Is there a way for a Christian to recognize apostasy in their church or in the teachings of others? Can we use the Bible to reveal what is and what is not apostasy?
What is Apostasy?
The Greek word from which the word apostasy comes from is “aphistasthai” or “apostasia” and literally means “to revolt.”Apostasy has been defined by the secular world as an abandonment of the faith and one’s religious principles and biblical teachings. It could also be viewed as a disqualification by a church of leaders such as a pastor, deacon or elder and even a church board member or a church layman. When someone or some teaching is declared to be apostate it is a declaration of that person or of particular teachings to have departed from biblical beliefs or the faith that was once delivered to the apostles and given to the church and form the essential doctrines. Not all teachings are essential to the faith like whether a person believes in the rapture or not or whether a person or teaching holds to grey areas that are not addressed specifically in the Bible.
There are three forms in which this word can be applied to different people or situations:
- Apostasy is the abandonment or desertion of biblical teachings that are essential to salvation.
- An apostate is someone who has forsaken and fallen away from biblical faith and principles.
- To apostatize is when someone commits apostasy or the act of apostasy.
Apostasy is essentially the abandonment of the faith by someone. Tragically, these apostates place themselves under the curse of God because as Paul wrote “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:8). Paul had to deal with apostates in the Corinthian church as he wrote “if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough” (2 Cor 11:4) and it is “no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14) for “As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse” (Gal 1:9)!
Divorce as Apostasy
Interestingly, the word used in Matthew 5:32 where Jesus said “anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery” is “apostasion” or apostasy as an abandonment of, in this case, their lawfully wedded spouse. This also occurs in Matthew 19:3 and in Mark 10:4 where the same word for divorce comes from the root of the Greek words “apolyo” and “apostasia”. Here divorce is seen as abandoning someone that they vowed before God to be joined with for life. They have fallen away (apostasia or apostatizes) from the biblical teaching that marriage  is for life and that no one or nothing should separate them until death they do part (Matt 19:6, Mark 10:9 ).
Apostasy in the Early Church
It didn’t take long after the church began for apostasy to set in because the Enemy always wants to subvert and pervert the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica about the Lord’s Day to “Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction” (2 Thess 2:3). The word “rebellion” is better translated as the Greek word indicates (apostasia) as apostasy so this verse would more accurately read “Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction.” Here is a key point. Apostasy is lawlessness. Any teaching that claims to be Christian yet teaches that we don’t have to keep Jesus’ commandments or the Ten Commandments is from an apostate teacher or pastor. We know this because John wrote that “sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4c). Who is the ultimate source of this apostate teaching? It is “the son of destruction” (2 Thess 2:3c) or Satan himself.
Paul’s Warning of Apostasy
We have already read one warning from Paul that before the Day of the Lord comes, apostasy will occur in the church and we are seeing this today. Paul warns Timothy again that “the [Holy] 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, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:1-5). Once more we read of a Greek root word for apostasy where Paul writes that “some will depart (aphistēmi for “withdraw, remove” or “revolt”) from the faith.” The Greek root word for “depart” is “aphistēmi” or apostasy and who is this source of this revolt? It is from Satan and which is “teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars” because they teach unbiblical ideas such as abstaining from marriage (which is held as honorable to God) and from certain foods (when “everything created by God is good”).
Any time someone tries to teach you that Christians should only eat clean meats as mentioned in the Old Testament, you are listening to or reading apostate literature or listening to an apostate teacher because Jesus said “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:15) and “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean)” (Mark 7:18-19). When God was telling Peter that salvation had now come to the Gentiles, who were considered unclean to the Jews, a voice from heaven spoke to him saying “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:13-15).
How to Recognize Apostasy
It is so much easier to recognize apostasy when you are regularly reading the Bible. The more you read the Word of God the more that an apostate’s teachings just won’t sound right. Anytime that someone tells you that you must do this, abstain from that, do not do this but do this instead, that should alert you that something that someone is teaching or has written is unbiblical. No one is saved by abstaining from marriage, from not eating certain foods, from being told that breaking the law is not wrong, or that keeping the Old Testament Mosaic Laws is required. You must understand the true source is the Devil himself who is teaching his own doctrines for there is nothing we can add to or take away from salvation since it is fully a work of God and not our own works (Eph 2:8-9) “For we are His workmanship” not our own (Eph 2:10). If someone tells you that you must add anything to your salvation in order to get saved or to be in a right standing before God, other than repentance and trust in Christ, they are lying.
Apostasy is growing in the world today and possibly even in most of the churches because you don’t hear much of a Bible-centered, cross-proclaiming, Christ-elevating, God-glorifying message anymore. The gospel has frequently become man-centered, needs-based, happiness-oriented but Paul warns that they who teach such things have a curse from God on them (Gal 1:9) because they are teaching the doctrines of the Devil (1 Tim 4:1) and their lawlessness will catch up with them (2 Pet 3:17) and just before Christ returns there will be a great falling away (literally, apostasy) at that time (2 Tim 3:1-9). Just recognize that the essentials of the faith cannot be changed (Rom 10:9-13; Acts 4:12), and even if it appears to come from an angel (Gal 1:8) even the Devil  can appear to be a preacher of righteousness (2 Cor 11:14) but the Jesus they are teaching about may not be the biblical Jesus (2 Cor 11:4). To be forewarned is to be forearmed.
Related reading: 10 Basic Christian Beliefs 
Resource – Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.