Evangelical Questions: “What Apostasy?”
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about the Apostasy. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
Our scripture this week comes from Matthew 16:18:
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
On the one hand, what a fantastic, reassuring scripture. And on the other hand, you can immediately see how there is a lot of debate about what this actually means. And I’ll be honest, Latter-day Saint friends, some of the ways we talk about the apostasy are adding to the confusion and I think as we go along you’ll be able to see what I’m talking about.
So, first off, I will tell you, when I was an Evangelical the apostasy and the accompanying restoration were the hardest concepts for me to understand. This is the spot in our conversation where it is easiest to see the phenomenon that if you ask a fish to describe water he can’t do it – he has no idea what it means to be without water, so he really has no idea what to compare water to. I took missionary lessons for 9 months and we talked about the apostasy many times, but it was hard for the missionaries to get much past, “the apostasy happened and that’s why we need a restoration.” And even when pressed they could only cite a couple of points in Church History where things were especially bad, usually having to do with the pre-Reformation Catholic Church. But from the Protestant point of view, the pre-Reformation Catholic Church is a blip in a 2,000+ year landscape where God has always been active on the Earth. Honestly, during those lessons, my thought to myself was, “Well, these are young kids who are high school graduates and haven’t studied much history so they are simply unaware of the vastness of Christian history.” But once I started to understand what they were actually saying – and it took me an embarrassingly long time for that to actually click – I started to see that this was a case where Latter-day Saints are using the same language to mean something slightly different. For me, at the end of the day, the nuances of how our church is using that language are better. It’s theologically fuller and more hopeful than the Protestant/Evangelical meanings. And I will also say that this is probably one place in which my formal theological education probably made it harder for me than it would for the average person simply because I was able to see all of the knowledge the missionaries couldn’t and had a hard time reconciling what they were saying with the truth of Christian history. So today I want to talk about the terms we use when talking about the apostasy and help you see how Evangelicals hear them so that maybe you can help someone else short-cut through the difficulties I had.
We’ve talked in many episodes of this series about how Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints use the same words differently sometimes and that fuels the confusion between us. You might not be aware but there is a niche dictionary called the Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Theology which gives us a definition that Evangelicals would agree on. Baker is the publisher and it’s a nice, thick 1,000-page dictionary. So we’re going to draw on that a bit.
First, let’s start with the word “apostasy.” Evangelicals don’t use this word a lot, but it’s probably in their vocabulary and according to Baker’s it would mean, “Defection from the faith, an act of unpardonable rebellion against God and his truth. The sin of apostasy results in the abandonment of Christian doctrine and conduct.” And this gets used in two ways.
First, and probably most common, is that apostasy is something an individual person does after making a covenant or decision to follow Christ. “He went off the rails into apostasy.” Basically, a person who used to believe the right things, but no longer does.
Second – and you’ll see that this is where the confusion comes in – this word can be applied to large groups of people. They see widespread apostasy as an eschatological sign – meaning a sign of the end times signaling the second return of Christ is near. So if the whole world goes into apostasy, the return of Christ is near. Here is how they get there. Just like us, Evangelicals can read the Old Testament and see that constant pride-cycle. The Israelites follow God for a while, then they start to prosper and fall away from God, then God allows bad things to happen to them and they get back in line. They see this as a prototype of what will happen before the second coming of Christ. They base this on 2 Thes 2:3 “Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day (the return of Jesus Christ) will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction.” In that verse, they hear that an apostasy absolutely will happen, but only in the future, and only right before Christ comes again. So when we say, “the apostasy happened” it just doesn’t compute for them because if an apostasy happened, surely Christ would have come again.
Another term that causes some confusion here is “priesthood.” Now there is a lot to say about priesthood, and we’ve got several episodes coming up on that. When talking about the apostasy Latter-day Saints would say, this comes straight from the Church’s website, “(After Jesus Christ ascended back to Heaven)…The Apostles were killed, and priesthood authority—including the keys to direct and receive revelation for the Church—was taken from the earth. Because the Church was no longer led by priesthood authority, error crept into Church teachings.”
