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 Great 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 jumping-off point is 2 Thes 2:1-4. This is in the English Standard Version:
Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God.
If you’ve ever had a conversation with someone unfamiliar with The Great Apostasy you are probably familiar with the look on their face that says something like, “I have no idea what you are talking about.” And I imagine that is rather confusing to you, Latter-day Saint friends. The signs of it seems so obvious to us it’s barely something that needs proving. You might as well ask someone to prove that air exists. But it’s different for Evangelicals. So, what are the issues?
Well, first, they don’t deny that apostasy with a lower-case “a” has happened many times in history. You can see it in the Bible and in every generation since. However, they will always couch it in terms of being individual apostasy, not collective. This forces the conversation into an awkward corner because the natural response might be something like, “Oh no, it wasn’t just one person, it was the whole thing.” And now you’ve got a problem. Because it wasn’t the whole thing. You’ve just conflated 2 different ideas about apostasy. Let me explain.
What does, “complete apostasy” mean? And what doesn’t it mean? Well, it can’t mean that there were no people who loved God, had the desire to serve him, and patterned their lives after Jesus Christ. We know from history that this is not true. So Evangelicals have a rough little piece of logic to work through here – and sometimes we make it harder on them by over-playing our hand. The Evangelical who knows even the basics of history can point out plenty of people who are examples of faithful believers throughout the ages. So, even being able to point out 1 counterexample seems to discredit the claim.
But the claim of The Great Apostasy is not that no one loved and followed God to the best of their ability. It’s that the priesthood power was taken from the Earth. Those are 2 very different things. The Great Apostasy is an institutional situation, not an individual one.
All that to say, when you’re in a conversation with an Evangelical about the apostasy try to stay out of the trap of “the apostasy means no one loved Jesus Christ at all during that time.”
Second issue. Evangelicals absolutely believe in a great apostasy. But, like many times, they’re not talking about the same thing we are. They would define the great apostasy as something that will happen at some future point in time. GK Beal, an Evangelical Biblical scholar says it this way, “The point Paul appears to be making is that the visible church community, within which true saints exist, will become so apostate that it will be dominantly filled with people who profess to be Christian but really are not. The church will continue to profess to be Christian but most in it will actually not be true believers.” Dr. B. J. Oropeza, an Evangelical at Azusa Pacific University has written 3 volumes, 800 pages, on apostasy. And every single one of those pages deals with the apostasy of the individual. Not the removal of priesthood power.
So, we’re on the same page that there is such a thing as a great apostasy. They just think it is a future event while we believe it is a past event. But this nuance brings up an interesting layer. Some of the pushback Evangelicals give on the concept of an apostasy (as we define it) is that God wouldn’t do that to us humans – why would he send Jesus and then let the whole thing fall apart? Well, interestingly enough they are perfectly okay with believing that is a possibility – a future possibility, but a possibility nevertheless. The only difference between their thinking on this and ours is that we think it happened quickly after the Apostles were gone, and they think it won’t happen for a long time to come.
In this 2 Thes passage, we also get Paul warning the reader to not let anyone deceive you. Which is a very good and helpful thing for him to be saying – but it also sets up the Evangelical way of thinking – that apostasy an individual matter. The person who becomes apostate has been tricked or fooled out of proper belief. And it is their responsibility alone to right their ship. Apostasy happens to individuals and must be fixed by individuals. The closest they can probably get to apostasy being the removal of priesthood power is looking at the Catholic church in the middle ages – if they know much about history they can probably point to that time period and say that the whole project seems to be off the rails. But Evangelicals and Catholics have an uneasy relationship. A very typical response here would be something like, “Well, those were Catholics.” The implied message is, “they aren’t real Christians like us.”
So what do you do with all of this? They see apostasy as an individual matter. And while we certainly can also see it in individuals, when we use the term The Great Apostacy, what we mean has to do with priesthood power, not individual behavior. And while they agree that a great apostasy is going to happen in the future, they don’t think its happened yet. Are we just at a stalemate? No, I don’t think so.
It gets tricky because they tend to see the concept of priesthood as a burden, not a gift. They think it is an unnecessary barrier between an individual and God. All they know are “false priests who oppress.” So one path you could go down is talking about how having the priesthood restored actually helps you get closer to God, not further away. I have experienced this in my own life, I’m sure you have too.
But another way to talk about this is to think about apostasy as they do. Accept their definition for a moment – that apostasy only has to do with the individual holding incorrect beliefs and has nothing to do with the lack of priesthood power. That it only happens to individuals and not all humans together. How does someone come to understand that they hold an incorrect belief? Your Evangelical friends hold incorrect beliefs – I did when I was an Evangelical. But, most good people who hold wrong beliefs really have no idea that they’re wrong. They’re not trying to be wrong, and they have nothing else to go on that might help them see that some things are off here. Some very simple questions about epistemology would come in handy here – how do they know what they know? How do they know they’re not wrong?
If you know and love Evangelicals you probably already know where this goes – they point to the Bible as the source of what they believe. And I trust them when they say that. But here is the thing….the Bible doesn’t lay flat. What does that mean? It means that some passages are given more emphasis and importance than others. And this is true in a way that makes people “blind” to certain passages. They can quote and believe the ones they like, and ignore lots of other verses that add more information. The solution here? You are not going to like it….You need to know your Bible better than you do. I know. I teach Gospel Doctrine and it’s only October and I can already hear the sighs of relief that people have about getting to do Book of Mormon year next year. -And I’m excited too – but as a people, we don’t know the Bible very well, so conversations with folks who are basing literally everything off the Bible are difficult because they can outwit you. I know you’re antsy to get to the BoM but I implore you, if you have a missionary heart toward Evangelicals at all please don’t run out of energy on the New Testament yet. We’ve still got 10 weeks left of the New Testament and one of the best things you might be able to do for the Evangelials you care about, is learn the Bible better.
Alright, that is that. Next week we get the wonderful phrase, “husband of one wife” and all the worries Evangelicals have about the history of polygamy in our faith. 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.