Apostasy in the Church
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the church of Jesus Christ is sick with apostasy, debilitating every missionary work, every Christian school, every witness through the media, and every local assembly of believers. The apostasy that now fills the whole church germinated in about 1800. Since then, it has steadily grown and spread, with corrupting effects that can be clearly seen in two ways.
- Christianity has fragmented into ideological camps, all of which to some degree reject Biblical faith and practice.
- Western society as a whole, once composed of nations that prided themselves on their allegiance to the Christian religion, has become thoroughly secularized.
The sorry state of the contemporary church exactly reproduces all the prophetic pictures of the church in the Last Days, on the eve of Christ's return. According to prophecy, it would be a church riddled with corruption and crippled by apostasy.
Before the eighteenth century, no one who considered himself a Christian doubted that the Bible is true, and in European society there were few who were willing to say that they were not Christians. But in the eighteenth century, the educated elite began to drift away from Christianity toward alternative world views conceived by speculative philosophy. The most popular of these was deism. Its core belief was that God created the universe as a self-perpetuating machine, operating according to natural laws discoverable by science. This new world view denied the supernatural, as well as God's continuing involvement in human affairs.
In the early nineteenth century, doubt in the supernatural and in Biblical history began to infect organized Christianity. The Unitarians, prominent in New England, went so far as to reject the full deity of Christ. Under the influence of the movement in literature and art known as romanticism, many of them believed that God is a mystic oversoul transcending nature yet intimately in union with it. That conception of God was called transcendentalism.
After the publication of Darwin's Origin of the Species in the 1860s, important segments of the church accepted his ideas and abandoned belief in the literal truth of the Scriptures. Then emerged a new form of theology known as liberalism. Its basic tenets were these:
- Although the Bible offers spiritual and ethical insights, it is only a collection of human writings. Many of them must be classified as folk tales or legends with no historical value.
- Jesus may have been divine in the sense that we are all divine, but He was not uniquely God. Nor did He exist before His birth. Nor was He born of a virgin. Nor did He rise bodily from the grave.
- The purpose of life is not personal salvation from sin, but salvation of society from the evils of poverty, ignorance, and injustice.
In some of its manifestations, liberalism came close to denying God completely, except as a human thought.
By the early 1900s, liberalism had gained control of all the Protestant seminaries and had won over many pastors, missionaries, denominational overseers, and college officials. Although the average churchgoer was still fairly conservative, his leaders were working feverishly to bring his views up to date.
But liberalism had an unexpected effect. The average churchgoer had enough sense to recognize that if liberalism is right, why go to church? By midcentury it became obvious that the mainline churches where liberalism was dominant were losing people. So, liberals in religious professions began looking for a more appealing theology that would still accommodate their unbelief. The new theology that they created is known as neo-orthodoxy.
Since World War II, neo-orthodoxy has supplanted liberalism as the dominant outlook of mainline churches, although out-and-out liberalism retains many adherents, both Protestant and Catholic. The fathers of neo-orthodoxy include Karl Barth (called by Billy Graham one of the two greatest theologians of our time, the other being Pope John the 23rd), Rudolph Bultmann, Emil Brunner, and Reinhold Niebuhr. The essence of neo-orthodoxy is its claim that the Bible contains existential rather than factual truth. That is, the Bible affords the religious man a valuable, time-honored framework for conceptualizing and describing his own personal encounters with God (however he conceives of Him).
Neo-orthodoxy permits a worshiper to mouth hymns and creeds that he does not really believe. Thus today, if you visit a typical Methodist or Lutheran church, you hear liturgies that seem to exalt Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, yet when you meet the ministers privately, they will (if they are honest) confess their unbelief that the historical Jesus was anything more than a man. How do they justify their public affirmations of orthodox faith? They regard the language of orthodoxy as simply a vehicle for attaining a satisfying religious experience. Subjective experience rather than objective truth is, in their view, the foundation of religion.
