Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Mutinous, Adulterous Apostasy

Sometimes when discussing apostasy, I have found that we tend to discuss the symptoms or results of apostasy as though they were the causes. These typically external symptoms may include persecutions, changed scriptures, increasing philosophical influence or a host of others. Noel Reynolds has commented that this is kind of like coming upon a car wreck and determining that the twisted metal and broken glass caused the accident. The causes of apostasy are not the external results, rather the internal conflicts.

Leaning for a moment on the expertise of Reynolds (which has been seconded by Stephen Robinson, the BYU professor and well-known author of Believing Christ), we learn that the Greek term apostasia, from which the word "apostasy" comes, means rebellion. It often references a military rebellion or mutiny. The word "apostasy" references such a mutiny in the church. Consider the mutinous nature of apostasy in the experience of Alma the Younger. An angel declares to him:

Alma, arise and stand forth, for why persecutest thou the church of God? For the Lord hath said: This is my church, and I will establish it; and nothing shall overthrow it, save it is the transgression of my people (Mosiah 27:13).

The Lord clearly states in this verse that no external force can overthrow His church. This is confirmed by a statement of Joseph Smith so famous it has been given a title by which to reference it, The Standard of Truth. It declares:

No unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done. (HC 4:540, p. 9)

Apostasy is not the result of external forces, rather internal conflicts or transgressions. While apostasy is tied to obedience, or rather disobedience, it is particularly closely tied to keeping covenants. Consider this warning given to Moses:

You are going to rest with your fathers, and these people will soon prostitute themselves to the foreign gods of the land they are entering. They will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them. On that day I will become angry with them and forsake them. (Deut 31:16)

Leaning again on the teachings of Reynolds, we learn of this verse that "the word used here is apostasion, meaning 'little rebellion' or 'little apostasy,' and specifically indicates divorce, or breaking of the marriage covenant. The Lord repeatedly likened his covenant with Israel to the covenant of marriage, and apostasy from that covenant was likened to adultery." We cannot be adulterous against a relationship in which we have no part. Thus, the rebels at the roots of apostasy must have always been members of the church, perhaps sometimes leaders as we saw in the days of Kirtland, seeking for power or glory or justification of sin. Such was certainly the case for Lucifer, the first apostate, who rebelled against the plan of God to gain glory for himself.

Modern revelation confirms this approach of covenant-breaking as apostasy. The first section of the Doctrine and Covenants says, referring to those who will be cut off because of their refusal to heed to the word of God and his prophets:

they have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant; They seek not the Lord to establish righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall. (D&C 1:15-16)

Straying from the covenants and ordinances of God is the cause of apostasy. It cannot occur by external force, but it can happen to individuals or large groups when they stop striving to heed the words of God and His prophets. This is what happened in the ancient church (see Galatians 1:6-8, 2 Cor 11:13-15, 2 Tim 1:15, 3 John 1:9-10, Revelation 2-3, 1 Cor. 1:11-13). This is how apostasy happens today.

With General Conference fast approaching, the next few weeks may be an ideal time to consider our willingness to heed the words of God and His prophet. Are we keeping the covenants we have made at baptism, when we we ordained to the priesthood, when we were married or at other times?

I agree with Noel Reynolds:

As individuals, we must carefully keep our covenants, or we will lose the guidance of the Spirit, and fall into apostasy ourselves. Further we must teach this lesson to our children. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has said, the Church is never more than one generation away from extinction. In each new generation-- each individual member, needs to be converted, to make a covenant of obedience to the Father, and to grow in faithfulness in his service.

In summary, apostasy is mutiny or rebellion that results from the disobedience of church members to the commandments and covenants of God. We can be safe from individual or widespread apostasy as we heed the words of the prophets, keep our covenants and strive to be obedient to God's commands.


  1. Is the breaking of covenants the cause of apostacy, or is it the apostacy itself? I'm not sure it can be both.

    Another question: is there a difference between a person's leaving the church and apostacy? The "reasons" you cite at the beginning of the post are reasons some give for leaving the church.

    I don't fully see the Reynolds statement you cite in your first paragraph working. Clearly the twisted metal of the car in an accident is a result of the physical forces of the accident. But perceived issues in church history or persecutions may well precede a decision to leave.

    If the suggestion is that there is always unrighteousness (eg, covenant breaking) before one notices issues with church history or wonders about changes in scriptures, I don't think the data bear that out.

