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.
Plus, don’t forget the Crusades, the Cathars, the Inquisition, and the Salem witch trials. When severing ties with apostates (legitimate or otherwise), the church has a bloody history.
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.
Originally published at CTLibrary on April 11, 2007
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today International.
Used with permission.
(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.)
[tags]apostacy, apostate, BlogRodent, Books-and-Culture, Carlton-Pearson, Cathars, Charles-Arn, Christianity-Today, Christianity-Today-International, church-history, conversion, CTLibrary, discipleship, Evangelical-Church, evangelism, forgiveness, Foursquare, George-Wishart, heresy, Hussein-Qambar-Ali, Inquisition, islam, Islamic, islamic-faith, Jerry-Cook, John-Rogers, John-Wilson, Kuwait, martyrdom, martyrs, Mary-I, muslim, orthodoxy, Patrick-Hamilton, penitant, Reformation, repentance, Robert-Ali, Salem-witch-trials, Shariah, Shariah-law, the-Crusades, theology, Thorkild-Grosboel, William-Tyndale, Win-Arn, witnessing, World-Christian-Encyclopedia[/tags]
More food for thought, eh Rich. :)
I’m disturbed enough about this topic now to go and see if I can put something in my blog about it… for while I agree somewhat with the fact that there is a serious issue here, I don’t think that it is being properly diagnosed. Yes, those that are manipulated will walk.. Yes those that feel left out of everything will consider walking. but I don’t think the problem is the program, but the fuel it’s running on.
We need revival. Serious revival.
Mark, I agree with you: we need revival — that’s a key ingredient to natural church growth, as we see it especially in the Book of Acts.
I think the guys I cite in the article above have nailed only one part of the problem, as you intuit. I do think we largely have hare-brained methods of evangelism, to that extent I agree with them, and I agree with others that just getting someone to say the sinners’ prayer doesn’t necessarily lead to a conversion experience. After all, James tells us the devils’ believe, and tremble. The evidence of salvation is obedience.
And so, while I didn’t articulate this in my article, I think a couple necessary ingredients largely missing in our churches is:
a) a focus and an expectation on spiritual transformation as a result of the conversion experience and
b) a commitment to discipleship and mentoring subsequent to a decision to become a disciple of Christ.
Like you, I think we need revival, too, but we need the kind of revival that is supported by a commitment to life-change and a true apprenticeship to Jesus. Too many revivals have slunk off into the night leaving very little residue behind because the church experiencing the revival had no idea what to do afterward.
Revival and all the new believers it brings must be followed up by discipleship and obedience. Without that, the gains from a revival fall away, just as the gains from a successful street evangelism campaign disappear without successful integration into the church body.
Thanks for commenting and stopping by, I appreciate it!
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Is there any way of evangelising and discipling people so that they’re less likely to fall away down the track?
Some critics of modern evangelism techniques, such as evangelist Ray Comfort, assert that too much emphasis is placed on God’s love, and not enough on His justice. The result is that would-be Christians have little or no understanding of their need for repentance, the consequences of rejecting the gospel, or accepting it but falling away afterwards.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the techniques Comfort advocates, but if you are, what do you think of them?
Hi, Ross, thanks for commenting!
I think what Ray Comfort advocates makes a lot of sense intellectually. I do advocate this approach personally, and I to use this approach whenever I’m asked about my faith. I do believe that people who make the leap of faith to embrace Jesus should also do so with the knowledge that repentance is required as well as obedience, they should know that in their former way of living, they were destined to an eternal death.
However, the problem I have with this approach is that it still bends away from the relational benefits of loving people. I do believe that if you truly love someone, you’ll warn them of the dangers of their course of action. But generally the love must be expressed first well before the presentation of the gospel. For the gospel is not truly good news to the recipient until a) they know the dire straits they are in (Comfort’s approach) and b) the recognize that the person sharing the good news actually has good news.
When salesmen come to my door hawking their wares, I don’t care how good their product is. I don’t even care whether I actually need the product. I find their door-bell ringing and foot-in-the door methods intrusive and frustrating.
However, when a friend of mine says, “Dude, you should check this out…” I’m far more inclined to listen, especially if my friend is responding to an actual need and especially if I get the sense that my friend is sharing this good news without regard to personal benefit. In other words, I’ll listen because I believe my friend isn’t a shill.
We are told to go and make disciples. I think that phrase, that command, is far too poorly understood and far too ignored in the Western church. I know I have neglected it. How about you?
If I am to make a disciple, I have to first be a disciple. My life must have evidence of change. It is an impossibility to make disciples without first having been mentored into Christ’s way. Sure, I can make converts, but they won’t be disciples. They’ll be unattached, floating adrift in the sea of pews, and they may soon vanish from the Church.
And if I am to make a disciple I must attract disciples. Potential converts must see in me something they lack, something they need. My character and the fruit of the Spirit in my life should be such that potential acolytes of Jesus attach themselves to me in order to learn more about this way of living, being, and doing. And when I say to my unbelieving friends, “Look this isn’t working out for you, have you considered this?” they’ll know to listen because they’ve seen a difference in the way I live in grace versus their own stumbling about.
That said, there is a place for talking to strangers with whom you have no prior relationship, but I still fully believe every encouter must absolutely be bathed in the love of Jesus flowing through our lives.
These encounters don’t need to be scripted or forced. I’ve experienced enough of them to know better — especially when I have prayed beforehand for an opportunity to arise, and one actually does through no machination of my own.
And when that happens, an oft-repeated phrase I hear is, “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this!”
I truly believe that rather than focusing on evangelism, we should focus on getting out of the pews, out of the church walls, and get out there to build bridges and friendship with our neighbors.
Assuming you’ve been discipled that is. Jesus waited some time before sending out the 70. Paul waited some time before beginning his ministry. There needs to be a time of solidifying and training and walking in this new life before being sent out to build new bridges to unbelievers.