The Pathology of an Apostate Church
by John MacArthur
Monday, October 15, 2018
Churches can descend into apostasy on a wide variety of issues. They might succumb to mysticism, feminism, worldliness, worksrighteousness, or any of the myriad corrupting threats poised against thechurch. But there is a common thread uniting every church that turns from thetruth after error. Setting aside the authority of God’s Word is the mostwell-worn path to apostasy.
Consider the spiritual ground that is lost when thechurch surrenders biblical authority. If Scripture does not speak withabsolute, inerrant authority, the offer of justification by grace through faithcannot be extended to desperate sinners. One can’t argue for the sufficiency ofChrist as the sacrifice for sins, or His rule as the Head of the church. Onecan’t cling to the glorious truth of imputation—that at the cross, “[God] madeHim who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become therighteousness of God in Him” (2Corinthians 5:21). Without those truths, we have no guarantee thatGod’s wrath has been satisfied. There can be no assurance of faith, no hope ofheaven, and no confidence in the promises of God.
On the other hand, doing away with the authority ofScripture—or merely subjugating it to the authority of men—purposely paves theway for false doctrine and false teachers to infiltrate the flock of God. Itinvites theological confusion, elevating the words of fallible men over theinerrant Word of God. It is designed to exchange the gospel of grace for aman-centered system of works righteousness. And it pollutes the purity of God’struth, clouding biblical doctrine with superstition, tradition, extra-biblicalrevelation, and demonic deception.
That’s a broad way to summarize the various deviationsthat have dominated the Roman Catholic Church since before the time of Luther.But it’s also a fitting description of the Protestant church today. If thatsounds like an overstatement, consider these questions: What demonstrabledifference is there between Tetzel’s indulgences and the holy water andanointed scraps of cloth peddled by charismatic charlatans to their vastaudiences? What’s the difference between a pope who speaks ex cathedra and apastor who exposits his own dreams and mental impressions as fresh revelationfrom the Lord? And what separates the worship of Mary and the veneration of thesaints from the way today’s self-proclaimed apostles visit the graves of theirforebears to “soak” in the deceased’s anointing?
Worse still, the same kinds of rampant corruption andimmorality the Roman Church once worked to conceal are now celebrated andencouraged by many Protestant congregations. Far from being known for theirpurity, many churches today go out of their way to embrace or imitate thedebauchery of secular culture. Pastors exegete Hollywood movies rather thanScripture. Seeker-sensitive megachurch gatherings often look and feel more likea rock concert or a burlesque show than a worship service. Celebrity-mindedchurch leaders seem more interested in what’s stylish and marketable than theyare in what’s sound and solidly biblical. Shockingly, there are even someostensibly evangelical churches whose leaders are proud that their membershipis open, welcoming, über-tolerant, or even affirming toward serial adulterers,hard-hearted fornicators, impenitent homosexuals, immoral idol worshipers, andeven to forms of paganism. They’re proud of it.
Many more congregations are on a slower path to the samedestination. While they might not openly celebrate immorality, they do nothingto drive it from their midst. Sin is not confronted and church discipline isnot faithfully practiced. Over time, the conscience—both individually andcollectively—grows cold, unconfessed sin becomes the norm, and the church bearsno discernable difference from the world.
All that is evidence of a lack of submission to God’sWord and a decreasing concern for doctrinal truth and the purity and protectionit produces. Born from the conviction that true believers must separate from anapostate church, Protestantism has needed only a scant five hundred years tocultivate its own strains of apostasy. Much like the Israelites in the book ofJudges, the Protestant church seems determined to repeat the mistakes of itspast rather than learn from them. Paul’s indictment of the churches of Galatiaapplies to much of the evangelical church today: “You foolish Galatians, whohas bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed ascrucified?” (Galatians 3:1).A recent national survey revealed that 52 percent of evangelical Protestantsbelieve salvation comes by faith and works combined. Only 30 percent affirmsola fide and sola scriptura.  TheReformation is being undone by “bewitched” evangelical Protestants. The protestis largely over.
Descent into apostasy doesn’t happen overnight; thechanges are slow and steady. Rejecting Scripture’s authority and priority isthe first step, usually followed by a succession of compromises: Maybe we canbe more relevant and inviting to the world if we don’t take this verse or thatsin too seriously. Once the church determines its purpose is to engage andattract the culture rather than edify and equip the saints, it sets out on apath that will always lead to worldliness and apostasy. Not long ago, thepastor of one of the largest churches in America told church leaders theyshould not let doctrine get in the way of winning people over. One sympatheticauthor summed up his exhortation succinctly: “Don’t put theology aboveministry.”  Churches today are so investedin attracting sinners that they attempt to bury their theology under thewelcome mat.
That unbiblical model of outreach is the very thingdulling many churches’ ability to reach the world with the gospel. Filling thepews with comfortable, unaffected unbelievers is the fastest way to confuse andcorrupt the work of the church. God has not called His people out of the worldto chase its trends in vain attempts to seem relevant. The church cannot besalt and light in this wretched world if we are indistinguishable from worldlypeople (see Matthew5:13–16).
The Alleged Advantages of the Early Church
To curb those worldly trends and simplify the work ofministry, some Christians today are calling for a return to the early church model.They believe what’s ailing and inhibiting the work of the church today is thechurch structure itself. Megachurches with sprawling campuses, legions ofleaders, and overgrown congregations that must be endlessly subdivided—thoseare supposedly the villains that have corrupted and confused the church inrecent years.
The argument suggests that Christians can’t function andserve to their full potential in a large-church environment, and that the NewTestament model of small house churches frees God’s people to focus on whatmatters most. When there is no building to maintain, no denomination to support(or submit to), and no institutional oversight, the church is unshackled toserve the Lord and reach the surrounding community. This is offered as an attemptto return to the simplicity described inActs 2:42:“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and tofellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (It’s often ignored thatthis was a church of three thousand cf. Acts 2:41.)
However, we need only look at the New Testament to seethat life in the first-century church was anything but idyllic. Smallcongregations, simplified organization, and proximity to the apostles did notgive the early church the spiritual advantages and insulation we might assume.In fact, we see many of the maladies that plague the church today on display inits earliest incarnations. Put simply, the purity of the early church isoverblown.
And nowhere is that more apparent than in the book ofRevelation. As we’ll see next time, the first-century churches were awash withmany of the problems that have plagued the church ever since.
(Adapted from Christ’s Call to Reform the Church)