Graphic: Holy Fire Ministries (holyfire.co.nz)
I've noticed increasingly strident and even angry blog posts and opinion pieces recently regarding the question of what the true church can or should do in days of apostasy. For some reason, many seem to believe we are in a time of extreme apostasy. I am not certain this is true, but once again the topic has arisen. Here are some thoughts on the subject.
First, it is important to remember the church has always been challenged by apostasy (false teaching by those who have turned away from the true gospel they once professed). There is no time in church history when the church has not faced apostasy and apostates.
This is not a 21st or even 20th century phenomenon. As you read through the New Testament,you will find the apostles Paul and Peter warning the early church about the false teaching of apostates. The entire Book of Jude in the New Testament is a warning against apostates and includes teaching on how to live truthfully in the middle of apostasy.
In Revelation chapter two, Jesus speaks to the Ephesian church through a messenger, or angel, and gives the church encouragement and correction. Interestingly, Jesus commends the church for hating the practices of the "Nicolaitans", which Jesus states he also hates. It is noteworthy that Jesus did not tell the true believers in Ephesus to break away from the church because of the Nicolaitans and start another church.
It is also noteworthy that Jesus did not say he hated the Nicolaitans. He hated their practices. Surely, Jesus could have directed the true believers in Ephesus to create another, "cleaner", church or assembly. He did not. Perhaps he knew the apostates would move over to that "cleaner" assembly and install themselves there. Perhaps he knew requiring someone to sign a statement of faith or complete a series of classes would not constitute a barrier for the false teachers of apostasy.
Apostates are those who once professed the true gospel, but turned away from it or rejected it. If someone never professed to believe the true gospel, they cannot be an apostate. Apostates and unbelievers are not the same. There have always been days of unbelief and there have always been days of apostasy.
Remember the parable of the wheat and the tares (the weeds) in Matthew chapter 13? Read it here.
Only God will do the true separating at the end of the age.
Until then, we all need a public place to worship, serve the spiritually needy, and fellowship with true believers. Retreating to a private, home assembly where everyone agrees on everything may be a "feel good" experience for those of us in North America and certain other parts of the world, but are the doors of your home open to anyone who wants to come in and see what the church is?
I know and understand there are Christians in many countries who are alone in the faith, or must worship in secret. My prayers are with you daily. I am not writing about those who have a need for secret worship or are alone because they live in an environment hostile to the Christian faith.
I am writing of those who want to go home and stay there because their denomination or church board voted for a certain change or passed a new policy. There is no perfect preaching or teaching. There is a God who can use the witness of the true church to reach those who seek him. Those who know, love, and seek God will be kept safely in the truth and love of God.
Perhaps there is a good reason why scholars cannot agree (definitively) on the teachings of the Nicolaitans, that group whose practices were hated by Jesus. Some say it was gnosticism. Some say it was the elevation or dominating acts of those who thought of themselves as priests who had the right to control the church. Others say it was a compromising acceptance of occult practices. Does it really matter for us today?
There have been "Nicolaitans" in every age.
In every age, there have also been believers who stood for truth, witnessed publicly and authentically to the power and goodness of the gospel, and continued to build a church for those who would follow them. No doubt, those true believers were wearied and at times antagonized and frustrated by false teachers, the damage created by false teaching, and the endless struggles that may have defined their church experiences.
What they did not do, however, is give up and abandon the church. The true believers kept themselves in God's love, continued to pray, witness, teach, and serve in and through the church. They were a voice of prophetic witness to those who might listen and turn back to truth. Without these believers, the church would have no meaningful earthly presence. Everyone can't go home, close their doors, and sing "Amazing Grace" while watching television evangelists preach on Sunday morning.
What should the true church do in days of apostasy? The answer is in the single chapter that makes up the Book of Jude, in verses 20 and 21:
"But you beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh." (English Standard Version)
All of these things require us to come out into the open, create an imperfect public place, and be with others who are not just like us.
The fully expressed kingdom of Heaven is the place where worship and fellowship will be perfect and unstained by any falsehood. We're not there yet. We won't be there until Jesus returns and begins to close out this age. That may happen next week, or it may not happen for a thousand years. When it happens should make no different in how we live each day. In the meantime, we are called to build the church, confident in Jesus' promise that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.
Jude finishes his letter( verses 24 and 25) by assuring us of success:
"Now unto him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen."