When Apostasy Occurs

By Mike Willis

The first century church was no different from the twentieth century church in the fact that doctrinal differences threatened the unity of the church. Only the issues are different. Both faced apostasy from within. The manner in which apostasy was treated in the first century is a pattern for how it always should be treated. The controversy surrounding the Judaizers is instructive for understanding how apostasy should be handled. Recorded in Acts 15 and Galatians, the apostasy of the Judaizers threatened to make the church another sect of Judaism instead of a world religion.

The Threat of the Judaizers

The first century church was troubled by Jewish Christians who compelled Gentile Christians to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses in order to be saved (Acts 15:5). The leadership for this position originated among converted Pharisees (Acts 15:5).

The controversy became intense. The apostles gathered in Jerusalem by revelation (Gal. 2:2) to decide whether or not the Gentiles had to be circumcised and keep the law of Moses in order to be saved. The apostle Paul would not allow the false teachings of the Judaizers to go unchallenged; he said, “We gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you” (Gal. 2:5), In the Jerusalem conference, the Lord’s gospel prevailed and the conclusion of the conference was written in a letter to be distributed to the churches: “Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment” (Acts 15:24).

Apostolic decree, divine revelation, did not stop the Judaizing brethren. They continued circulating among churches, teaching a perverted “gospel” (Gal. 1:6-9). What stance did the early church take toward these Judaizers? If we can understand how the early church handled the false teachings of the Judaizers, we will know how churches should handle similar false teachers and teaching today.

How the Judaizers Were Handled

The book of Galatians demonstrates how the early church handled the Judaizers. They did not wait for “decades of brotherly disagreement” (as one brother recently suggested) before confronting the issue head on. Indeed, Christianity had only been preached for a mere 20-25 years before the book of Galatians was written. The apostasy did not develop immediately after the first sermon in Acts 2 was preached, for the first Gentile (Cornelius) was not converted until 8-10 years after Pentecost. Hence, there was not enough time for “decades of brotherly discussion” before Paul wrote Galatians, calling for the ostracizing of the Judaizers. Instead, the incipient forms of the Judaizers’ error gave birth to the book of Galatians with the instructions for how to handle the apostasy. The pattern suggested by our brother (not to refer to one another as false teachers until decades of “brotherly disagreement”) does not fit the pattern of New Testament teaching.

The Judaizers were teaching a doctrine which “troubled churches” (1:7) and was a perversion of the gospel of Christ (1:7). Those who taught this doctrine were accursed of God (1:8-9). Paul described these men as “false brethren” (2:4). Their tactics were sometimes less than forthright (2:4).

Paul did not suggest tolerating these brethren for a number of years. Instead, he “gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you” (2:5). In giving the allegory of the bondwoman/freewoman (Hagar/Sarah), Paul commanded the Galatians to “cast out the bondwoman and her son” (4:30).

The words of Sarah to Abraham (which, however, in Gen. xxi. 12 are expressly approved by God and confirmed with a view to fulfillment), requiring the explusion of Hagar and her son from the house. From this, looking to the scope of the allegory, the Galatians are to infer the exclusion of the non-free Jews, who were now persecuting the free Christians, from the people of God (H.A.W. Meyer, The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, p. 211).

The Galatians were warned that a “little leaven leavens the whole lump” as an exhortation to break association with the Judaizers (5:8-9). The dangerous influence of this false doctrine had threatened the soul (“subverting your souls,” Acts 15:24), causing men to fall from grace (Gal. 5:14). The church was commanded to break fellowship with the Judaizing apostates to prevent further spread of the damnable heresy among them.

This is the biblical pattern for handling false doctrine. The pattern emphasizes that apostasy is a departure from Bible teaching; there was no effort to look for a sociological cause of the apostasy which was more important than the doctrinal issues. Instead, the Judaizers did not teach what God revealed and Paul commanded that they be excised from among the brethren. There was no proposal of a unity-indiversity. We should be content to follow this pattern in confronting modern day apostasies.

Determination By Sociological Interpretation of History Or From the Bible?

Recently, some have sought to find a pattern for handling modern departures from the revelation of God by looking at our own restoration history. The entire approach takes us awayfrom the divinely inspired biblical text as the means of analyzing departures from the truth and shifts to an analysis of uninspired church history as the solution. There is a generous helping of “comparing ourselves to ourselves” (2 Cor. 10:12) in learning how to handle teachers of admittedly unrevealed doctrines.

