The Great Apostasy: Did the Church Disappear?
The LDS Church’s rationale for its own existence is the complete disappearance of the true and living church on the earth—called the Great Apostasy—sometime after the passing of the New Testament apostles. Mormons commonly appeal to both the New Testament and church history to support this claim. However, the LDS explanation of the so-called Great Apostasy is contrary to the teaching of the New Testament and makes no sense when one considers the facts about the history of the church in the years following the New Testament era.
A. The New Testament predicts a partial apostasy of people in the church, not a complete apostasy of the church itself.
The “Great Apostasy” in LDS terminology is a complete apostasy in the sense that the church completely ceased to exist on the earth. Gospel Principles explains:
“More and more error crept into Church doctrine, and soon the dissolution of the Church was complete. The period of time when the true Church no longer existed on earth is called the Great Apostasy” (92).
While Mormons acknowledge that some Christians during that period of time still knew some truth and still sincerely worshipped God as best they could, these concessions do not change the fact that according to LDS doctrine “the dissolution of the Church was complete” and “the true Church no longer existed on earth.” This is what LDS doctrine means by the Great Apostasy.
The New Testament does speak of apostasy, a term that means falling away. However, nowhere does it speak of a complete or total “Great Apostasy” as the LDS Church teaches. In the New Testament, apostasy is something that people do, never something that was to happen to the whole church.
Jesus’ teaching in the parable of the sower and the soils presents a useful model for understanding apostasy. One group of professing believers, represented by rocky ground, “falls away” because of troubles or persecution (Mark 4:16-17). Other professing followers of Christ do not apostatize or abandon their faith overtly, but the cares of this world are more important to them than the gospel and they are “unfruitful” (4:18-19). However, another group of professing believers accepts the gospel message and become fruitful (4:20). The parable expresses Jesus’ optimism that despite the falling away and unfruitfulness of some professing believers, the gospel would produce fruitful believers as well. Jesus expressed this same perspective elsewhere:
“And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:10-13 ESV).
Notice here that Jesus says that “many will fall away” or be led astray by false prophets (not, by the way, as a result of the lack of prophets), but not all—because some will “endure to the end” and be saved. The falling away is predicted of people who follow false prophets (see also verses 23-24), not of the church itself ceasing to exist.
Paul taught the same view. He explained to the church in Thessalonica that the day of the Lord would not come until after “the apostasy” (2 Thessalonians 2:3), but instead of expressing pessimism he thanks God for the Thessalonian believers and urges them to stand firm (2:13-15). He told Timothy that “the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith” (1 Timothy 4:1 ESV)—some people in the church, not all of them and not the church as an institution. According to the Book of Acts, Paul told the elders in the church at Ephesus that savage wolves would attack the flock and false teachers would draw disciples away after them (Acts 20:29-30). Yet he also commended the Ephesians to God’s grace in the confidence that they would inherit the promises of the gospel (20:31-32).
The rest of the New Testament reflects the same perspective. The Book of Hebrews warns that those who “have fallen away” after experiencing the blessings of the Christian faith cannot be renewed again to repentance, but expresses confidence that the readers will not fall away (Hebrews 6:4-10). Peter warned that “many” would follow false prophets (2 Peter 2:1-2) but spoke of his readers’ “sincere mind” and encouraged them to be diligent and grow in their relationship with Christ (3:1, 14-18). John warned that “many antichrists have arisen” who “went out from us,” that is, who left the church, and at the same time spoke highly of his readers’ faith (1 John 2:18-27). In the Book of Revelation, Christ speaks to seven churches in Asia, condemning false teaching and immorality in six of them (all but the church in Philadelphia) but also acknowledging faithful believers in each of them (Revelation 2-3).
Throughout the New Testament, then, warnings of apostasy are directed to individuals, never to the whole church. The New Testament knows nothing of a worldwide “Great Apostasy.”
B. The church will exist on the earth until Christ’s return.
Not only does the New Testament issue warnings only of partial apostasy by some or many people and never of the whole church, but it also makes it clear that the church will continue to exist on earth until Christ’s return.
“And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18 KJV).
