Apostasy can be a hairy topic in our age. As our culture and religious structures fray, we should pay close attention to what we tag as apostasy and who we name “apostates”. You will hear it ninety times out of a hundred, “I grew up in Church, but it not longer speaks to me”, or “I tried Church, but they are all hypocrites.” After time, usually the “apostate” might offer philosophical or theological reasons for their journey away from Christ and the body of believers. But it usually starts and ends in the heart.
Contrary to popular opinion, the early Christians (especially those whose writings made it into the New Testament), did not see apostasy through the lenses of walking away from Church or even primarily loss of right belief. Apostasy was not even explained primarily as a disobedience or walking away from a covenantal promise.
Apostasy for the Early Christians was about a heart disease. Pride. And this is exactly where things get hairy. For who can judge the human heart? And in our newly post-Christian age when civil religion still works like a cancer on both true and false Christianity, it is difficult to weigh whether an “apostate” is enacting a selfish sensuality or a selfless courage.
Judas remains the quintessential apostate in the NT. He was not an apostate because he betrayed Jesus. Peter betrayed Jesus, walked away, denied him. Jesus took him back. Judas was not an apostate because of disobedience (we get the idea that he was already stealing from the disciples). He was an apostate because of the whole state of his heart. It was a prideful heart that tried to jump-start a revolution; it was a selfish sensuality revealed by his suicide.
Jesus makes it clear to us: we will be utterly surprised who gets into the banquet and who surprisingly he doesn’t recognize at the gates. Even though Hebrews 6 says that the apostate can never return, if you read the whole of the passage, you realize that the author is describing a heart state from which a person can never come back. Yet, until death (and perhaps even after), God works unceasingly to turn a hard heart soft. This is so that when we see him face to face, we will gladly accept our dependence upon him and avoid the possibility of choosing hell our way versus eternal bliss his.
Well, for the Church we must compare this passage with the teaching in James 5 for example. You will see that in the church, we should be commissioning our wise members to try and bring back those who walked away. We should veer away from heaping guilt or shame on a person who has “walked away”, admit where the apostate might be offering a prophetic challenge to the church, and challenge them to find a purified version of the faith. We should avoid the useless false dichotomoy of “our way or the highway” that they have rejected in the first place.
Ultimately there is hope for a generation of apostates to turn away from selfish sensuality and to find the Ancient Way afresh with the selfless courage that many apostates already embody.