Brother Ed Harrell has written an extended series of articles in Christianity magazine on unity as it relates to the divorce and remarriage controversy. Beginning with “Homer Hailey: False Teacher?” in the November 1988 issue, there have been 14 articles so far and the end is not yet. He interprets our own history through the colored glasses of the neo-orthodox, sociological interpretation of history suggested by H. Richard Niebuhr (The Social Sources of Denominationalism). A particular interpretation of history, which is presently dominating the study of history, becomes the foundation for positing a theory for how to handle false doctrine in the church. This theory claims that social differences are more responsible for religious division than doctrinal differences are. Social characteristics include such things as a person’s economic and educational status. Looking back to the conflict over the missionary society and mechanical instruments of music in the church, the author related that opponents were ambivalent throughout their lives and continued to write letters of recommendation to preachers who supported the missionary society almost to the end of their lives. The schism came only after decades of discussion conducted in the context of brotherly trust. The author said, “. . . every division involves more basic issues than technical arguments over points of doctrines (Christianity [January, 1990], p. 6). This means that what was more important than the doctrinal disagreement was why the controversy persisted and became intolerable.

A similar picture of the conflict over church supported orphan homes, colleges, and old folks homes was drawn. The author suggested that men who had convictions against these institutions never hinted that institutional supporters were false teachers, or, indeed, that they were unworthy of fellowship. These brethren continued to work together for decades in spite of their doctrinal differences.

The author states the division came only after decades of disagreement. The doctrinal issues are merely the focal points for schism, but sociological causes were much more basic than technical arguments over points of doctrine.

Where is this headed? Behind every article in the Christianity series lies the author’s promise to explain his view of unity and fellowship as it relates to modern controversies over divorce and remarriage. The thrust of the argument is that we should not allow disagreements over such matters as divorce and remarriage to cause us to identify brethren as false teachers or to break fellowship. We should be tolerant of those who teach such false doctrines on divorce and remarriage as the following: (a) Alien sinners should be accepted in whatever marriage they are in when they are baptized; (b) The guilty party in a divorce for fornication has the right to remarriage; (c) A person who had unscripturally divorced and remarried can repent of having committed adultery (defined to mean “breaking a marriage”) and continue living with this present mate; (d) A Christian deserted by an unbeliever has the right to remarriage; etc. (see Christianity [November 1988], p. 8, for his reference to the 5 or 6 positions on this issue). Brother Harrell’s placing of the divorce and remarriage issue in the category of Romans 14 is a call for unity-in-diversity, a doctrinal position with far-reaching consequences.

The issue at stake in this discussion of the grounds of unity in this: Shall we determine the bounds offellowship by an appeal to the inspired Scriptures or by an appeal to uninspired history? Should someone succeed in citing many evidences of man’s inconsistency with the Scriptures, still we must follow the Scriptures. We can no more determine what is right and wrong for God’s people by an appeal to our restoration fathers, than the Catholics can determine right and wrong by an appeal to the apostolic fathers! If we find some clear statement of truth from the Bible in the writings of a restoration preacher it is fine to quote it, but the Bible itself must be our final court of appeal. The sociological interpretation of church history cannot guide us through the uncharted course which lies ahead of us. Like every other philosophy, the sociological interpretation of history one day will be discarded to the junk pile (cf. 1 Cor. 7:31). Like all such philosophies and interpretations, this one contains some grains of truth, but only the Bible contains the whole counsel of God necessary to the salvation of our souls. Let us go to the Scriptures to determine where we shall stand! The word of God alone will give us the direction and guidance we need to chart a steady course during the winds of change.

Furthermore, the author’s description of the institutional division focuses attention on the “brotherhood” rather than the local congregation. It is true that brethren discussed some of the institutional principles pro and con during the period of the 1920s/1940s when there were very few of these human institutions. Brethren rarely faced the practical application of the principles during those decades. To describe the institutional conflict saying “brethren continued to work and worship together in spite of their differences,” does not focus attention on what happened in local churches when they faced the practical application of the principles involved. Churches all over America were torn apart by men who pushed to place a $25 a month contribution to an orphan home or the Herald of Truth in the budget, over the objection of conscientious men, as a means of declaring where the congregation stood. Brethren in these local congregations did not “work and worship together in spite of their differences. ” The decision to put a contribution in the budget divided the church in that community and at that time (not after decades of brotherly discussion). This same scene was repeated in many local churches over a period of 20 years until the lines were so clearly drawn that a social historian could write about the division. Being without intercongregational organization, the New Testament church does not divide in such a decisive manner, marked by one historic occasion as do the denominations (such as the annual convention of a denomination). Division occurs in local congregations, over and over again throughout the country.

During the time this was occurring, the journals circulated by and among brethren printed regular exchanges in which the Bible verses under dispute were discussed. Exchanges regularly occurred until those who loved the truth could discern where the truth lay. Many were convinced of the truth by these journals, church bulletins, and preaching in local pulpits and gospel meetings. Churches were kept from apostasy by preachers, elders and other strong brethren who identified the false teaching and false teachers so that other elders, deacons, and members could identify the error and abstain from it.

