Signs in the Church (II) Apostasy in the Pew

“Now the Spirit speaketh expressly that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils;” I Timothy 4:1 

“And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.” II Tim. 4:4

We stated in our last article that Christ prophesied that in the days shortly before the end of the world and the final judgment upon the false church there will be rampant apostasy (Matt. 24:10-13). There has always been apostasy in the church, but the apostasy of the latter times distinguishes itself both in the doctrines which heretics boldly assail (the infallibility of the Scripture; “denying even the Lord Who bought them”) and the rapidity with which it over-runs the church (“they shall deceive many’ ‘ –Matt. 24:11 We focused on the pulpit last time, as it takes the lead in leading the church down the road of apostasy. In this article we turn our attention to the pew. 

What must be underscored is that not only do false prophets bear responsibility for the apostasy evident in the Protestant churches of our day, but the pew also bears great responsibility. There can be no apostasy in a congregation or denomination unless the pew co-operates (which co-operation can come either by outright assent or by silent proxy). False prophets can not flourish in a church where they get no hearing, where the pew protests (immediately, not two or three generations down the line), and where the elders are willing to suspend and depose out of a zeal for the truth. 

The only antidote for apostasy is members of the church who care more about the truth than about the feelings of the heretics, however nice they may be. After all, heretics are always nice men with likeable personalities who attract young disciples and who have their sympathizers. Arminius is an outstanding example. In Matthew 7:15 Christ likens false prophets to wolves in sheep clothing. Though they have the heart of a wolf, they have the demeanor of a sheep. For this reason Peter warns of those “who privily shall bring in damnable heresies” (II Peter 2:1) They are subtle, not vicious. We must take care not to be deceived. They are to be expelled for what they preach, not for how they appear. 

The point is, in our day and age, the pew supports and encourages false prophets. Protestants like nice men, who say what they want to hear. They do not take to men like stern Elijah, or persistent Jeremiah, men like the staunch Athenasius, and crusty Gomarus, and blunt old Ophoff, men who were unflagging opponents of error, who put the truth before popularity or following. No, they like men who speak smooth, soothing words, men who have a certain sophisticated charisma about them, men who are more concerned about a following than about principle. The prime examples are the freshly manicured TV personalities whose “gospel” hurts no one’s feelings. The last thing they want is to be “guilty” of convicting people of the guilt of their sins. Such preachers the pew welcomes in our day. 

Christ, of course, predicted this. “Because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.” Christ is talking here not about the world, but about the Christian church. Their love would wax cold, their love for the truth, for God’s Holy Name, their love of serving God and being subject to His good commandments. And as their love for God’s Word flickers and wanes, false prophets multiply like rabbits, wax bold as lions, and like dragons dare to expound bigger and bigger lies, denying the most fundamental truths. And people swallow those lies without blinking. 

So it is in our day. Iniquity abounds, and people have become numbed to it and by it. People of the church become so enthralled with the pleasures of worldly entertainment and iniquity that their flame sputters, and in a few generations it goes out completely. The love of God’s truth is blown out by the icy wind of worldliness. 

As Paul warned Timothy, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears” (II Tim. 4:3). 

Apostasy begins with a generation that is simply indifferent toward things spiritual. They are willing to put up with a little heresy. It is not worth splitting over. They seem to think it will die out of itself. They are sadly mistaken. They forget that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. 

In time there comes a generation whose souls are absolutely vexed by sound doctrine. They can not endure it. It sets their teeth on edge. So they shut their pulpits to those who preach the truth. And they develop itching ears. They are not content to hear the old ways, the time-tested truths, but their ears itch for something new and’ astonishing. So they are forever scratching their ears with the newest remedy on the doctrinal market. They heap to themselves false prophets. They want a continual supply of original ideas. They abhor expository preaching. It is too serious and boring. The emphasis falls on style, not content. They want to be entertained by famous names and with big productions. What they want is to have their senses stimulated, rather than their hearts.

Such we see happening in our day. The words ofJeremiah 5:30,31 are most appropriate. “A wonderful and horrible thing is committed in the land; the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof?” That’s the point-“my people love to have it so.” The blame does not fall simply upon the deceptive prophets. Rather the people are deceived with their own consent. They are seduced willingly. And how eagerly and shamelessly the pew flirts with her deceivers is astonishing and a sign of the time. 

Remember that the words of Jeremiah describe the Old Testament church shortly before the judgment of God came by way of the Babylonian Captivity. So it comes again. God will deal in such a way with those whose ears itch, that the ears of those who hear of God’s judgment will tingle. Jer. 19:3

For our own instruction, what we must remember is that blatant apostasy and infatuation with false prophets starts rather innocently, without notice. In a word, it starts with the loss of the First Love. A people lose their first love. The hearing of the truth does not warm them as it once did. They begin to take it for granted. And from there they slide out into the shute of indifference and worldlimindedness, and on into the ever-accelerating apostasy, to the bitter end, the cold, icy clutches of the false church. 

The loss of one’s first love is no little matter. John’s words to the church of Ephesus bears this out. “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent” (Rev. 2:4, 5). The warning is that the loss of a people’s first love will end eventually in the removal of the candlestick. So serious is that first step, the loss of the first love, that except there be repentance, the candlestick, the light of the preaching of God’s Word, shall be quenched. Let every church examine itself, and let her people be governed always by the spirit of repentance. Apostasy is never far from any pulpit, nor any pew. It is as close as our own hearts. 

The pulpit is under tremendous pressure from the pew in our day. People clamor for change. That manna from heaven is so dry. It sticks in their throats. The pressure is to make it more tasty, to add some spice. Let us never underestimate pew pressure. The strongest willed, best-intentioned minister can cave in to pressure from the pew. Think of Aaron, the High Priest. At the foot of Sinai he gave Israel the golden calf because they insisted that he give them gods. A man of no less caliber than the strong-willed, bold-spirited Apostle Peter relented to pew pressure. He withdrew himself from the gentile Christians because of pressure brought to bear upon him by the Christians who were of the circumcision. He went against his own better judgment to satisfy those of the circumcision. Paul had to rebuke him. Gal. 2 

I say again, do not underestimate pew pressure. Ministers are certainly conscious of it. The pew has clout. It can easily influence the pulpit for good or evil. In times of controversy the temptation is always to tailor the sermon to the preferences of the congregation. Who cares to step off the pulpit into a hornet’s nest which one’s words have stirred up? The temptation is not only to say the things which please the dominant group of the congregation, but also to avoid the issue which is likely to touch raw nerves. One rationalizes, thus the tranquility of the church will be maintained. But the real consequences are that one, can not say simply “Thus saith the Lord!” Rather, one addresses God’s people with the words “Thus saith the Lord,” after having subjected His Word to the agreed upon restrictions. Indeed, under such circumstances it will not be long ere the light of the candlestick is extinguished. 

It takes a tremendous amount of grace for preachers for the sake of principle to resist the pressures from the pew. It is not a matter of guts, but grace and conviction. One does not always find that grace in preachers. May God grant that it may continue to be found in God-fearing, Bible-believing, creed-confessing preachers. And may the pew encourage them-not by a slap on the back, but by taking heed to the word preached. That is the greatest encouragement. Such demonstrates the Spirit and His power. It is among the generations of those who love God’s Word and keep His commandments that there shall yet be found faith upon the earth when our Lord Jesus returns. God keep us faithful unto the end.