That word “priesthood” throws them here because they define it very differently than we do. Again, according to the Baker dictionary priesthood is defined in 4 ways. The priests we see in the Old and New Testaments; the priesthood of all believers; the post-resurrection ordained priesthood which is modernized into, “being a pastor”; the priesthood of Jesus. So when they hear us say, “the priesthood was lost from the face of the Earth” it doesn’t make sense because 1) Clearly that statement can’t be talking about the priests of the Old and New Testaments. 2) It can’t be talking about the priesthood of all believers because believers in Christ have existed on the Earth since his resurrection, which has never gone away. They’re not wrong about that. 3) It can’t mean that pastors don’t exist because clearly, they do. 4) And it can’t mean that Jesus is no longer our great high Priest. So even though they have 4 definitions of “priesthood” available to them, they can’t work out what we’re talking about when we say that the priesthood authority was taken from the Earth.
For Latter-day Saints, there are two additional meanings of priesthood that Evangelicals don’t easily see. Those are 1) Priesthood is the power and authority of God. It has always existed and will continue to exist without end. 2) In mortality, priesthood is the power and authority that God gives to man to act in all things necessary for the salvation of God’s children. Both of those are straight from the church’s website. It’s the power of God, given to humans in certain circumstances to do stuff.
Evangelicals get really nervous right here – and this might sound funny to your Latter-day Saint ears – but they hear that as a very Catholic concept. They have no conceptualization of the idea that certain actions like baptism would need to be done in certain ways, by certain people, according to God’s law. That is not a concept for them. Instead, they would say something like: We take the principle of baptism and contextualize it into our specific culture and there are no absolute rules about how that must be done. It’s sort of a “pragmatism wins” approach to theology. Evangelicals are very pragmatic, for better or for worse. The idea that a person might need to wait to be baptized because baptism requires someone who bears the priesthood is nonsense to them. They would have a kind of “hero cowboy” approach of: Well, I would jump right in and baptize that person who cares about your rules.
There’s a prototype here much earlier in American religion than the Evangelicals. You’ve certainly heard of the Methodist Church. They invented this attitude. Back in the 1700’s, pre-Revolutionary war, the Church of England whose members are called Anglicans was very well established in the colonies, but because all the senior leadership was still headquartered in England things moved very slowly for the Anglicans in America. When the Revolutionary War ended in 1783 the Anglican leaders in America were ready to start spreading out further and reach people who were living outside of the cities. Westward expansion wasn’t really in full swing yet, but it was starting and the Anglican leaders wanted to develop churches in outlying places. Their leaders in England made it hard for them – feelings were still pretty sensitive as the war had only been over for a few months. So 2 Anglican brothers, John and Charles Wesley become very frustrated and want pragmatic solutions for how the American churches could self-govern and make decisions about where and how to Evangelize. The Anglican leadership in England said no, so the Wesley brothers started the Methodist church primarily so that they could figure out how to reach people who lived outside of the established cities at that point. They needed and wanted practical solutions. It was sort of a, “Well, I don’t actually need your permission Leaders in England. Goodbye.” And Evangelicals inherited that attitude from them. It’s: you can’t tell me what to do; I don’t need your authority; I can innovate solutions without you getting in the way. It’s very, very American in that sense. And it is a high value for them to solve problems without bureaucracy. So when we say something like, “ordinances require proper authority” they hear “I want to put bureaucracy in your way.”
One final definition I want to touch on is kind of more of a cultural issue than a literal definition issue. From the same article on the church website talking about the apostasy we get, “Because the Church was no longer led by priesthood authority, error crept into Church teachings. Good people and much truth remained, but the gospel as established by Jesus Christ was lost. This period is called the Great Apostasy.” Now, how that sometimes gets taught by members in our church is something closer to, “Absolutely everything from God was removed from the Earth and no evidence of his presence could be found.” And this is maybe were we could be a little more careful with how we say things because that’s actually pretty insulting to the many people who have loved Christ and been faithful to God in the best way they could ever since Christ’s resurrection. In every era of history, we can find that people who love God are alive and well. It’s going to cause some real confusion for Evangelicals if you try to suggest that is not true. And it’s quite needless to suggest that every bit of God’s presence was removed – because that’s not even what our church is teaching, as evidenced by the quote I just read. But still, culturally, some members of the church are still saying it that way.
I hope you enjoyed this conversation about the apostasy and hopefully, you understand a bit more about why this gets muddled between Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints, and maybe some ideas about how to talk more clearly about these ideas because this is one area where our church really does have a lot of goodness to offer.
Join us next time and we’ll take up another topic. I hope to see you then.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.