Jesus’ expression “the gates of hell” (literally, “the gates of Hades”) echoes similar Old Testament expressions and is a metaphor for death (Job 17:16; 38:17; Psalm 9:13; 107:18; Isaiah 38:10). His meaning, then, is that death would not prevail against or overcome the church—in other words, that the church would never die. Matthew confirms this understanding of Jesus’ words when he reports that after his resurrection, Jesus made the following promise to his disciples:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Here, the Lord Jesus announces that his disciples will begin a process of making disciples from all the nations of the world, a process that will continue with Christ’s backing and presence “to the end of the age.” Not only does Jesus not envision a seventeen-century hiatus in this process, but his promise explicitly states that he will be with his disciples “always” until the task of evangelizing the nations is complete and the end of the age comes. Mormons cannot reasonably deny that Jesus is speaking of the church here, because the disciples are to engage in preaching the gospel, baptizing people, and teaching them to obey his commandments, all of which Mormons agree can take place only in the church. Thus, Jesus’ words in this Great Commission passage clearly lead to the conclusion that the church would continue to exist until the end of the age, when Christ returns.
The apostle Paul also definitely expected the church to continue existing until Christ’s return. We have already commented on this point in relation to Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 4:11-16. Later in the same epistle, Paul wrote:
“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27 KJV).
Having died for the church to make it holy and ready it for him as his “bride,” it is inconceivable that Christ would allow the church to die just a few decades after he founded it. The church for the past twenty centuries has been far from perfect, but that is because Christ is not finished with it yet—not because he gave up on it and let it die while it was still in its infancy.
The church, then, never ceased to exist after Christ established it in the first century. Heresies have come and gone and come again, people have fallen away from the faith, and far too many professing Christians are Christians in name only, producing no fruit and showing no evidence of their supposed faith. The church, however, has never ceased to exist. Christ has always had his faithful disciples, those represented by the fruitful ground in his parable, those who have risked their lives if necessary to make disciples.
C. The church’s existence is based not on offices held by men on earth but on the “offices” held by Christ in heaven.
According to Gospel Principles, the church cannot perform its essential functions without “the priesthood,” which it claims was taken from the earth because of apostasy: “The ordinances and principles of the gospel cannot be administered and taught without the priesthood” (89). Once God took “apostolic authority and priesthood keys” from the earth, the church “no longer existed” (92).
However, as we saw in our responses to chapters 13 and 14 of Gospel Principles, the New Testament knows nothing of a Christian priesthood on earth. The church’s existence does not rest on the authority of an institutional priesthood held by men on earth; such a priestly order was a feature of the old covenant that had been superseded by the new covenant instituted by Jesus Christ. Rather, the church’s existence rests on the authority of Christ’s supreme “offices” in heaven, where he rules over the church as its King or Lord and intercedes on behalf of the church as its High Priest (Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20-23; Colossians 1:18; Hebrews 1:3; 4:14; 6:19-20; 7:23-8:6).
Since, of course, Christ, the church’s head, has never lost these offices or functional roles, the church has never lost them, either. We have always had them in Christ. And since the church never had an earthly priesthood, it never lost the authority to be the church and carry out the Great Commission.
D. The church has not always been what it should be, but it never completely lost what was essential to the Christian faith.
It is easy to paint a dark picture of Christianity in any period of its history by making broad generalizations or by focusing on select problems or shortcomings of the church. Gospel Principles does this in its brief account of the history of the “Great Apostasy,” focusing on what an unnamed “Roman emperor” (presumably Constantine) supposedly did to the Christian religion. The LDS Church claims that “pagan beliefs dominated the thinking of those called Christians,” that they changed many of the ordinances, had no spiritual gifts, and no longer had the priesthood or the original organization and offices of the church (92). As we have already seen, the church never lost the priesthood because it never had one in the LDS sense, and there was no original “organization” along the lines claimed by the LDS Church. We examine the LDS understanding of ordinances and spiritual gifts in our responses to later chapters of Gospel Principles (especially chapters 20-23), but the claim that Christians had no spiritual gifts in the period following the death of the apostles is simply false.
