26 "Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men.
27 "For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God.
28 "Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
29 "I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock;
30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.
31 "Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.
32 "And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.
--Acts 20:26--32 (NASB)
When Paul was leaving Miletus, he spoke to the overseers (bishops) of the assembly in Ephesus. Part of his parting speech with the Ephesian overseers was the warning that apostasy was coming "after my departure," that it would come from among the leaders in the assembly, and it would be driven (at least in part) by a desire to build a following.
At the end of his life, Paul wrote to Timothy, who was in Ephesus. He gave Timothy this warning:
1 But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come.
2 For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy,
3 unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good,
4 treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,
5 holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these.
-- 2 Timothy 3:1--5 (NASB)
But when we get to the later epistles, we have warnings like the ones in Jude:
4 For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
-- Jude 4 (NASB)
And in 3 John:
9 I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say.
--3 John (NASB)
1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, 2 Peter, and Revelation 2&3 all contemplate apostasy as something that was already underway and widespread. Jude and Peter tell us false teachers already had a foothold in the church, Revelation 2&3 talk about churches already caught up in idolatry (Thyatira), empty formalism (Sardis), and indifference to the Lord (Laodicea). 1 John claims there were many antichrists already, and 2 John warns against becoming entangled with those who denied the Christ.
I mention these to indicate that apostasy is not contemplated in Scripture as something that was going to happen, but as something that had already started. 2 Timothy 3 warns about the "last days," but 1 John tells us "Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour" (1 John 2:18, NASB). Hebrews starts "in these last days" and 2 Thessalonians 2:7 says "the mystery of lawlessness is already at work."
Now, it is certainly true that we expect things to get worse: evil always develops (consider Romans 1), and 2 Timothy assures us that things will get "worse and worse." Apostasy is not simply a state: it develops and grows.
It's also true that there have been revivals, renewals, and repentance in the last 2000 years. The state of apostasy is not absolute in the sense that there is no longer a remnant on the earth: God is still saving sinners. And not every Christian has apostasized. Revelation 2&3 contain a message for the "overcomer" in every church, even Thyatira and Laodicea.
But there can be no dispute that apostasy has been generally the state of things for the last 2000 years, since the Apostles died. Scripture explicitly claims that to be the case, our knowledge of church history concurs, and our personal experience agrees. Apostasy characterizes the Church.
There are a couple interesting points in all the warnings of apostasy:
First, Scripture almost always talks about apostasy as a top-down process. It's not that the people apostasize and that corrupts their leaders: rather, the leaders apostasize and carry the people into corruption. Paul said the "ravenous wolves" would arise from among the Ephesian overseers. John said Diotrophes loved to have the "chief place". Revelation tells us "the woman Jezebel" was teaching. This parallels the Old Testament, where apostasy characterized the kings and priests. Even in the wilderness under Moses, it was the chiefs of the tribes who led the people into rebellion. There are certainly exceptions, but apostasy in Scripture characteristically develops in a top-down direction.
Second, it looks suspiciously like Ephesus would be at least a center of apostasy. There are four epistles written to Ephesus in the New Testament: Ephesians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Revelation 2:1--7. Additionally, we have detailed accounts of Paul's work there, including his speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. Apostasy is a central theme among the Scriptures specifically to Ephesus. That's not to say Ephesus is the core of apostasy, nor that it was the only place apostasy occurred. But it seems particularly linked to apostasy in Scripture.
Third, Paul gave the Ephesian elders two resources: he commended them "to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified". This is of enormous importance.
I know I'm going to step on some toes here, but I really feel this needs to be said. The remedy for apostasy is the Word of God. It is "able to build [us] up and to give [us] an inheritance among all those who are sanctified." We tend to try and remedy apostasy with statements of faith, creeds, confessions, church councils, canon law, or fiery preaching. But the Apostle offers the Word of God as the remedy.
That's not to say all those other things are wrong per se, but that they are insufficient. The Word of God was given explicitly to correct, reprove, exhort, and train us. It is the only infallible and authoritative resource we have. To the extent that a statement of faith reflects the Word of God, it is good: but it has no authority in itself, its authority is strictly identical to the extent it is Scriptural.
It has taken me a long time to come to that conclusion.
And to be sure, the Word of God is sufficient, authoritative, infallible, and inerrant; but that's not to say every question of faith and doctrine is simple, obvious, and without sincere disagreement. But in the end, if we allow anything to occlude the authority of the Word of God over us, we are in the process of personally apostasizing: we are leaving the one thing we can count on.
As I'm living down here in a world that's basically on hold until the Lord Jesus comes to establish His kingdom and throne, I've gotten very caught up in all sorts of things. And sadly, a lot of my dabbling in some church or another has really been me looking for the Right Place. It's been my looking for a group I can count on, or an history I can put faith in, or a tradition that is correct. But at the end of the day, I've been having to learn that the Word of God is what God has seen fit to give me. That's the resource He considers sufficient for His people living down here.
Now, apostasy has been used as an excuse for all kinds of things. And while I want to clarify that we ought not to look for an excuse for what's not biblical, it is very true that apostasy changes things. Heh. Ideas have consequences. So I guess we need to look at some of those consequences, but I think this is long enough already for now.