In a recent exchange elsewhere, I was taken to task over my use of the word ‘apostasy’ with reference to the change in emphasis in another Christian ministry.
This leads me to some thinking on the term. What is ‘apostasy’ anyway? What is ‘the apostasy’ (the specific usage that was challenged)? Is it legitimate to use the term in connection with Christian brothers? So a little Bible study ensues…
First, the Greek word apostasia is found in only 5 verses in the entire Bible, plus once in the Apocrypha. Etymologically, the word is in a family of words from a compound meaning “stand from” or “stand aside”. Other related words are words like apostazo and apostalazo, meaning “to let fall drop by drop” or “to distill”; apostasiou, meaning “an action taken against a freedman for having forsaken or slighted his , in the NT: a divorce”; apostasis, meaning “a standing away from, defection, departure from”; and apostateo, meaning “to stand aloof from, depart from, be far from”.1 Apostasia means simply “a falling away, defection, apostasy; in the Bible namely, from the true religion.”2
The first use of apostasia in the LXX is in Josh 22.22, where the sons of Reuben, Gad and half Manasseh swear their allegiance to the Lord and deny that the altar they built on the east of Jordan was in rebellion against the Lord. Apostasia here translates the Hebrew mered, rebellion. One form of the Hebrew term speaks of rebellion against either God or man, when it is man it is rebellion against a royal authority, sometimes spoken of as good and sometimes as bad. When this rebellion is bad, it is when it is against God’s will, such as the rebellion of Zedekiah against Babylon (2 Ki 24.20, Jer 52.3). The related form is found only in Josh 22.22 where it is parallel to ma’al, ‘transgression, breach of faith’.
The second use of apostasia in the LXX is in 2 Chr 29.19 where it is used to translate ma’al itself. It is found in the report to King Hezekiah by the priests about their cleansing and restoration of the temple at his direction: “Moreover, all the utensils which King Ahaz had discarded during his reign in his unfaithfulness, we have prepared and consecrated; and behold, they are before the altar of the LORD” “In almost all the biblical references ma’al is used to designate the breaking or violation of religious law as a conscious act of treachery.” (TWOT)
The last use in the OT is in Jer 2.19 where the Lord rebukes the people of Judah belonging to the pro-Egypt party, saying, “Your own wickedness will correct you, And your apostasies will reprove you; Know therefore and see that it is evil and bitter For you to forsake the LORD your God, And the dread of Me is not in you," declares the Lord GOD of hosts.” Here the term translates meshubah, translated by the KJV as ‘backsliding’ and is based on the root shub, ‘to turn’, a major OT word for repentance. Meshubah means ‘a turning again’, or ‘backsliding’, i.e., turning away from the Lord, used 9x in Jeremiah, 2x in Hosea and 1x in Proverbs.
To sum up the LXX usage, the word is used to translate words suggesting rebellion against one’s covenant with God, conscious unfaithfulness to the will and ways of God, and turning away from the will of God. The data set in the LXX is admittedly meager, but there is a certain consistency of ideas where the word is used in translation of Hebrew words.
The first of two occurrences in the NT is found in Acts 21.21 where James, the leader of the Jerusalem church asks Paul to join with others in taking a Jewish vow because some of the Jerusalem Christians “have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs.” The main idea in this ‘falling away’ is to depart or distance one’s self from the Mosaic traditions. There appears to be the element of a conscious turning in this because it is said to be Paul’s teaching among the non-Palestinian Jews. This use is consistent with the LXX usage and helps us understand the word – it is a turning or falling away from old paths and Scriptural (that is to say, God-given) standards of righteousness.
The last reference, and the one our usage of the term mostly comes from, is 2 Thess 2.3, “Let no one in any way deceive you, for it [the day of the Lord] will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction.” Here the word is qualified by the article – it isn’t just a state one turns to or lapses into, but it is the turning away, the one that is to come before this age comes to a close. It is a prophetic term. In this passage, it adds little to our understanding of the basic meaning of the word. Instead what we see here is a signpost pointing to a specific falling way, deviation, or unfaithfulness to God, that is, to The Apostasy, the one in which ‘the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction.’ This man is generally understood to be the Antichrist, mentioned elsewhere in the Scriptures.
When we say something is part of ‘the apostasy’, what do we mean?
We mean that the thing designated is in the spirit of, in harmony with, a component part of The Apostasy, the one that is to come. The Falling Away, the one mentioned in 2 Thess 2.3. We don’t know when that Apostasy will occur, but we do know that it will occur.
How can we say something is part of The Apostasy if we don’t know when it will occur? Because, just as John instructs us concerning ‘many antichrists’ in the world before the coming of The Antichrist (1 Jn 2.18), so too there are many threads of rebellion against God’s order alive and well in the world today. It doesn’t take much spiritual discernment to see that this is so. One really needs only to read Romans 1 and compare it to almost any daily newspaper to be able to connect these dots.
How long has The Apostasy been thriving in this world? Pretty well since the Garden of Eden. There is a reason why the sin of Adam is called ‘The Fall’ – it is the first apostasy and defines all apostasy since. In fact, if one studies Romans 1, one finds that the whole course of human history is an example of men falling further and further away from God. God in his wrath against sin allows men to really degrade himself in his apostasy (falling away).
What do we mean when we say that Christians are involved in The Apostasy? Is the record of the church with respect to the world one of impeccable purity and holiness, a testimony that surpasses the regular failings of Old Testament Israel with respect to God and his ways? Hardly. From the very beginning, struggle ensued in the church, where some men would cry out against worldliness and abuses of truth while others would be only too willing to cooperate with, encourage or at least tolerate a measure of worldliness in the midst. The record of church history is one that gives little confidence to the wisdom of Christians, or to their overall fidelity. We find elements of the apostasy all too easily in Church history.
And we find many elements of the apostasy thriving in the Christian church today. The church is not becoming more holy because the majority of Christians find it easier to be ‘relevant’ and adapting to the culture. The church is not becoming more effective. The fact is that secularism is rampant in Western culture and the church is on the wane, despite the presence of a number of ‘mega-churches’ whose success so many pastors and churches lust after. The apostasy in the churches today is really appalling.
It is tragic when formerly stout defenders of the faith cave in to the apostasy and allow its subtle influence to spread in the minds of those whom they influence. It is true that ‘apostasy’ is a strong word. Yet the falling away of many is a serious matter. When we see it worming its way into Christian ministries, it is a lament, not a boastful accusation.
To the extent that churches, Christians, ministries fall away from God, especially after having once exhibited a faithful testimony, to that extent they are participating in the apostasy – the falling away.
- Occurrences of these words in the Bible and Apocrypha: apostasis, 3x in OT, 1x Apoc; apostateo, 2x in Nehemiah, 3x in Apoc; apostates, 6x in OT, 4x in Apoc; apostazo, 3x in Prov, 1x in SongSol; apostalazo, 2x in Minor Proph; apostasiou, 7x in Bible, all trans ‘divorce’ – I think that covers all related words in Biblical usage, though I may have missed one or two. [↩]
- Thayer [↩]