Proclaiming honest doubt and articulating unbelief are not as new as we may think they are. One of the notes being struck at present on Christian social media is that it might be one thing for a prominent exvangelical to privately dispose of their faith in Christ, but quite another to publish the fact. Josh Harris and Marty Sampson have both opted for Instagram as their medium of choice in disassociating themselves from the Christian faith, leaving behind them considerable aftershocks and sorrow. While the forum might be regrettable, the fact of announcing apostasy or even a temptation to distrust God go very far back. Think of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ with its stark stare at a godless horizon, or Tennyson’s traumatic confession in ‘In Memoriam’ that,
I falter where I firmly trod,
And falling with my weight of cares
Upon the great world’s altar-stairs
That slope thro’ darkness up to God,
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.
There is something in us as human beings, some craving for epistemological transparency, which feels a deep need to publicly confess belief and unbelief alike. What sets the recent apostasy of prominent figures apart is the tone and texture of what is shared, and the sense of speaking to an accepting majority, at the cost of disapproving minority. In this post I want to think a little about the New Testament’s take on apostasy, to channel some of the compassion and candour which characterises how it is handled, and to do so through two models of failure from the Scriptures:
John Mark: deterred by the mission
When faced with the failure of faith in a prominent Christian, there can be a serious temptation to discard and discredit them immediately and finally. Someone in whom we have invested our hopes, or whom we have viewed as central to the advance of the gospel, steps away from their responsibilities, walks away from the work of ministry, with suddenness and seemingly breathtaking finality. We are hurt and disappointed, our short term view of the forward march of God’s cause is weakened and blurred, and we may wonder at the sincerity of the person involved.
Strictly speaking, this isn’t really apostasy. There is no biblical evidence that John Mark denied the content of the gospel, just that he demurred from its cost in the work of mission. In those moments, however, the line between a lack of faith and outright unbelief can be hard to trace. In such circumstances our ministry must be restorative, gently corrective, and affirmative of the fact that the Lord can use someone who has fallen at the first fence (or any fence thereafter). Barnabas’ approach here is exemplary, and Paul’s eventual affirmation of Mark is surely a measure of the recovery which he enjoyed. One wonders if Paul’s position was wrong in the moments when he and Barnabas’ missions partnership was rent asunder, and what John Mark’s future might have been without Barnabas by his side. A discouraged worker can be eased along the dark passageways of doubt and into eventual unbelief, merely by being handled with austerity and severity, when they actually need grace and personal encouragement.
Demas: seduced by the world
Demas’ biography is even more tragic than that of John Mark, partly because of the lack of detail that we have about its conclusion, and partly because of the causes that Paul ascribes to his apostasy. His is not a shrinking from the mission of the church, but a forfeiting of the truth of the gospel in favour of the allurements of the world. We don’t know in what way Demas loved the world, whether that was pursuit of financial advantage in place of the deprivation of being an apostolic associate, or sexual libertarianism in place of the life giving truth of God’s ways, or some other reorientation of his thinking away from Christ and his message. What we do know is that the ultimate and glorious love for Christ which fires and fuels the believer was traded for the lesser and fleeting love of a world whose pleasures are passing.
It is this kind of apostasy which is finding its voice in our present culture, a disavowal of the claims of the gospel in favour of the world’s way of thinking. I don’t know Joshua Harris or Marty Sampson beyond their writings and their recent communications, but in each case their public statements reflect a desire to affirm and appropriate the wider cultural narrative in place of their previous Christian position. In Sampson’s case in particular a series of issues are raised, and the claim made that no one talks about these hot potatoes – ignoring all the while the vast corpus of written and spoken resources which are readily available. What is telling is the closing exhortation, ‘Love and forgive absolutely. Be kind absolutely. Be generous and do good to others absolutely. Some things are good no matter what you believe.’ Those kinds of statements play well within our culture of rootless kindness, and groundless forgiveness, echoing much of what passes for charity divorced from God. Joshua Harris’ heartfelt Instagram post was followed by others which showed him in attendance at a Pride parade, pronouncing the shibboleth which guarantees entrance to cultural acceptance in the West.
Renunciation is made all the more easy by the speed and reach of social media. Although spaces like Twitter can make beliefs seem more polarised and entrenched, they also allow our views and convictions to resemble news cycles rather than firmly held creeds. We can now change our minds, not so much with impunity, as with a sense of celebrity; while constancy, fidelity, and long term commitment to a single ideal are not virtues that are held in high honour. Changing one’s thinking in a public sphere also immediately connects apostasy with a network of others who will accept, affirm, and congratulate the person moving away from their belief, in some ways palliating the wider social impact of divergence.
In a sense we ought to be encouraged by apostasy. It is a sign that the gospel’s distinctive claims are increasingly being viewed as impossible to integrate with the wider world. A previous generation could comfortably speak as cultural Christians, precisely because there was so little pushback and resistance from a world which largely affirmed or shared its views. This could lead to flagrant hypocrisy, or a conceited approach to the gospel which meant that one could enjoy the social esteem of Christian values while living like an utter rogue in private.
The squeeze which new cultural dominators are placing on those who claim to affirm the gospel may lead to more and more people having to decide which are the greater and the lesser loves in their lives. It is painful to watch, our hearts should be marked by pity for those are so bewitched, but the ultimate result of these defections will not be the end of the gospel, but perhaps its further establishment.
Paul stood alone by the time his final letter, with none but the Lord as his companion and confidante, longing for cloak and scroll in his prison cell. The gospel has never been predicated on the strength of numbers, its social acceptance, or its celebrity endorsements, but on the raw truth of Jesus the Messiah, and the power of the Spirit to build His Church.
Our calling is to hold on to the beauty and honour of our Lord, to love those who seem to turn back, to believe truth deeply before we speak it loudly, and to search our hearts for quiet betrayals of Christ, and for the adulterous seeds which might one day make us secede from naming Christ as Saviour altogether.