Evangelicalism and neoevangelicalism
At the turn of the century, the advances of liberalism alarmed true Christians and stirred them to action. They began to cooperate with each other in efforts to keep existing church organizations from going liberal. Around the time of World War I, a series of books called The Fundamentals appeared, defending at length the essential doctrines of Christianity. These books were so influential that the new movement which had arisen to protest liberalism took its name from them, calling itself fundamentalism.
In the 1920s and 30s, fundamentalists failed to oust liberals from control of the mainline denominations. In consequence, fundamentalism itself divided into two camps. One warmly embraced the principle of ecclesiastical separation—the principle that a local assembly of believers must separate itself from apostate Christian organizations. The other took a less enthusiastic stance in favor of this principle.
- The first camp left mainline denominations and began forming their own institutions, including schools, mission boards, and parachurch associations. From them came the GARB, the Bible Baptists, the Bible Presbyterians, the IFCA, and other groups, as well as many strictly independent churches.
- The second camp included many who continued the battle of trying to purify the mainline denominations, many (especially among the Southern Baptists) who did not feel that liberalism threatened their own denomination, and many who formed new churches but who maintained dialogue and cooperation with more liberal elements in the church.
In time, largely as a result of patronizing the same religious media, the second camp coalesced into a distinct movement known as evangelicalism. This movement has retained its cohesion even as it has forsaken its original identity and evolved into something more modern, tainted with apostasy.
Its chief error today is an emphasis on positives to the neglect of negatives. Although an evangelical church may faithfully teach the basic doctrines of Christianity—the Trinity, the authority of the Bible, salvation by faith, and so on—it gives everything a wrong slant. It says much about the love of God, but very little about the judgment of God or God's hatred of sin. It speaks often of heaven, but seldom of hell. Its members hear much about getting to heaven through a commitment to Christ or through being born again, but very little about repentance. They listen often to promises that the Christian life will make them happy, but seldom to warnings about the difficulties and demands of the Christian life. Rather than burden them with negative rules and standards, their pastor tells them that they have liberty to live as they please, so long as they do not break an explicit command of Scripture. As a result, they never escape a worldly lifestyle, because many modern vices were unknown in Bible times and the Bible says nothing against them.
In the 1950s a small group of Christian intellectuals spearheaded a new movement that became known as neoevangelicalism. At the outset, the chief distinctive of this movement was its desire to engage learned unbelievers in dialogue, seeking not only witness, but also an adjustment of Christian language, traditions, and tenets to bring them into agreement with the established results of scientific and academic inquiry. Neoevangelicalism quickly gained the upper hand at institutions like Fuller Theological Seminary and Wheaton College. By now, its influence has been felt everywhere in evangelicalism, yet some clear differences between the older movement and its spin-off remain.
- Most evangelicals are politically conservative, whereas many neoevangelicals follow trendy liberal causes. They tend to be pacifistic, to favor strong governmental action against social problems, and to support advances in minority rights, including the rights of women and homosexuals.
- Evangelicals hold to the inerrancy of Scripture, whereas neoevangelicals reject inerrancy or else deny that the Creation accounts and other portions are meant to be taken literally.
- Evangelicals still oppose practices like drinking and smoking, and perhaps even rock dancing. Neoevangelicals have no such scruples, although they look on smoking as unhealthy and inadvisable, and they endorse moderation in drinking.
- Evangelicals avoid fellowship with people in the liberal or neo-orthodox realm, whereas neoevangelicals willingly interact and fellowship with anyone except a fundamentalist.
Neofundamentalism and cultic fundamentalism
The segment of the church left behind as evangelicals drifted toward more liberal positions kept the name "fundamentalist." But purity and unity within fundamentalism did not long survive all the divisive currents in the modern church. As late as the 1960s, all fundamentalists could still assemble and feel that they shared a common identity. But then the fracturing process began. By the 1980s, two new movements had appeared, both weighed down by apostate tendencies. One of these has been called neofundamentalism. The other I will call cultic fundamentalism.
