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.