This post was originally published in October 2018. –ed.
Churches can descend into apostasy on a wide variety of issues. They might succumb to mysticism, feminism, worldliness, works righteousness, or any of the myriad corrupting threats poised against the church. But there is a common thread uniting every church that turns from the truth after error. Setting aside the authority of God’s Word is the most well-worn path to apostasy.
Consider the spiritual ground that is lost when the church surrenders biblical authority. If Scripture does not speak with absolute, inerrant authority, the offer of justification by grace through faith cannot be extended to desperate sinners. One can’t argue for the sufficiency of Christ as the sacrifice for sins, or His rule as the Head of the church. One can’t cling to the glorious truth of imputation—that at the cross, “[God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Without those truths, we have no guarantee that God’s wrath has been satisfied. There can be no assurance of faith, no hope of heaven, and no confidence in the promises of God.
On the other hand, doing away with the authority of Scripture—or merely subjugating it to the authority of men—purposely paves the way for false doctrine and false teachers to infiltrate the flock of God. It invites theological confusion, elevating the words of fallible men over the inerrant Word of God. It is designed to exchange the gospel of grace for a man-centered system of works righteousness. And it pollutes the purity of God’s truth, clouding biblical doctrine with superstition, tradition, extra-biblical revelation, and demonic deception.
That’s a broad way to summarize the various deviations that have dominated the Roman Catholic Church since before the time of Luther. But it’s also a fitting description of the Protestant church today. If that sounds like an overstatement, consider these questions: What demonstrable difference is there between Tetzel’s indulgences and the holy water and anointed scraps of cloth peddled by charismatic charlatans to their vast audiences? What’s the difference between a pope who speaks ex cathedra and a pastor who exposits his own dreams and mental impressions as fresh revelation from the Lord? And what separates the worship of Mary and the veneration of the saints from the way today’s self-proclaimed apostles visit the graves of their forebears to “soak” in the deceased’s anointing?
Worse still, the same kinds of rampant corruption and immorality the Roman Church once worked to conceal are now celebrated and encouraged by many Protestant congregations. Far from being known for their purity, many churches today go out of their way to embrace or imitate the debauchery of secular culture. Pastors exegete Hollywood movies rather than Scripture. Seeker-sensitive megachurch gatherings often look and feel more like a rock concert or a burlesque show than a worship service. Celebrity-minded church leaders seem more interested in what’s stylish and marketable than they are in what’s sound and solidly biblical. Shockingly, there are even some ostensibly evangelical churches whose leaders are proud that their membership is open, welcoming, über-tolerant, or even affirming toward serial adulterers, hard-hearted fornicators, impenitent homosexuals, immoral idol worshipers, and even to forms of paganism. They’re proud of it.
Many more congregations are on a slower path to the same destination. While they might not openly celebrate immorality, they do nothing to drive it from their midst. Sin is not confronted and church discipline is not faithfully practiced. Over time, the conscience—both individually and collectively—grows cold, unconfessed sin becomes the norm, and the church bears no discernable difference from the world.
All that is evidence of a lack of submission to God’s Word and a decreasing concern for doctrinal truth and the purity and protection it produces. Born from the conviction that true believers must separate from an apostate church, Protestantism has needed only a scant five hundred years to cultivate its own strains of apostasy. Much like the Israelites in the book of Judges, the Protestant church seems determined to repeat the mistakes of its past rather than learn from them. Paul’s indictment of the churches of Galatia applies to much of the evangelical church today: “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?” (Galatians 3:1). A recent national survey revealed that 52 percent of evangelical Protestants believe salvation comes by faith and works combined. Only 30 percent affirm sola fide and sola scriptura.  Pew Research Center, “U.S. Protestants Are Not Defined by Reformation-Era Controversies 500 Years Later” (August 31, 2017), http://www.pewforum.org/2017/08/31/u-s-protestants-are-not-defined-by-reformation-era-controversies-500-years-later/ The Reformation is being undone by “bewitched” evangelical Protestants. The protest is largely over.
Descent into apostasy doesn’t happen overnight; the changes are slow and steady. Rejecting Scripture’s authority and priority is the first step, usually followed by a succession of compromises: Maybe we can be more relevant and inviting to the world if we don’t take this verse or that sin too seriously. Once the church determines its purpose is to engage and attract the culture rather than edify and equip the saints, it sets out on a path that will always lead to worldliness and apostasy. Not long ago, the pastor of one of the largest churches in America told church leaders they should not let doctrine get in the way of winning people over. One sympathetic author summed up his exhortation succinctly: “Don’t put theology above ministry.”  Kevin Porter, “Andy Stanley at Catalyst Cincinnati: Don’t Put Theology Above Ministry, Let Cultural Issues Bump People Out,” The Christian Post (April 23, 2016), https://www.christianpost.com/news/andy-stanley-at-catalyst-cincinnati-dont-put-theology-above-ministry-let-cultural-issues-bump-people-out-162414/ Churches today are so invested in attracting sinners that they attempt to bury their theology under the welcome mat.
That unbiblical model of outreach is the very thing dulling many churches’ ability to reach the world with the gospel. Filling the pews with comfortable, unaffected unbelievers is the fastest way to confuse and corrupt the work of the church. God has not called His people out of the world to chase its trends in vain attempts to seem relevant. The church cannot be salt and light in this wretched world if we are indistinguishable from worldly people (see Matthew 5:13–16).
The Alleged Advantages of the Early Church
To curb those worldly trends and simplify the work of ministry, some Christians today are calling for a return to the early church model. They believe what’s ailing and inhibiting the work of the church today is the church structure itself. Megachurches with sprawling campuses, legions of leaders, and overgrown congregations that must be endlessly subdivided—those are supposedly the villains that have corrupted and confused the church in recent years.
The argument suggests that Christians can’t function and serve to their full potential in a large-church environment, and that the New Testament model of small house churches frees God’s people to focus on what matters most. When there is no building to maintain, no denomination to support (or submit to), and no institutional oversight, the church is unshackled to serve the Lord and reach the surrounding community. This is offered as an attempt to return to the simplicity described in Acts 2:42: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (It’s often ignored that this was a church of three thousand cf. Acts 2:41.)
However, we need only look at the New Testament to see that life in the first-century church was anything but idyllic. Small congregations, simplified organization, and proximity to the apostles did not give the early church the spiritual advantages and insulation we might assume. In fact, we see many of the maladies that plague the church today on display in its earliest incarnations. Put simply, the purity of the early church is overblown.
And nowhere is that more apparent than in the book of Revelation. As we’ll see next time, the first-century churches were awash with many of the problems that have plagued the church ever since.
(Adapted from Christ’s Call to Reform the Church)