"Neofundamentalism" was originally a label that fundamentalist opponents of Jerry Falwell pinned on his political action movement, known as the Moral Majority. The label is useful to signify churches and groups that have emerged from fundamentalism and acquired the following characteristics, now evident in many with no connection to Jerry Falwell:
- They prefer modern translations of the Bible.
- In 1950, Time Magazine, reporting on the revival at Wheaton College, spoke of it as bearing "the stamp of its strict fundamentalist heritage: no movies, smoking, card-playing, dancing or drinking," and it said derisively of the readers of Christian Life, a popular Christian magazine in those days, "Drinking, smoking, dancing, card-playing and movies they consider the Devil's traps" (1). These five prohibitions were for many years universally upheld by Bible-believing Christians. Christian institutions enforced them, and pastors denounced the forbidden practices as sin. Modern neofundamentalists may not openly reject the traditional standards of separation, but they increasingly feel that insisting upon them is legalistic.
- They have adopted popular styles in sacred music.
- They tend to be involved in politics, and in politics they do not hesitate to make alliances with religious groups that are nonfundamentalist or even unorthodox, like the Mormons.
Evangelical churches display many of the same characteristics. So, it appears that except for their history, neofundamentalist churches are becoming indistinguishable from evangelical churches.
The mark of cultic fundamentalism is its exaltation of one leader to spiritual supremacy. At least two fairly large cults have emerged in the last twenty years, and more seem to be in the making. The first is the cult associated with Jack Hyles and Peter Ruckman. The second is the Bill Gothard cult.
The evolving distinctives of the first have clearly heretical tendencies.
- Hyles and Ruckman teach that the King James translation of the Bible was given by inspiration.
- Both men curry the adoration and total submission of their followers.
- Both men are tolerant of divorce.
- Both men promote ideas that verge on the bizarre (see the articles cited below).
The Gothard cult appeals to a different class of people, but is no less cultic in its suppression of individual soul liberty. The leader has drawn his followers into a way of life that restricts their contact with people outside his control and binds them to his leadership for every decision they make. What they believe, how they eat, how they manage their practical affairs, how they relate to each other, and what they teach their children—all require attention to his teachings, some of which are clearly unbiblical. For example, he opposes (or at least many of his followers believe that he opposes) adoption, giving as his reason that a child of immoral parents will inherit their moral weakness.
Excellent critiques of these cults from an orthodox perspective are available on the Web. By following the links, you will see informative articles on Bill Gothard, Peter Ruckman, and Jack Hyles. I do not agree with every position taken, but the articles do well in exposing how far these men have strayed from a sound Christianity. (Please inform me if any link goes dead.)
Each wind of apostasy that has swept across Christendom has blown people away from moorings in sound faith and practice. Few churches remain that approximate what they should be, according to God's design laid out in the New Testament. Those that still hold fast to their fundamentalist heritage find themselves under tremendous pressure to move either toward evangelical compromise or cultic authoritarianism, rigidity, and superstition. Will any survive as living churches? God is testing His people, to see whether any will love Him rather than the world, though it offers them an easy religion, without sacrifice or self-denial.
Secularization of Society
A superficial look at statistics would lead to the conclusion that the church in America is thriving. As recently as 1991, almost half of the adults reached by telephone reported that they had attended a religious service within the last week (2). In surveys done between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, about 95% of adult Americans stated that they believe in God, about 90% claimed that they pray, about 80% agreed that Jesus was God or the Son of God, and about 70% accepted the Bible as the word of God (3). It would appear that Christianity still has a strong hold on American society. But the appearance is misleading. A deeper look at statistics reveals that the influence of Christianity is rapidly declining and in danger of disappearing altogether.
Fading influence of the Bible
Although Americans retain a token respect for the Bible, a diminishing minority regard it as a guidebook for life.
- The finding in the late 70s that about 70% endorsed the Bible as the word of God may seem like a sign of healthy fundamentalism. But the comparable measure after World War II was 86% (4).
- In 1963, an amazing 65% still believed that the Bible is literally true. Ten years later, the same measure had dropped to less than 40%, and has remained low ever since (5).
