An apostate is generally defined as a person who ‘stands away from’ or totally abandons or deserts one's religion, principles, party, cause, etc. In Christianity, the charge of apostasy is very serious and usually results in some type of punishment that may include shunning, excommunication, disfellowshipping or worse. For this reason, Christians should be vigilant about their religious beliefs so as not to become victims of apostasy. But apostasy is so elusive and, in many cases, misunderstood. How can one determine whether they or others have become true apostates? An examination of the history of apostasy as it relates to the Bible is enlightening in this regard, and even indispensable to those seeking to please the Father.
Apostasy in the Old Testament
Apostasy is not a uniquely Christian idea. We learn in the Old Testament that there were apostates within the nation of Israel. Isaiah wrote about the refusal of the nation’s leaders to correct themselves after Jehovah had disciplined them:
“And the people themselves have not returned to the One striking them, and Jehovah of armies they have not sought. And Jehovah will cut off from Israel head and tail, shoot and rush, in one day. The aged and highly respected one is the head, and the prophet giving false instruction is the tail. And those who are leading this people on prove to be the ones causing [them] to wander; and those of them who are being led on, the ones who are being confused. That is why Jehovah will not rejoice even over their young men, and upon their fatherless boys and upon their widows he will have no mercy; because all of them are apostates and evildoers and every mouth is speaking senselessness. In view of all this his anger has not turned back, but his hand is stretched out still.”
– Isaiah 9:13-17
Because of the false instruction of their apostate leaders, the people were confused and wandering around. Not only the leaders, but also those who were being misled had no reason to expect God’s mercy. Later Isaiah wrote again of apostasy in Israel:
“The senseless one will no longer be called generous; and as for the unprincipled man, he will not be said to be noble; because the senseless one himself will speak mere senselessness, and his very heart will work at what is hurtful, to work at apostasy and to speak against Jehovah what is wayward, to cause the soul of the hungry one to go empty, and he causes even the thirsty one to go without drink itself.”
– Isaiah 32:5-6
Again, the apostates were speaking senselessly, speaking against God, and refusing to give spiritual food and water to their associates. The prophet Jeremiah also warned about apostasy among the leaders of the nation of Israel. He wrote:
“Therefore this is what Jehovah of armies has said against the prophets: “Here I am making them eat wormwood, and I will give them poisoned water to drink. For from the prophets of Jerusalem apostasy has gone forth to all the land. This is what Jehovah of armies has said: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who are prophesying to you people. They are making you become vain. The vision of their own heart is what they speak—not from the mouth of Jehovah.”
– Jeremiah 23:15-16
Yes, their very leaders were prophesying in error and teaching things that originated from their own thinking, not from God. So we see in the Old Testament, apostasy was not a standing away from religion; it was a standing away from God himself. As a result, those who listened to their apostate prophets were worshiping God in vain. Both were considered apostates!
Apostasy in the New Testament
In the New Testament, the word ‘apostasy’ is only mentioned twice, though the idea of apostasy is contained throughout. The first instance involves the Apostle Paul on one of his visits to the Jerusalem congregation where the ‘apostles and older men’ were:
“When we got into Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly. But on the following [day] Paul went in with us to James; and all the older men were present. And he greeted them and began giving in detail an account of the things God did among the nations through his ministry. After hearing this they began to glorify God, and they said to him: “You behold, brother, how many thousands of believers there are among the Jews; and they are all zealous for the Law. But they have heard it rumored about you that you have been teaching all the Jews among the nations an apostasy from Moses, telling them neither to circumcise their children nor to walk in the [solemn] customs.”
– Acts 21:17-21
Yes, Paul himself was accused of apostasy! Why? Because he was teaching Jesus’ message of freedom from the Law and its burdensome customs. He taught that Jesus had not destroyed the Law, he fulfilled it, blotted it out and took it out of the way. (Matthew 5:17; Colossians 2:14) This was refreshing news to the nations, but the Jews who were loyal to Moses could not comprehend or accept Christian freedom. They viewed it as apostasy!
As is stated in the book, ‘Bearing Thorough Witness’ About God’s Kingdom, published by the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, at page 183, paragraph 8:
“Hebrew Christians who were zealous for the Law lacked understanding and confidence in the Christian congregation. They needed to bring their thinking into line with the progressive revelation of truth.”
In order to placate the weak consciences of the Jewish Christians, Paul acquiesced to the Jerusalem brothers and performed certain rituals that they recommended (rituals that did not violate Christian principles) to show the Jews that he was not an apostate. Paul expected that he would then have freeness of speech to teach about Jesus. But his compromise did not serve the purpose he sought. Instead of accepting Paul, certain Jews from Asia considered his actions further evidence of his apostasy. They incited a riot against Paul which could have led to his death, but instead resulted in his imprisonment by the Romans. (Acts 21:22-36)
Paul made an impassioned plea to these Jews, but nothing he said would satisfy them. They were convinced of his apostasy and would not yield. (Acts 21:37-22:22) The compromise recommended by the apostles and older men in Jerusalem failed to help Paul.
