Monday, February 13, 2023

Anonymous Asks (236)

“How should Christians respond to someone who leaves the faith?”

The New Testament references several who turned away or would turn away from trusting Christ for one reason or another. Paul writes to Timothy concerning Demas, a fellow worker mentioned in Colossians and Philemon, that he “has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica”. Why? He was “in love with this present world”.

Departure from the Faith

In an earlier letter the apostle predicted apostasy would become more common for other reasons: “The Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared.” These might still take the name of Christ, but they had departed from the faith all the same.

The Lord Jesus prophesied that “many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another”. The context there is Jewish and probably future, but it makes the point that some people can’t handle tribulation and hatred. And the whole of 2 Peter 3 is a reminder to believers that there are those for whom the unparalleled patience of the Lord Jesus becomes an excuse to say, “It can’t be real. He’s never coming back.” The writer to the Hebrews says an evil, unbelieving heart may lead some to “fall away from the living God”.

There are many reasons professing Christians apostatize. The Lord Jesus grouped the enemies of faith into three broad categories in his parable of the sower and the seed: (i) the “evil one” may snatch faith away before it can grow; (ii) persecution can break the wills of those who are not truly rooted in Christ; or (iii) the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches can choke the word, and cause it to prove unfruitful. If we take the Lord Jesus at his word, we will expect to see people leaving the faith with great frequency. Some will publicly disclaim it. Others will quietly abandon it and disappear from your local church without a ripple.

Deconversion?

The sort of defection from the faith we see today is rarely a product of outright persecution, but it is often the product of a desire to have the world’s approval. Accomodationists frequently start with a mythical reading of the early chapters of Genesis. After all, we don’t want to be thought “unscientific”, do we? Once you start reading the Bible that way, anything goes, and it eventually will. People who leave the faith for such reasons are often na├»ve about the extent to which the secular knowledge base is corrupted and unreliable.

My experience is that intellectual difficulties with Christianity that miraculously show up years after a faith profession are rarely what they seem. Apostates often produce them as cover for some besetting, disgraceful sin yet to reveal itself. Even the term “deconversion” is an evasion. The biblical word is “apostasy”. Invariably, the guy who points to problems he perceives in the text tradition, or inconsistencies he finds in scripture, or the “hypocrisy” of his fellow believers turns out to have cheated on his wife once the initial furor of his departure has died down. The director of a Christian camp I attended in my early teens later came out of the closet. He did at least one local TV interview blasting Christians for their “intolerance”. In their cases, the problem was moral, not intellectual.

Responding to Apostasy

So how should Christians respond to those who fall away? Firstly, we should be honest about it. The writers of the New Testament certainly were. John is quite frank about apostates: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” There is nothing to be gained by covering up for unbelief. Those who are well have no need of a physician, and those who think they are doing fine without Christ will not see the error of their ways unless we draw the lines clearly and without evasion.

Secondly, we need to distinguish between doubters and apostates. Jude writes, “Have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.” Unstable people may profess faith, then get themselves in intellectual or moral trouble and wander off into the world. Their real problem is double-mindedness. We have an obligation to seek these sorts of defectors out and do whatever we can to help them get back to their feet. Sometimes that is possible, sometimes not.

Obdurate people are in a different category. Often these have held leadership positions in the church or in Christian ministries. Some have written books and acquired a following. By the time these people call a press conference and announce they are “deconverting”, you won’t be able to convince them of anything. They know their own minds very well indeed, and they know the potential cost of what they are doing if they turn out to be wrong. You will probably not be able to get a hearing from them even if you seek one out. There is little to be done for people like this other than prayer and leaving an open door for repentance.

The next move is theirs.

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