    It may well be that covenant keeping is helpful in resolving those apparent discrepancies for some, but given the gifts of teh spirit are different for different people, it's conceivable that not all have the same response.

    I suspect that the decision to leave the church for some is heart wrenching and painful for spiritual as well as cultural reasons; that's certainly true for some close to me who have made that sad choice.

    That said, I don't doubt that covenant breaking shuts off the spirit and limits one's ability to discern truth. Those who are "at war" with the Lord (and are in apostacy according to the definition of your post) likely do first break covenants on their way to engaging in the war.

    Hence my question about the difference (if any) between simply leaving the church and apostacy.

  2. I think that breaking covenants is the actual apostasy itself, rather than the cause of some later action; thank you for pointing that out.

    As for your second question, isn't leaving the Church an act of apostasy? Regardless of the reasons or factors that go into that decision, it seems that leaving the church is a violation of at least the baptismal covenant and constitutes taking the name of God in vain. If this is true, then I don't think there is a difference between leaving or apostatizing. Both are a rejection or a rebellion from the inside, though one tends to be more peaceful than the other.

    While my experience is likely more limited than your own, it also seems that such a decision-- or inactivity in the church for that matter-- is, in fact, precluded by unrighteousness of some sort. This may be infrequent or nonexistent scripture study, an apathetic approach to prayer, pride in one of its many varieties, not paying tithing, not following the prophet... there is at least one area where that person stopped striving before they decided to stop coming to church. It may be an issue of testimony or of commitment, but there is something there.

    I realize this is a broad generalization and as such it is not applicable to every situation, but I haven't yet encountered a situation with an inactive or excommunicated member where this wasn't true, either.

  3. I just realized that I didn't give a source for Noel Reynolds' comments. I recommend reading her entire talk, called "What Went Wrong for the Early Christians?" It was given as a BYU-Idaho devotional on 15 June 2004. At the time Dr. Reynolds was a professor of political science at BYU-Provo.

    The confirmation I referenced from Dr. Robinson comes from my notes from his New Testament class, which I took while an undergrad at BYU.

  4. Dallin, thanks for clarifying, as in the OP it wasn't quite clear for me.

    I think if you take covenant breaking as equal to apostacy (and I understand why one could), then your reasoning is sound.

    In the church, I think we also use apostacy to refer to the act of fighting publicly against the church, an act that may result in formal church discipline (while 'merely' breaking the baptismal covenant is not necessarily a matter for church discipline).

    I think there's also room (and perhaps it's just because I'm not in a position to judge differently) for an honest seeker of truth who makes an effort to understand doctrine which is difficult or history which doesn't make sense to him, and chooses to leave. I suspect this case is rare, and I cannot easily explain it away.

    I had a very good friend early in my college years who was an example of this last type. He and I discussed gospel questions; we prayed together; we attended church together. As it happens, we entered the MTC the same day, and went to the temple and were endowed together just before entering the MTC.

    Six months into his mission, he decided he couldn't look himself in the mirror anymore. He couldn't accept the truth of what he was teaching. The doubts and questions that had plagued him earlier had really never left him, and finally they overcame him. And he went home and left the church.

    This was not a cavalier act of apathy, nor was it an act of defiance. It was his honest response to his own experience. So I suppose that, yes, because he broke his covenants associated with the church his leaving was an act of apostacy. But he remained a friend to the church, and to church members. He did not try to persuade others of his point of view, and he respected (I daresay even envied) those who chose to stay. At the time of his choice, he was working hard as a full time missionary in a very difficult mission (I later had that confirmed by a mutual acquaintance who knew him as a missionary), it seems he was doing his best to honor his covenants. (As I said before -- I'm not really the one to judge those things.)

    Well, thanks for letting me ramble on.

  5. It seems there must be multiple degrees of apostasy. Where apostasy in general is a turning away from the gospel, it is true that some do so peacefully, even mournfully, while others go out fighting. I'm not sure if the difference is one of personality or pride or some other thing. I guess I am grateful that there will be a perfect judge to assess such things.

    Like you, I have had people close to me leave the Church. Maybe it is a different topic, but I have wondered how to share the gospel in such situations. Fellowshipping is easy for me-- these are friends and family members-- but I tend to wait for questions when it comes to talking about the church. In some cases those questions never come.

    But maybe that is a topic for another post. Thanks for your thoughts! They've helped me clarify some of these things in my own mind as well.