- In 1990, less than 40% defined sin as "going against God's will," going against the Bible," or "violating the Ten Commandments" (6).
- In the same survey, only 13% stated that they believe in all Ten Commandments. (The unpopularity of the Sabbath law is the main reason for the surprisingly low figure.) Only 40% stated that they believe in at least five (7).
The many reasons for the Bible slipping to the margins of American consciousness include these:
- Bible ownership has drastically declined.
- The language is changing, making the traditional versions inaccessible to today's reader.
- Literacy is declining, with the result that people read less and what they read is less challenging. For many, the Bible has become hard reading.
- The Bible has been banished from public schools, and is ignored or mocked in the mass media. Even to post the Ten Commandments in a public place has been forbidden.
- The Bible receives little attention in the home. As long ago as the late 70s, only 17% of American parents stated that they had read the Bible with their children during the last week (8). If false affirmatives could have been sifted out, the true percentage would have been much lower. The percentage today would be lower still.
Fading influence of the church
Despite the rosy statistic cited earlier—that half of the Americans interviewed in 1991 reported that they had gone to a religious service in the last week—a full picture of the evidence shows that church attendance is falling catastrophically.
- Researchers have determined that about half of those who say they went to a service are lying (9). Actual church attendance is about half the figure gleaned by telephone surveys.
- By 1996, the same kind of telephone survey found that only 37% of adults reported going to a service in the last week (10).
- With few exceptions, almost all denominations are losing members. Practically the only religious assemblies registering growth in recent years have been megachurches (11).
- In confidential interviews, 27% say that they go to church regularly, but 58% say that they went regularly as a child (12). The drop is greatest among Jews (12% and 31%) and virtually the same for Catholics (41% and 78%) and Protestants (34% and 67%) (13).
The proportion of the population saying that religion is important in their lives declined from 75% in 1952 to 70% in 1965 and then even more to 53% in 1978 (14). No doubt the percentage has fallen further in the last thirty years.
Fading influence of the Christian world view
The weakening allegiance to a Christian world view is evident in many ways.
- As we have already shown, many bodies of organized Christianity have repudiated orthodox theology.
- Some statistics suggest that popular religious opinions are still fairly orthodox. But these statistics belie the truth.
- Although 90-95% of Americans say they believe in God, most of them have a faith that can only be described as extremely shallow.
- After World War II, 87% of those questioned said that they were absolutely certain of God's existence (15). By 1964, the portion with no doubts had fallen to 77% of the population, and by 1981, to 62% (16).
- In 1990, six out of seven said that it is okay not to believe in God (17).
- The consensus that Jesus is God is also misleading. Many fewer now believe that it is necessary to accept Jesus in order to be saved. In 1964, a bare majority, 51%, still believed that Jesus is the only way. But the same measure slumped to 38% by 1981 (18). Since then, the measure must have slumped further.
- Twenty years ago, 70% identified the Bible as the word of God, but about three sevenths of these also said that it contains mistakes (19).
- Belief in an afterlife remains prevalent. In 1990, 82% agreed that there is an afterlife including heaven and hell (20). But only 4% expected to go to hell, and 45% also believed in ghosts (21).
- Almost a fourth of the populace accepts the occult to some degree. A full 31% believe that some people have magical powers, 28% believe in witchcraft, 24% in black magic, 20% in voodoo (22).
- Although 90-95% of Americans say they believe in God, most of them have a faith that can only be described as extremely shallow.
- A survey in 1990 looked at opinions on leading public issues. On no issue did a majority feel that they needed religious guidance to the right answer. On almost all issues, a majority did not even know what position their religion took (23).
- Perhaps the most dramatic proof that America is forsaking its Christian heritage emerges from the history of how the law views Christianity. In 1892, the Supreme Court ruled that "our civilization and our institutions are emphatically Christian" (24). Today, the Supreme Court has gone so far in enforcing separation of church and state that, in the opinion of former Chief Justice Rehnquist, it has become antireligious. In a dissenting opinion, he said that "the tone of the Court's opinion . . . bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life" (25).