“Christian” traditionally meant born again, believing in the authority of scripture, and seeking to have one’s life conformed to God’s will and teachings. Now it’s become an ambiguous label for all things nice or spiritual. “Evangelical” referred to those believing the essentials of the faith while striving to share the Good News wherever they could. But like “Christian”, it too is fast losing its defining features, as more and more of those using the term are simultaneously denying the basics of the faith that were once required to be upheld by any self-identifying Evangelical.
Other words, equally important and Biblical, are simply disappearing. My hunch is they’ve become like strange cousins we’re ashamed of, so we either avoid them or keep them in the attic. But considering trends we’re seeing in the modern American church, I think they need to be pulled out for a revisit. Three of them are Apostasy, Backsliding, and Carnal, the ugly ABC’s we don’t often teach our kids but, in fact, we should. Because they describe human problems that have always existed, often caused trouble, and sometimes thrive.
A is for Apostasy
Apostasy is a word taken from the Greek apostasia, meaning a literal falling away. It appears only twice in scripture, once and most notably when Paul told the Thessalonians that the Lord’s coming would be preceded by a falling away – apostosia – which is now widely and rightfully viewed as something to look for while looking up. (II Thessalonians 2:3) The word carries a spiritual/religious connotation, as in, a falling away from a particular faith or sacred belief. So the apostasy Paul predicted has little to do with the world because, after all, how can those who’ve never known truth fall away from it? Rather, he’s talking about those who were professed believers now professing unbelief, or a “new” belief in things so vague and erroneous it may as well be called unbelief.
The Church of Sardis, called a “dead church” by the Lord Himself, is often referenced as an example of an apostate group. (See Revelation 3:1-6) They had a living name but had fallen away from true life, both in faith and practice. That’s a spiritual and theological erosion detectable in denominations or churches chipping away at doctrines like the divinity of Christ, the definition of marriage and family, the authority of scripture, or the coming judgment. Truths that were crystal clear and vital to the early church now seem secondary, or up for revision, or outdated, to many of our churches in 2014.
And many individuals as well. Browse the web and you’ll find stories of former Christian musicians who claim to have known plenty of atheist Christian artists (is there really such a thing?) who made money off the church while privately dismissing Her truths. Or note the growing number of self-identified Christian authors who are now applauding sexual perversion, rejection of concepts like heaven and hell, or the inclusion of other faiths under the umbrella of the redeemed. I don’t know how it happens, but there seems to be a line one crosses, a trajectory from truth to error which becomes so severe that, at some crucial point, apostasy is reached. Maybe the most frightening part of this is the fact that, once the line’s been crossed, the individual crossing it seems happily oblivious to his own destruction. And if that isn’t scary, I don’t know what is.
When groups or individuals go apostate, they’re not just “in a different place” or “evolving into new positions.” They’re in grave danger and, as God gives grace and opportunity, they need to be told as much.
B is for Backsliding
Backsliding is scary as well, because it carries its own punishment. Being out of God’s will means being out of the peace, joy, and love we’re meant to experience. The Prodigal Son seemed to learn this the hard way when he realized he was created for something better than what he had left home and settled for. (Luke 15:18) But today too many believers are quietly, perhaps, moving backwards into behaviors or patterns they were once freed from. And no one knows better than I how easily we can default to the familiar, regardless of how unprofitable or downright destructive it might be! Yet rather than pulling our brethren out of the fire, today we’re in danger of “gracing” each other to death by minimizing the seriousness of unconfessed sin and expecting far too little from each other. There really is a place for saying to someone we love and fear for: “If you are less spiritually vibrant now than you used to be, less holy, less separated in life and conduct, then it stands to reason you’re backslidden.”
Yes, I know we have bad days. I’m having one today, in fact, so thanks for reminding me. So in that sense you could say we all occasionally backslide. But I think you know what I mean when I say we can revert not just once but repeatedly to old patterns and become comfortable with them when, in fact, we should be resisting them and pressing on. The backslider only thinks he’s maintaining the status quo when, in fact, he’s in collusion with the world, the flesh, and the devil in a gradual, tragic drift.
C is for Carnal
The carnal man or woman is less detectable than the reprobate, whose error is blatant and glaring, or the backslider, whose sin is usually specific and easily identified. Carnal Christians are believers who, in significant ways, act like non-believers. That’s what had Paul so exasperated with the Corinthian church when he noted their affinity for divisions as a sign of their carnality. (I Corinthians 3:3) A grown man who behaves like a child is an ugly sight, as is a spiritually alive Christian who behaves like a spiritually dead nonbeliever. The carnal Christian may not be indulging in a juicy vice like porn, adultery, drug abuse or swindling. But his speech, like Peter’s when he denied Christ, gives him away. His speaks more of this world than the next, and his life is needlessly but generally entangled in it. And his priorities, shown by what he invests in and makes time for, are in the final analysis the things of man. He’s not that bad; not that good. Lukewarm and compromised, he’s simply like a lamp blown out which once provided light but now simply takes up space.
So What Do We Do?
We needn’t go hunting for these ABC’s, nor should we appoint ourselves as licensed Sin Sniffers called to judge and condemn. But they need to be talked about nonetheless; warned against, feared appropriately, and named when they’re seen. Because yes, they’re prevalent, probably more so than you or I realize. Just look at the debates raging in denominations over issues we’ve rightfully assumed were Biblically clear. Look at the low rate of Scriptural literacy in our pews, compared to the high rate of moral compromise evidenced in far too many local and national scandals. Ask yourself how healthy the modern church is when judged by scripture, and how effectively we’re preaching the gospel, making disciples, and living the life.
With all due respect to Christians everywhere – and I really mean that with respect – I don’t think the picture is very encouraging, As Madame DeFarge said flippantly to her husband in Dickens Tale of Two Cities, while describing the conditions of pre-revolutionary France and the upheaval that would surely come,
“Can such things last? Bah! I mock you.”