I believe there are clear historic parallels that give us insight into both the condition and the cause of many churches in decline today. We will examine three causes—all three have an example in the history of Israel.
Of all the end-time themes discussed in the Bible—such as global disasters (Matthew 24), the rise of the global super-state, the identity of the Antichrist, the mark of the beast, and the Magog invasion (Ezekiel 38-39)—“deception and apostasy in the church” is listed more times than any other end-time “sign of the times.”
Jesus warned in His Olivet Discourse saying, “Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold.”1 In both his letter to Timothy and the Thessalonians the apostle Paul warns them that “in latter times some will depart from the faith,”2 and “that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first.”3 In both references Paul is writing about apostasy.
Are we now in the Age of Apostasy? While living in England for the past 20 years I have observed a steady decline in general church attendance. According to the UK national census statistics church attendance in England as a percentage of the population (both Protestant and Catholics are included in these figures) reveals a steady decline: 1970, 13.3%; 1980, 11.1%; 1990, 9.4%; 2000, 7.2%; and 2010, 5.3%.
What Is the Cause For this Decline?
I believe there are clear historic parallels4 that give us insight into both the condition and the cause of many churches in decline today. We will examine three causes—all three have an example in the history of Israel.
1. Broken Cisterns
Jeremiah complained about the apostasy of Judah by saying:
Has a nation changed its gods, which are not gods? But My people have changed their Glory for what does not profit. Be astonished, O heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid; Be very desolate, says the Lord. For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn themselves cisterns—broken cisterns that can hold no water.
Today Darwinian physical science has given the world “Declaration over Exploration.” Sadly many churches are promoting “Theistic Evolution” as a needless compromise with the disastrous result of killing God the Creator. Freudian mental science has given the world an “Escape from Sin” where everyone is a victim. Here, too, many in the Church promote these unbiblical ideas and thereby kill God the Judge. And 19th-20th century Biblical “Higher Criticism” gave the world spiritual doubt. The result? Absence of personal discernment as the Church promotes its own self criticism. All three of these secular practices are like the “broken cisterns” spoken of by Jeremiah.
2. Alliances of Weakness
Hosea helps us draw a historic parallel here. He observes that:
Ephraim has mixed himself among the peoples; Ephraim is a cake unturned. Aliens have devoured his strength, but he does not know it; Yes, gray hairs are here and there on him, yet he does not know it.
He was warning against the infiltration, integration, and influence of evil. The best example of this kind of compromise is King Solomon himself as the writer of 1 Kings reminds us, “…his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the Lord his God.”5 The Worldwide Ecumenical Movement demonstrates this dangerous paradigm shift among some churches today, which results in pragmatic political positioning that dilutes and dims the Salt and Light effect6 of the true followers of Jesus Christ.
3. Sheep Without Shepherds
Again Hosea gives us the historic parallel. Concerning the backsliding of the northern nation of Israel He complains, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”7 Jeremiah tells us that this is caused by the wayward shepherds that have “…led them astray.”8 He warns, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of My pasture!”9
False teachers in the end times are predicted by Jesus,10 Paul,11 and Peter.12 The Letter of Jude describes in detail the characteristics of these false teachers.13 These apostates will use lying signs and wonders as a strong deception14 to draw people into apostasy.
Paul warned that the allurement into apostasy will come because “…they will not endure sound doctrine.”15 To the Corinthian church he warned:
“I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted—you may well put up with it!”
Who are the Apostates that come with another Jesus or offer a different spirit and present a different gospel?
Matthew 13:24-30 may well be a parable that gives us the insight we need to understand this disturbing end-times prophesy. After all, Jesus made it clear that Not everyone who says to Me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven.16 When you review the “perilous times”17 Paul describes to his disciple Timothy he concludes that they are “…always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”18
So What Is the Solution?
The prophet Hosea comes to our rescue here as he tells Israel to “return to the LORD…” and “pursue the knowledge of the LORD.”19 What can we do?
- Stay Connected – Resist the temptation to fall out of fellowship. Don’t allow the fear of confronting the tares among the wheat to frighten you away from fel- lowship with other believers (Hebrews 10:23-25).
- Stay Sharp – Remain vigilant and always on your guard (1 Thessalonians 5:19-22).
- Stay on Target – Remember that the value of stay- ing true to the Word of God is that is not only keeps you safe but it also is of eternal value to those that hear you (1 Timothy 4:13-16).