The cause of the division was not sociological; it was spiritual apostasy. In looking for underlying causes, we focus attention away from the word of God and the departures from it to concentrate on statistics from social history. The church cannot preserve the truth and avoid apostasy by discriminating among its members on the basis of differences in educational level and economic background, but it can confront brethren who depart from the revealed truth. That is what God commanded us to watch and guard against: “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch” (Acts 20:29-31).


Should we face a similar situation on divorce and remarriage to that which faced brethren in the 1950s, we will see churches across America torn asunder by false doctrines. There have been recurring discussions and debates on the principles involved at least since the 1950s when E.C. Fuqua’s theories became well known. There has already been an extended period of discussing principles (“decades of brotherly discussion”), but as society becomes more immoral and as unscriptural divorces increase, brethren cannot escape facing the practical application of the principles. The scenario likely to develop will be like this: a congregation will be faced with a test case of someone in a second marriage following a divorce for some reason other than fornication. Such an individual comes to be baptized or restored, without any intention of leaving his second mate. The test case will force the issue; the different positions which brethren hold will be discussed and the church will divide. Already this has happened in several cases and it is likely to be repeated, not because brethren of ill temper are bound and determined not to get along with one another, but because of the prevalent divorce in our society spilling over into the church, where brethren with different beliefs face the issue.

We are willing to engage in brotherly discussion as long as our brothers are willing to participate; we are not imposing a limit of time for brotherly discussion (e.g., we are ready even today, after more than a century, to enter a brotherly discussion of the instrumental music question). However, we are committed to opposing error. We shall oppose it in its incipient and mature forms; we shall oppose it inside and outside the church; we shall oppose it when preached by those who are somewhat and those who are not. We shall always stand opposed to a unity-in-diversity approach to sin. Therefore, we stand opposed to brother Harrell’s assertion that the divorce and remarriage controversy (both the teaching and the practice) belongs in the category of Romans 14, resulting in a unity-in-diversity doctrine on divorce and remarriage. We reject his condemnation of those who oppose false teaching on the subject and his proposal for toleration of unscriptural teachings and practices.

Brother Harrell’s call for “decades of brotherly discussion” is hard to reconcile with his condemnation of those brothers in Christ who kindly replied to brother Hailey’s false teaching on divorce and remarriage (alien sinners are not amenable to Christ’s teaching on divorce and remarriage) and with the closing of the pages of Christianity to opposing viewpoints. These actions tend to stifle brotherly discussion, not to encourage it.

I would like to invite brother Harrell to join in an open brotherly discussion of the issues which divide us. Since brother Harrell believes that there should be decades of brotherly discussion before any division, he should be willing to participate in such a discussion. Many brethren would like to see him, as one editor of Christianity, open its pages to the brotherly discussion of both sides, even as the pages of Guardian of Truth are open. Allowing a few lines in the “letters” column is not fair, brotherly discussion. The openness of the pages of Guardian of Truth for brotherly discussion has been demonstrated by the following: (a) offering space to brother Hailey, (b) publishing an exchange with Jerry Bassett, (c) making arrangements for an exchange between Glen Lovelady and Colly Caldwell, (d) arrangements for publishing another exchange. Should he desire for the simultaneous publication of discussion in both papers, we would be delighted to participate. Should brother Harrell be unwilling to open the pages of Christianity for a fair, brotherly discussion, we are willing to go the extra mile to allow him to respond in our pages. We are saddened that no space for response has been given to those attacked by brother Harrell in the pages of Christianity in his article defending brother Homer Hailey with reference to his teaching that alien sinners are not amenable to God’s law of divorce and remarriage, which resulted in the loss of several members from the Belen, NM church. Neither has space been given to those who have replied to his material on the bounds of Christian fellowship. Recognizing our own fallibility and having a commitment to the infallible word of God, we encourage a brotherly discussion of the issues before us.

We plead for a calm period of Bible study of the issue which threatens to divide us. Let us bring out the Bible passages and openly discuss them dispassionately, so that the truth of God’s word can be plainly seen for all to follow. The differences in conviction which we hold will inevitably lead us down divergent paths. Rather than traveling different paths, let us study to see where the truth leads us and walk in unity in the path of righteousness, leaving those who choose to depart from the path of righteousness to walk alone down their chosen road. The truth is sufficient to save us and to unite us, but we must seek and find that truth (Jn. 8:32; 17:17-21). If we are to be one in Christ as God’s people, we must lay aside every human desire and doctrine, yielding ourselves to the authority of Jesus Christ.

Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment (1 Cor. 1:10).

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 8, pp. 226, 246-248
April 19, 1990