The choice of a Christian leader to renounce his or her faith is tragic. We grieve at such an event, and the sorrow we feel is compounded by the fact that the falling away is usually accompanied by other heart-breaking news: a divorce, the revelation of secret sins, the embrace of worldly moral standards, etc. The wide-ranging effects of a Christian leader renouncing the faith extend to him, his family, his former church, and the church at large. Most apostates are unseen, but those with a high-profile (some would say “celebrity”) position within the church make headlines when they depart the faith.
The problem of having false believers within the church, even in positions of leadership, is nothing new. Jesus warned us about false prophets (Matthew 7:15; 24:11). Paul warned the Ephesian elders about apostates arising from among their own company (Acts 20:29–31). He warned Timothy of spiritual peril and gave examples: “Fight the battle well, holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme” (1 Timothy 1:18–20). John provided insight into the spiritual condition of apostates: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us” (1 John 2:19). In other words, apostates are not people who “lost” their salvation; rather, they are people who were never saved in the first place. False believers ultimately show their true colors. Tares are eventually distinguishable from wheat.
How should we respond when people whom we trusted as good leaders in the church fall away? Here are some tips for the Christian:
1. Examine yourself. We are called to humility, not pride. “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Peter deemed his own commitment to Christ to be stronger than that of the other disciples, and he told Jesus as much: “Even if all fall away, I will not” (Mark 14:29). But Peter was not as strong as he thought he was (verse 30). Each of us bears a responsibility to be serious about the state of his relationship with God: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Corinthians 13:5). Are we truly in the faith, or are we only paying lip service to Christ and pretending to follow Him?
2. Pray for the apostate. The decision of someone to “fall away” from the faith should break our hearts. Pray for restoration and that he or she would come to know the Lord in truth. Pray for everyone in the apostate’s sphere of influence: family members, church members, and others close to the apostate who are sure to be devastated by the news.
3. Look to Jesus. He alone is the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). Right now, it may be a certain pastor or best-selling author who holds the headlines. Tomorrow, it may be someone else. But our focus should be Jesus. He never changes (Hebrews 13:8). His love, His purity, and His truthfulness are constant. The headlines of our hearts should always feature Christ and His perfect work.
4. Remember that the gospel is not affected by the actions of fallible men. The decision of an apostate to leave the faith says exactly nothing about who Jesus is or the truth of the Bible. It does say much about the apostate, though. Drawing a window shade does not cause the sun to go away, and the choice of someone to reject the truth does not change the truth. The gospel remains unsullied: repentance and faith in the death and resurrection of Christ will result in the Holy Spirit’s supernatural transformation of a person from a child of the devil into a child of God.
5. Look for the good that true followers of Christ are doing every day. It’s easy to dwell on negative stories about Christian leaders in the news. But the church is doing wonderful things every single day around the world. To quote GARBC national representative Mike Hess, “Consider how God has used His church over the past week. All around the world faithful pastors have stood and unashamedly proclaimed the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Faithful servants have sacrificially served children in churches during Vacation Bible School. Others have patiently listened and prayed with those going through unspeakable suffering and pain. Neighbors have been invited into homes where the love of Christ has been exemplified by Christians demonstrating generous hospitality. Orphans have been adopted. Loving and restorative church discipline has resulted in sweet repentance and reconciliation. Local churches have sent out teams on short-term missions trips around the world. New hope has been injected into struggling marriages through compassionate Biblical counseling that seeks to help instead of harshly condemn. Prodigals have come home. New believers have made their faith public and identified with the gospel in believer’s baptism. And perhaps most importantly, many have come to saving faith in Christ” (from a GARBC website commentary, accessed 8/1/2019). None of these things grab the national attention. Maybe they should.
6. Put on the whole armor of God. This spiritual battle we are in is real. Our enemy is active and seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8). But God has given us protection (Ephesians 6:10–18) that we would be wise to wear.
7. Stay connected to the believers in your church. We have a great asset in fellow believers who can exhort, encourage, and edify us. We can hold each other accountable and help guard against the subtle encroachment of sin. “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today,’ so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness” (Hebrews 3:12–13). Encouragement is a medicine that helps counter sin poisoning and spiritual hardening. A dose of it is prescribed daily.
Doctrine is important, as is a daily, honest walk with God. May the Lord preserve us all from falling away and dishonoring His name.