The term “apostasy” as we use it today comes from the Greek word “apostasia”, which means departure, revolt or rebellion. With general religion, apostasy is the abandonment of, or a willful falling away from, the faith. It can be defined as the departure of religious practices, a rejection of beliefs once agreed upon, or even mockery of the religion. Apostasy is considered illegal in over a dozen countries dominated by the Muslim faith, some of which even bring about the death penalty. In America, this may not be a term we see very often considering we have the freedom to practice any religion we choose. Is this something that still goes on today in Christianity or even behind church doors?
What does apostasy mean in the Bible?
In Christianity, apostasy is the rejection of the faith by someone who formerly was a Christian. It is a conscious abandonment of faith in God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. B.J. Oropeza, an author and assistant professor of Biblical Studies at Azusa Pacific University, says that there are three dangers that could lead a Christian to commit apostasy: temptations, deceptions, and persecutions. Below we will look at scriptures that support each of these, and scriptures you can use to encourage those at risk of leaving the faith.
Further definition of apostasy can be found in this BibleStudyTools resource. It elaborates on the ways that apostasy manifests. These are important to be aware of as they help us define it, see what it looks like, and more importantly, how to avoid it. These themes are consistent with Oropeza’s theory, but some specific causes include wordliness, moral lapse, forsaking spiritual living, and unbelief. Some examples of biblical characters that committed apostasy include Saul (1 Samuel 15:11), Amaziah (2 Chronicles 25: 14,27) and many disciples (John 6:66).
Examples of apostasy in the Bible
The first example of temptations leading to apostasy is found in the story of Adam and Eve. In Genesis 3:3-4, we read of the serpent tempting Eve with what might be: “...but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” The serpent replies with, “You will not certainly die. For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Temptation always finds us adding to our current state. What could be? What more can I become? This particular temptation is an example of apostasy as we fall away from our dependent nature on God and believe we can do life without him. We know what happens next as Eve passed this temptation onto Adam, leading to the fall of man.
The second example in relation to deception, or false teaching, can be found in Jeremiah 23:13: “I saw that the prophets of Samaria were terribly evil, for they prophesied in the name of Baal and led my people of Israel into sin. But now I see that the prophets of Jerusalem are even worse! They commit adultery and love dishonesty. They encourage those who are doing evil so that no one turns away from their sins. These prophets are as wicked as the people of Sodom and Gomorrah once were.” These scriptures show us the power of deception, as some teachers disguise the truth for their own greed or gain, be it more friendships, power, or influence of any kind with no regard to the influence Christ had on people.
Another example of apostasy in relation to persecution is the story of Judas. Luke 22:47 says, “...a crowd approached, led by Judas, one of the twelve disciples. Judas walked over to Jesus to greet him with a kiss. But Jesus said, ‘Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?’ ” Judas was afraid of the persecution that he was seeing develop around Jesus and his followers. That fear led him to betray Jesus, demonstrating his allegiance to avoid persecution. His guilt was so deep afterward that he ended his own life, despite the wealth he received for his revelation of Jesus’ location.
Does apostasy exist today?
In Acts 15:1 we read that “While Paul and Barnabas were in Antioch, some false teachers came from Judea to trouble the believers. They taught, ‘Unless you are circumcised, as the law of Moses requires, you cannot be saved.’ ” This is similar to what we still see today. There are groups of well-intending people spreading the message of sin and hell as a means to scare people into changing. On the contrary, this can actually discourage people becoming believers in Christ, or turn them away from their hope in him because they are not perfect or holy.
In contrast, another theme we see running rampant today is a perverted application of grace and forgiveness. The message that you should “be yourself” has taken an evil twist into the realm of gender or physical identity. The beautiful message of “you are enough” has been perverted to mean you can be or do whatever you want to be, and that is ok. It's true that there is no sin that God’s love cannot cover and there is no confusion that God’s grace and wisdom cannot reach. But the message that you should be content with abandoning the pursuit of your true identity in God is nothing short of a grand deceit.
How should Christians think about apostasy today?
We must be aware of these great temptations, deceptions, and fears of persecution and partner both with other believers and God in prayer to combat it. As we become full ourselves with the life-giving truth that Jesus spoke, we can begin to share it more freely and make the difference we hope to make.
To combat temptations:
“The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few” (Matthew 9:37). This verse teaches us to be disciplined and apply a hand to our faith.
“Ask and it will be given to you...” (Matthew 7:7). This verse, though seemingly contradictive to the above, intends to remind us that we can toil ourselves to death in pursuit of something. It helps balance us by making us decide if what we are working so hard towards is truly worth it. It also reminds us to involve God in what we do.
“Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). A temptation, as we discussed above, is a lure leading us to what else could be, or what else we might become if we just had this other thing or trait. This is a humbling reminder that no matter what we obtain, be it material or intellectual, apart from Christ, it will be useless.
To combat deceptions:
“I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). This verse is powerful to share with those who have been deceived that they must perfect themselves before approaching Christ, or that they should be punished by their guilt when they first face the light.
“The greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 23:11). The perspective of this verse helps equip the people to see for themselves what a leader seeking their best interest will look like.
To combat the fear of change or persecution:
“For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). Sharing this will ease the minds of those who are afraid of change, which in their minds is persecution.
“You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14). This verse comforts those afraid to share their new or revamped faith as it reminds us that by doing so, we are spreading the power of faith, hope, and love.
These are key truths that Jesus spoke. If we allow them to resonate in our own hearts, we allow ourselves to get out of the way and truly be the hands and feet of Jesus as we carry on the principles of his teachings. If we are to combat the issues that keep people from the true love of God – which leads to true development – we must also be aware of our own actions and intentions. If we are to share the truth that God’s love is redeeming, we cannot also spread the message that God’s love is condemning. There is a fine line between leading someone to truth, versus leading them away from it or settling into their own sin. We must remember that while Jesus was tender, loving, and accepting, he also did not shy away from sharing wisdom and truth. The key to staying within the right intention is seeking counsel through prayer, a community of believers for various perspectives, and keeping in mind what is best for the person you are thinking of or approaching. You are loved.
Kyle Blevins is the sole contributor to the blog, REDIRECTED, which focuses on rediscovering purpose through love. His broken life reached a turning point after being surrounded by positive people who believed he was capable of more. His passion is connecting with and encouraging those looking for a new beginning in life and in Christ. You can follow his blog at iamredirected.com.