The other incident of apostasy is recorded as a warning by Paul himself to the congregation in Thessalonica:
“However, brothers, respecting the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we request of you not to be quickly shaken from your reason nor to be excited either through an inspired expression or through a verbal message or through a letter as though from us, to the effect that the day of Jehovah is here. Let no one seduce you in any manner, because it will not come unless the apostasy comes first and the man of lawlessness gets revealed, the son of destruction. He is set in opposition and lifts himself up over everyone who is called “god” or an object of reverence, so that he sits down in the temple of The God, publicly showing himself to be a god.”
– 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4
Here, Paul warns the brothers not to allow the sophistry of men to cause them to abandon reason, or be manipulated by claims that the end was near. He warned that an apostasy would arise by ‘a man of lawlessness’ who would establish himself, not as a mere prophet of God, but as a ‘god’ himself – as one due obedience, worship, honor and loyalty. He did not say whether the ‘man of lawlessness’ was one individual or a body of individuals, but he goes on to describe ‘the man of lawlessness’ well enough for them to identify him or them:
“But the lawless one’s presence is according to the operation of Satan with every powerful work and lying signs and portents and with every unrighteous deception for those who are perishing, as a retribution because they did not accept the love of the truth that they might be saved. So that is why God lets an operation of error go to them, that they may get to believing the lie, in order that they all may be judged because they did not believe the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness.”
– 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12
The ‘man of lawlessness’ would perform many powerful works that would mislead those who are looking for signs and portents, rather than for truth. God allows them to be misled because they do not love the truth. But God’s allowance of time also gives them an opportunity to turn away from the apostate ‘man of lawlessness’ so that those who do not turn away are rightly judged.
True Apostasy vs. the False Charge of Apostasy
So we see there is true apostasy which is a turning away from God, and the false charge of apostasy which is turning away from a church or religious doctrine. Both types of apostasy continued in the Christian church for centuries. For example, in the so-called “Dark Ages,” the false charge of apostasy was used by the Catholic Church as a means to control the populace and induce fear in anyone who thought to oppose church doctrine. This threat was effective for many years until the Protestant Reformation.
Since then, many, many faithful men and women have left their form of religion in favor of one which they believed more closely mirrors the true teachings of Jesus. But this in itself is not apostasy. If it were, then one would have to conclude that John Knox the founder of Presbyterians, John Smyth the founder of the Baptists, John Wesley the founder of Methodists, James Springer White the founder of Seventh-day Adventists, Charles Taze Russell the founder of the Bible Students and modern day Jehovah’s Witnesses, Charles Fox Parham the founder of Pentecostals, and others, are all apostates. And one would have to conclude that everyone who attempts to proselytize or engages in the preaching work initiated by Jesus is making people subject to apostasy. Really, even Jesus would be considered an apostate! How ridiculous!!
On the contrary, continuing to examine our religious beliefs is looked upon with favor in the Bible:
“Immediately by night the brothers sent both Paul and Silas out to Beroea, and these, upon arriving, went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now the latter were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with the greatest eagerness of mind, carefully examining the Scriptures daily as to whether these things were so.”
– Acts 17:10-11
“Keep testing whether you are in the faith, keep proving what you yourselves are. Or do you not recognize that Jesus Christ is in union with you? Unless you are disapproved.”
– 2 Corinthians 13:5
And if we find that we are not ‘in the faith,’ and our attempts to readjust those who have strayed fails, we are counseled:
“Do not become unevenly yoked with unbelievers. For what fellowship do righteousness and lawlessness have? Or what sharing does light have with darkness? Further, what harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what portion does a faithful person have with an unbeliever? And what agreement does God’s temple have with idols? For we are a temple of a living God; just as God said: ‘I shall reside among them and walk among [them], and I shall be their God, and they will be my people.’ ‘Therefore get out from among them, and separate yourselves,’ says Jehovah, ‘and quit touching the unclean thing’; ‘and I will take you in.’”
– 2 Corinthians 6:14-17
Thus, a person who follows Paul’s counsel and leaves a religion that is not in harmony with the faith taught by Jesus could hardly be called an apostate. The Father will ‘take him in.’
Truly, the entire Christian movement was a ‘standing apart from’ Judaism. And though the early Christians tried to stay in the synagogues and share the good news of the kingdom, the synagogue leaders would have no part of it. Jesus foretold what would happen:
“I have spoken these things to you that you may not be stumbled. Men will expel you from the synagogue. In fact, the hour is coming when everyone that kills you will imagine he has rendered a sacred service to God. But they will do these things because they have not come to know either the Father or me.”
– John 16:1-3
Clearly, those who were expelled for confessing Jesus were not apostates. The apostates were those who were doing the expelling – those who did not know the Father or Jesus!
