Seven Stages to Church Apostacy

Truth Watch contends that many churches in the western world have already or are sliding towards apostasy. We have developed a seven stage process to describe this slide and invite you the reader to examine each stage and determine where your church, or elements within it may stand. If you are concerned that your church is showing signs of slipping beyond stage two then you need to take responsible steps to arrest the slide. It won’t be easy. In our experience the slippery slope into serious error is invariably created by those most influential in the church, including: pastor’s, elders, other senior members of the church, or a special interest group with an axe to grind. As a change agent you must be very careful to ensure you are on solid biblical ground. Your concerns must be doctrinally sound. You must also avoid inflaming passions. Be calm. Make sure you understand the issues clearly. Marshal your arguments and base them on Scripture. Develop a plan of action. Treat everyone with respect. If they refuse to listen and you see your church moving further down the road to apostasy leave and find a church that is still standing on the Bible and correct doctrine.

Here are the seven stages:

Stage 1: The First flush (the ‘first love’)

The church may be new or well established. People are being saved and large numbers are either ‘mature in Christ’ or being properly discipled into Christian maturity. Individuals have come to faith through repentance and a fully confident belief in the lordship of Jesus Christ. People are full of hope, enthusiasm, expectation and evangelistic fervour. The ‘most excellent way’ of 1 Corinthians 13 is consciously practised. Biblical truth is accepted uncompromisingly. Obedient servanthood dedicated to building the kingdom in peoples lives and in society is accepted as an article of faith. All are treated as fellow priests. Leadership is collegial and concerned with building a church that is united in service and unswerving in correct doctrine. The right gospel of Jesus Christ is taught and accepted.

Stage 2: Consolidation

Christian ministry, forms of worship and leadership shape the church but liberal ideas from traditional protestant churches or independent churches are beginning to find their way into the church. The church is beginning to grapple with human agendas, conflicting personalities and the strong pull of a variety of secular influences - in the same way that Israel had to cope with and try to resist Canaanite influences. The reality of the simplicity found in Christ Jesus has to compete with worldly realities. Nevertheless, the main features of the church in its first flush remain. This is the critical stage. Wrong decisions (or indecision) at this point can severely hamper the church’s long term effectiveness.

Stage 3:  Safety first

In the face of the strident, aggressive secularisation of society the church, begins to fail to confront the challenge it faces. The spirit of compromise takes hold and leaders concentrate on avoiding risk and offence. The easiest approach is to breed followers not adventurers. Leaders and their followers replace a community of priests. My agenda and my ministry begins to replace ‘Thy will be done’ as church leaders now begin to strive in their own thinking and strength to hold onto the gains that were made initially. Teaching shows signs of reflecting people’s opinions as much as it expounds biblical principles and doctrines. Defending and spreading the faith begins to take second place to ‘life-centred’ preaching (see our post on ‘therapeutic deism’) and Christian-secular compromise. Avoiding secular issues hostile to Christianity begins to occur.

Stage 4: Isolated experiential-ism

The church takes on the character of an isolated fiefdom gathered around high profile leaders with a limited fellowship-focused vision. The practical expression of the Christian faith and the equipping of each individual to maximise their particular gift or calling is subordinated to the corporate search for a less biblical, more experiential or even mystical reality. Christian apologetics, open evangelism and public square engagement are largely ignored. Opportunities for spiritual deception increase, especially if a demand for the miraculous grows (Matthew 16:1-4). The original iconoclastic nature of Christianity diminishes as churches, personalities and ministries become the new ‘high places’. Finding ways to dilute doctrine and the biblical narrative to fit in with secular ideas and practices becomes common.

Stage 5: Complacency

Church culture defines itself more sharply around the inherent weakness to be found in the self-absorption of individual churches. This isolation is reflected in a false pietism that disdains engagement with the secular world in ways that are distinctly Christian or biblical. Many Christians content themselves by following ‘winds’ of teaching - fertile ground for false prophets and deluded leaders (Matthew 24:4, 11, 24; Ezekiel 13:3-7; Jeremiah 23:21). Such people are invited to the church to speak or they emerge from within it. The cult of ‘personality Christianity’ appears.

There is a growing tendency to indulge in experiential Christianity while doing little more than lament the state of the world. Complacency replaces gospel fervency as the lost state of the unsaved is no longer mourned (Zephaniah 1:12; Amos 6:1-7; Is 22:9-13; Hag 1:9). Christians put their trust in leaders with a limited evangelistic vision, not men like David, Nehemiah or any of the Apostles.

Stage 6: Neo-orthodoxy

A new church culture emerges which is little more than a modern recapitulation of old wayward Israel. There is a confusing mixture of the secular and the Christian to a degree that true theology and the importance of the cross become distorted and difficult to grasp for those not firmly steeped in the Word of God. Re-entry into the ‘polis’ (the secular world of everyday affairs and issues) is increasingly difficult in ways that reflect a mature commitment to a Christian world view.

A 'me-centered' faith is put before the dusty feet and sunburnt brow of Christian social service and social action. A vision (a greater revelation) of the character of God and His will is replaced by cynicism, false humility, timidity and a ‘what’s in it for me’ spiritualism that opens the gates to compromise rather than truth (Malachi 2:7-9). The focus is on ‘my life’, not the Great Commission and the Great Commandment.

Stage 7: Apostasy

Already well advanced in traditional protestant churches apostasy now stalks the wider evangelical community. The inerrancy of scripture is finally abandoned. Essential biblical doctrine is surrendered to vague dogma in the foolish search for pluralist harmony. Immorality, the abandonment of a proselytising ethic and synchronisation with New Age philosophies and the false beliefs of other religions combine to rob the Church of truth and purpose. Sin and repentance are largely ignored. Other religions are seen as alternative paths to God. Homosexuality and other forms of immorality are tacitly accepted. The commands of God are given scant regard. A false god of love and tolerance is emphasised. All the elements of a pagan and recalcitrant Israel are present. The lukewarm church that has lost its first love (the churches of Ephesus and Laodicea – Revelation 2 and 3) has arrived. Judgement is only a matter of time (2 Thessalonians 2: 9-12).

Adapted from: Issachar’s Call: A Manifesto for Resurrecting the Christian Church and Western Civilisation (2012) – available as an e-book on Amazon.

For further insights read our 95 Theses.