What is apostasy, and who are apostates?
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The Greek word apostasis (in its various conjugated forms) is used several times in the Greek Septuagint and twice in the Christian scriptures. The Greek word (which we pronounce as apostasy in English) literally means, ‘turn away from (apo)’ a ‘standing or state (stasis).’ Therefore we sometimes translate it as ‘turned away’ (for example, at 2 Chronicles 28:19), because that’s what the term really means. It refers to a turning away from one way of life to another.
In Christianity, apostasy therefore means to turn away from a righteous Christian way of life. It does not refer to some disagreement over doctrine, as misapplied by some religious groups, nor is it refusing to submit to another’s authority (Matthew 23:10; 3 John 1:9).
Most Bible references to apostasy are speaking of turning away from the way of life as an IsraElite, as outlined in the Old Law. The term only appears in two places in the Christian scriptures (the New Testament). Both times it indicates that someone made or promoted such a change in lifestyle (Acts 21:21; 2 Thessalonians 2:3).
At Acts 21:21, we read (concerning the Apostle Paul):
‘They have heard the rumor that you’ve been teaching Judeans that live among the nations an apostasy (lit. ‘turning away’) from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or to follow the traditions.’
So, you can see what was being called an apostasy by the 1st century Christians – it was Paul’s teaching that no one had to follow the traditional Jewish way of life as outlined by Moses in the Law… which was true!
Nevertheless, Paul still submitted to the wishes of these Jewish elders and underwent a needless ceremonial cleansing at the Temple, which led to his arrest and eventual death as a martyr in Rome.
Notice that Paul wasn’t accused of being an ‘apostate’ for teaching a wrong doctrine. Rather, they were accusing him of teaching a ‘turning from’ or an ‘apostasy from’ the Law of Moses. Yes, of promoting an abandonment of Judaism and a completely different way of life.
So a correct modern use of the word ‘apostasy’ would refer to a person turning from a moral Christian way of life, to an unchristian way of life. It would not describe some disagreement over the meaning of a Bible verse, the interpretation of prophecy, whose authority to follow, or how to arrange Christian worship.
The proper word to describe a person who is teaching something that deviates from the established doctrine of an organized religion is ‘heretic’. This is the charge that the Catholic Church used extensively when they were accusing Protestants and others during the Inquisition. They didn’t accuse anyone of apostasy – turning away from a Christian way of life – but of heresy – disagreeing with their established doctrines and refusing to submit to the authority of the Church. So at least the ancient ‘Church’ understood the proper differences in the meanings of the words.
However, there was at least one instance where Paul seemed to accuse certain ones for something we might view as heresy. 2 Timothy 2:17-18 says:
‘That was the problem with Hymenaeus and Philetus;
They got away from the truth and started teaching that the resurrection has already happened, which misdirected the faith of some.’
So, deviating from teaching the truth of the Bible was in fact a serious matter among 1st-century Christians. However, by writing the words, ‘that was the problem with...’, these men may have also abandoned a Christian life by the time Paul wrote that letter; we simply do not know.
More broadly, though, in view of the words at Matthew 5:22 and Jude 9, calling anyone an ‘apostate’ or a ‘heretic’ (especially when there might be some question as to who is right) would be a serious sin. Also, according to Acts 17:11, Christians should always be allowed to question the accuracy of religious teachings.
The only other places in the Christian scriptures where the Greek word for apostasy is found, is talking of a divorce certificate (Mark 10:4). The Greek term is biblion apostasiu, which literally means, ‘scroll of apostasy’ or ‘scroll of sending away/rejection.’ The use of the word well illustrates the true meaning of apostasy, as divorcing someone is a radically different concept to disagreeing with someone.