Contrary to the dark picture that the LDS Church paints, the church during the two or three centuries immediately following the death of the New Testament apostles simply does not bear the signs or marks of a general apostasy. The church in the second, third, and fourth centuries was renowned for its charity toward the poor and needy, its care for the sick and infirm, and its members’ love for one another (as documented, for example, in sociologist Rodney Stark’s book The Rise of Christianity). It was also renowned for its members’ expressions of hope and even joy in the face of persecution and martyrdom. In the Bible, judgments on apostate people bring mourning, grief, and bitterness among those people (e.g., Amos 8:7-10). In contrast, the church after the passing of the apostles experienced suffering in the form of persecution but rejoiced in it, confident that God was with them and blessing them despite their suffering. The church’s experience during those early centuries was not an experience of judgment on apostasy, but blessing in the midst of persecution.
Gospel Principles also makes the following assertions about the supposedly apostate Christians: “They lost the understanding of God’s love for us. They did not know that we are His children. They did not understand the purpose of life” (92). In other words, the church did not believe that we were divine spirits in heaven who became human beings in order to become gods like our heavenly parents. If this had been the teaching of Christ and the apostles, the LDS Church would have a point, but it was definitely not their teaching (see the articles on preexistence and the sons of God).
Suppose you read about a church that had divided into several factions, some of which were apparently more enamored of Greek philosophy than of Christ. Members of the church were taking each other to court in petty disputes. This church bragged about its tolerance of alternate lifestyles, including a situation in which a man in the church was having an affair with his stepmother. Others in the same church went to the opposite extreme, claiming that sex was bad and that Christians should not get married or if they did should stop living as married people. Women were flaunting their “liberation” and showing disrespect for their husbands. Some people were getting drunk when they were supposed to be observing the Lord’s Supper (what Mormons call the sacrament). People in the church were more interested in making a big show of their spirituality than in loving each other. Some of the church’s members even denied the future resurrection of the dead! Obviously, you might think, this is a church in name only—an example of the Great Apostasy. However, this is actually the church at Corinth, founded by the apostle Paul! He addressed all of these problems in 1 Corinthians, which he addressed “to the church of God at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling” (1 Corinthians 1:2). With all of its obvious problems, the church at Corinth was still the church, and it still had faithful members who were saints. Paul could still open his epistle with thanksgiving to God for the Corinthian believers and acknowledge that God was truly working in their lives (1 Corinthians 1:4-9). Individuals in the church may have fallen away from the faith, but the church was still the church.
The Great Apostasy, then, is a myth. The New Testament not only does not teach it, what it does teach clearly reveals that the church would continue to exist from the time that Christ founded it until the time that Christ returns. The church is not a religious organization run from the top down by a bureaucracy, but the body of Christ, headed by Jesus Christ alone. It has had and continues to have many failings, but Christ is not finished with the church yet, nor has he ever given up on it. If the Great Apostasy is a myth, then there is no basis for the LDS claim that it represents the “Restoration” of the true church to the earth. In the next two articles in this study guide, we explain why the LDS Church is not the restored church and respond to ten claims to restored truths made by the LDS Church.
For Further Reflection
Read Ephesians 2:20 and 4:11-16 and reflect on whether Paul was teaching that the church would always have living apostles on the earth. If this was his teaching, then why does he seem unaware that apostles were about to disappear from the earth?
According to LDS doctrine, Christ was able to find someone (Joseph Smith) to be his prophet and apostle in the nineteenth century, when the church was in complete apostasy. Does it make sense, then, to claim that he could not find anyone to serve in that way for the previous seventeen centuries?
If the church did not exist between about AD 100 and 1830, as the LDS Church teaches, then Christians throughout those centuries were not authorized to preach the gospel, baptize people, or teach people about Christ. Does this idea have any support in the New Testament?
Do you agree that the New Testament never speaks of an apostasy of the church, but only of some or many people in the church falling away? If so, what does this tell you about the LDS doctrine of the Great Apostasy?
Reflect on the implications of Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16:18 that the church would never be overcome by death. What does this promise say about the claim of Joseph Smith to restore the true church to the earth?
Why does Christ’s headship of the church assure us that the church was to survive and grow until his return? How does this perspective contrast with the LDS claim that human offices are essential to the church’s existence?
For Further Study
Bowman, Robert M., Jr. “Amos 8:11-12 and the LDS Doctrines of Apostasy and Restoration.” This article (in PDF format) refutes the claim that Amos 8:11-12 predicted the Great Apostasy.