set aside by many for sexual immorality, homosexuality, worldly vices and pleasures. Some seek an evolving Church, a compromising Church: one that yields to the standards and expectations of its contemporary culture. Having forsaken their first love, Jesus (Rev. 2:4), are those lukewarm to the things of God, but passionate about things of this world: and those, disengaged with the covenant of Grace, who pursue the Old Law. Many are self-seeking and self-exalting, using and abusing the Church for ego and benefit.
The world is constantly trying to creep into the Church. There is the New Age movement, the Emergent Church, and the Works-Based Cults. Elements of Spiritism, Occultism, Mysticism, Witchcraft, and more manifest themselves among the Church. Clairvoyance is confused as prophecy. Witchdoctor chants are accepted as speaking in tongues. Some of what we see surfacing among the Church—embraced as “spiritual” and “divine”—may actually be pagan in origin, indistinguishable from the supernatural manifestations found in the Occult. Forms of necromancy (communication/connection with the dead) are encouraged and accepted among some. There’s Universalism: all paths lead to God. All will be saved. There’s the Prosperity Doctrine: the Gospel will make you rich. Neomontanism embraces new revelations and ecstasies, unapproved by the wider Church: a parallel to the Montanism movement of the 2nd century. Not content with God’s Word and revelation for the Church, many have sought to go beyond what is written in what they practice, experience, and believe.
The teaching of the Nicolaitans and the teaching of Balaam are stumbling blocks for the Church. There are false, adulterous prophetesses like Jezebel among the Church, seducing many. Some have the reputation for being alive, but are dead, bearing incomplete works in the sight of God. There are the ostentatious, lascivious, and worldly displays of entertainment within the Church to the extreme that one might ask: Is this a Luciferian Illuminati light show or a Christian worship gathering?
God pleads with his Church to forsake the world: “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues” (Revelation 18:4) The Church is called to be sanctified in the Word of truth through the work of the Holy Spirit (John 17:17; 1 Cor. 6:11). We are called to be separate and watchful (Luke 21:36; 2 Cor. 6:17).
Apostasy has sprung forth among the Church throughout the centuries. “Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God” (2 John 1:9). Mormonism, for example, has distorted the Gospel of grace, doubting and rejecting the authority of scripture while severely adding to it via extra-Biblical revelation, teaching, and ritual practice. Ironically, this religious institution, a product of apostasy itself, identifies as “the only true and living church” on the earth today. In its identification as “The True Church,” the LDS Church rejects any notion that anyone outside of their institution could be a part of Christ’s Church, could have the fullness of the Gospel, and can receive eternal life.
To justify their authority and new teachings, which tend to stray from many foundational Biblical truths, it is paramount they (and groups similar to them) accept that the Way had been lost, that God was unable to preserve both His Word and His Church. They claim a universal Christian apostasy in which the Gospel itself had been lost. For them, embracing a complete apostasy is foundational. Without it, there would have been no reason to lay a new foundation. Without a “Great Apostasy”, there would have been no need for what they call “The Restoration,” no justification for changing and adding to God’s Word revealed in the Bible.
No doubt the threats and dangers of apostasy have invaded the Church since the beginning. Apostasy exists. But since the days of the early Christian church until now, has there ever been a complete and universal Christian apostasy, in which Christ’s Church fell away and ceased to exist for a period of time on this earth? Did apostasy overcome the Church’s very existence for an extended period of time, necessitating a restoration of “truth” and “authority?”
Ekklesia, the Greek word often translated in our Bibles as “church,” means “an assembly” or “called out ones.” Christ’s Church are those whom He’s called into salvation by His grace, reflected in their belief and confession of the Gospel: “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Jesus is the head of the church, which is his body (Ephesians 1:23). Christians are the church.
Scripture teaches that this group of believers—the body of Christ—began in Acts Chapter 2 on the Day of Pentecost through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Church, the Bride of Christ (Revelation 19:7), will continue to exist, be formed, and grow until Jesus comes again to take her to himself (Matthew 13:24-30; John 14:3; 1 Thess. 4:17).
There are certainly warnings about apostasy all over the New Testament. But they need to be measured against assurances of perseverance and continuity for the Church. When some apostatize, there tend to be remnants that haven’t (Romans 11:2-6). In fact, Scripture promises that Christ’s Church will be preserved. After Peter’s belief and confession in Jesus as the Christ, Jesus said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:15-18). The Church is built upon the belief and confession of Jesus as the Christ and all that entails: “that he died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Hell itself will not prevail against His Church. It will endure throughout all generations and forever: “to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:21). Jesus promises: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Jesus will always be with His Church, the bride. At the end of the age, He will return to take her to Himself.
Imagine a husband who had the power to spare his wife but did not. Imagine a marriage in which the bride dies in her infancy. Mormonism claims such was the case with the Church and Christ. They claim that after the Apostles’ death in the first century, the Church immediately fell into complete apostasy.
Unlike this false claim, Jesus does not let his Church die in her infancy—or at all for that matter. He cleaves to her; he nourishes and cherishes her; he died for her and continually washes and sanctifies her. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32). Jesus holds fast to his bride, the Church. He will not let her go or die. Rather, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). For “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the Church (Ephesians 5:28-29). The Church is preserved.
Hand in hand with the continuation of Christ’s Church is the preservation of His Word. Jesus assures us that “Heaven and earth will pass away, but [His] words will not pass away” (Mark 13:31). David the Psalmist says: “The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation forever” (Psalms 12:6-7).
In the parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43), we see a Church that continues until the time of harvest, the close of the age. Among the real Church sown by God (the wheat) are tares sown by the devil. Both grow together until the harvest time, when the tares will be gathered to be burned, but the wheat preserved. While the tares remained among the wheat until harvest time (the close of the age), they never overcame the wheat. This parable refutes the idea of a universal Christian apostasy before the end of the age, and no doubt refutes the notion of one at the onset of the Church Age in the first century.
We have received “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28). Like a tiny mustard seed that grows into a mature tree, the Church will continue from infancy into maturity, when she will be presented before Christ without blemish or spot. (Matthew 13:31-32; Ephesians 5:27). God has promised not to leave his followers as orphans (John 14:18). He will not forsake his church and leave her to die, but will love her, discipline her, sanctify her, wash her--ultimately present her blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy (Jude 1:24).
Apostasy exists. It always has. It is on the increase as the end nears. But it will not overcome the Church. The gates of Hell will not prevail against her. Let us stay awake, attach ourselves to Jesus Christ the Vine, and abide in Him (John 15:5). Let us test all things with the Word of God (1 John 4:1; Acts 17:11) and hold fast to our confession of faith (Hebrews 10:23), abiding in the teaching of Christ set forth for His bride in the New Testament (2 John 1:9).