In some cultures and eras, apostates face certain death. In America, it’s the church that’s dying from apostasy.
Apostate — it’s not exactly a common word. But for those doomed to hear its rare pronouncement, it can mean imminent death or serious eternal consequences.
Like repentance, apostasy implies a rejection or abandonment of a practice, ideal, or belief. And one religion’s penitent is another one’s apostate.
This irony became apparent in the first formal court case involving charges of apostasy in Kuwait. The court found Hussein Qambar Ali guilty for converting from Islam to Christianity in December 1995. Since Shari’ah law in Kuwait (and many other Islamic societies) prescribes the death sentence for apostasy, the court called for Ali’s execution, along with the termination of his marriage and the distribution of his possessions to heirs.
“Apostasy in the Islamic world is serious,” said Ali. “Anyone, even an ordinary person, has the right to kill me without any penalty.”
With religious and government leaders clamoring for his death, Ali fled his ransacked home, living on the run for several weeks. Finally, he left Kuwait to seek religious asylum in a vibrantly Christian nation full of healthy churches: the United States of America.
Unfortunately, the apostate Muslim soon became an apostate Christian. Less than two years after his conversion, Hussein Qambar Ali returned to Kuwait and recited the creedal Islamic statement before an official court: “I witness there is no God but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” The prodigal Muslim had come home.
Fortunately for Ali and others in the evangelized Western world, turning away from Jesus doesn’t equal treason or provoke an immediate “kill clause.” There are no Christian death squads looking for dropout Sunday schoolers and backslidden believers to behead. There’s no hangman’s noose outside the revolving back door of the modern American megachurch.
And yet, it wasn’t always so. The annals of history — and the archives of CT Library — brim with examples of Christian thinkers, leaders, and rebels who rejected contemporary orthodoxy and became martyrs for their presumed heresy. There’s William Tyndale, strangled and burned in 1536 for rejecting the notion that only priests could read the Bible. Or Patrick Hamilton, burned at the stake in 1528 for rejecting Scotland’s ban on Lutheran literature. There’s also Protestant preacher George Wishart, strangled and burned in 1546 for rejecting Catholic doctrine and embracing the Reformation. And John Rogers, burned in 1555 during the reign of Mary I for embracing Protestantism and refusing to not preach it.
But dealing with heresy in today’s church isn’t quite as dangerous or thrilling as addressing apostasy under the laws of Islamic societies, the rule of medieval Catholic potentates, or the dictates of colonial Puritans. Sure, Bishop Carlton Pearson recently earned the label of heretic for preaching the “Gospel of Inclusion,” teaching everyone’s already saved and going to heaven. But he still has a church … and his health. Lutheran minister Thorkild Grosboel of Denmark said, “There is no heavenly God, there is no eternal life, there is no resurrection”; and his great punishment was only a suspension.
However, while modern Christian apostasy won’t elicit a death sentence, it’s still dangerous. It still leads to certain eternal death. And it’s bleeding the Western church dry.
“Every year, some 2,765,100 church attenders in Europe and North America cease to be practicing Christians,” notes Books & Culture editor John Wilson, citing the World Christian Encyclopedia. That’s five Christians every minute slipping into practical apostasy. Meanwhile, the church in Africa alone is growing by a net result of three new believers every minute.
So while overseas churches become healthier, the American church seems to be infected. Despite aggressive evangelistic efforts, perhaps something intrinsic to the Western church’s theology, practice, or culture is “un-converting” new believers, driving them to apathy, if not outright apostasy.
Research seems to support this idea. In “Closing the Evangelistic Back Door,” Win and Charles Arn cite a study of three groups’ receptions to evangelistic presentations. One group made commitments and were actively involved in local churches. Another group “dropped out” soon after making commitments. And the third group rejected the presentation outright. Of those who remained committed, seven out of ten received a presentation using “non-manipulative dialog.” In contrast, nine out of ten “dropouts” received a presentation using “manipulative dialog.” And of those who said “no, thanks,” seven out of ten received a fact- and theology-driven presentation.
This study’s results indicate the need to revise evangelistic strategy. The Arns recommend abandoning manipulative coercion and viewing evangelism as a process rather than a one-time gospel presentation. They also believe evangelism should be fundamentally relational and tied closely to the church. For if the church community doesn’t befriend and incorporate believers within the first six months of their spiritual life, the church will likely see new converts become apostate dropouts.
Revolutionizing evangelistic techniques is also a concern of Foursquare pastor Jerry Cook:
Part of our problem is this: we’re trying to do the confronting. We’re trying to convert people. Conversion chases after a person’s beliefs, lifestyle, and relationships saying, “We have the answer.” Then we must inform the person what the question is that he should be asking. The whole process is artificial. …
[Unbelievers] are drawn to a relationship. That’s why “sinners” were drawn to Jesus. He never attacked them. He simply said, “You can be forgiven.” …
Until we come to grips with this, we will always be putting off the non-Christian and patronizing the Christian.
This failure of the Western church begs a sobering question: if Hussein Qambar Ali had fled from Kuwait to perhaps Africa, China, or Brazil, would he ever have abandoned Jesus and returned to Islam?
May God help American Christians reject flawed ideas of evangelism to become better disciples, demonstrating his love in order to make disciples — not converts at risk of becoming apostate ex-believers.
(Note: Most of the articles linked above require paid membership at CTLibrary.com to view, but if you’re the kind of person who enjoys reading Christianity Today, Leadership, Books & Culture, or Christian History & Biography, it may well be worth it. Also, though I was once employed by Christianity Today, I do not personally benefit from any transactions through these sites.)
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