Modern Day Charges of Apostasy
Because of the stigma attached to the charge of apostasy, one should be very careful in leveling the charge. One should ask if the person being charged with apostasy has left God and the plain and open teachings of Jesus, or whether they merely disagree with a religion or a church doctrine.
Another factor to consider when someone is being charged with apostasy is the source of the charge. Is there an underlying self-interest behind the charge? We recall that the Catholic Church in the “Dark Ages” used the threat of apostasy to control the people and to prevent them from exposing errors in church doctrine. Could that be the reason for such a charge today? Religious organizations that level the charge of apostasy at its own members who question its doctrines are simultaneously making the claim to have the only pure and true teachings of God. We wonder which religion today can honestly make that claim. We know of none.
As noted above, many individuals left their own church and formed new religious groups. History reveals that many of these individuals were not apostates; they were progressive in their understanding of the Bible and God’s purposes. They saw the light of truth when their leaders continued to stumble around in the darkness.
“But the path of the righteous ones is like the bright light that is getting lighter and lighter until the day is firmly established. The way of the wicked ones is like the gloom; they have not known at what they keep stumbling.”
– Proverbs 4:18-19
In some cases, the very matters upon which some have been expelled as apostates later became ‘church policy!’ So we should ask: Is it apostasy or it is spiritual growth? Man has a tendency to crystallize and dogmatize truth because he is mentally lazy and terribly afraid of the unknown. Thus it is in man’s nature to be slow to initiate change. And this slowness or laziness is another reason for stifling others and charging them as apostates.
The charge of apostasy is not a small matter. We recall Jesus words about making charges against our brothers:
“You heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You must not murder; but whoever commits a murder will be accountable to the court of justice.’ However, I say to you that everyone who continues wrathful with his brother will be accountable to the court of justice; but whoever addresses his brother with an unspeakable word of contempt will be accountable to the Supreme Court; whereas whoever says, ‘You despicable fool!’ will be liable to the fiery Gehenna.”
– Matthew 5:21-22
To the Father and to Jesus, reckless name calling can be fatal to the accuser’s everlasting future! How much more so a false charge of apostasy!
But, of course, we cannot deny that true apostates exist – those who, as Paul said, were ‘sitting down in the temple of The God, publicly showing himself to be a god’ or ‘not accepting the love of the truth, but taking pleasure in unrighteousness.’ (2 Thessalonians 2:1-4, 9-12) All who turn away from the plain and open teachings of Jesus and teach ‘another sort of good news’ (Galatians 1:6) are subjects for apostasy. And in the event we are truly in association with someone who has left God and the plain and open teachings of Jesus, we should first attempt to readjust such a person (Galatians 6:1), and if that does not work, we must indeed turn away. The actual, authentic, plain and open teachings of Jesus are far too valuable to thrust aside in order to please men.
We can safeguard ourselves from apostasy by continuing to grow and mature in our faith:
“But speaking the truth, let us by love grow up in all things into him who is the head, Christ.”
– Ephesians 4:15
“For everyone that partakes of milk is unacquainted with the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. But solid food belongs to mature people, to those who through use have their perceptive powers trained to distinguish both right and wrong.”
– Hebrews 5:13-14
“Accordingly, put away all badness and all deceitfulness and hypocrisy and envies and all sorts of backbiting, [and,] as newborn infants, form a longing for the unadulterated milk belonging to the word, that through it you may grow to salvation, provided you have tasted that the Lord is kind.”
– 1 Peter 2:1-3
Growth is the will of God:
“What, then, is Apollos? Yes, what is Paul? Ministers through whom you became believers, even as the Lord granted each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God kept making [it] grow; so that neither is he that plants anything nor is he that waters, but God who makes [it] grow.”
– 1 Corinthians 3:5-7
Spiritual enlightenment is the goal Jesus set for us. But not only a goal, it is a mandate:
“You are the light of the world. A city cannot be hid when situated upon a mountain. People light a lamp and set it, not under the measuring basket, but upon the lampstand, and it shines upon all those in the house. Likewise let your light shine before men, that they may see your fine works and give glory to your Father who is in the heavens.”
– Matthew 5:14-16
Rather than being a hindrance in the Christian congregation, enlightened souls advance the entire association of brothers. Progressive enlightenment is how a group of people become a spirit-led brotherhood. When the blind lead the blind, that is a tragedy. But when the blind lead those who can clearly see, that is reprehensible!
Thus, the true worshiper of God and follower of Christ will do his or her utmost to make sure of all things, and continue testing whether they are in the faith so that neither they nor those who listen to them become subject to apostasy. And most of all, they will be progressively taking in life-giving knowledge, as the proverb says:
“By [his] mouth the one who is an apostate brings his fellowman to ruin, but by knowledge are the righteous rescued.”
– Proverbs 11:9