One of the most heart-breaking and gut-wrenching aspects of the Christian walk is seeing beloved children, friends, and others departing from the faith. Some go out and become part of the world; others accept doctrines contrary to the one true Gospel of Christ (cf. Galatians 1:6-9). As we try to process and make sense of these events, we often ask ourselves: what went wrong? What can be done so that it will not keep happening?
A common reaction to such events is to wonder regarding the instruction of such persons. Were they truly taught the Gospel of Christ? Were the doctrines which they should have understood promoted consistently and clearly from the pulpit? Many, in fact, conclude that the reason why people fall away is because God’s truth was not adequately preached from the pulpit.
It is no doubt true that in many circumstances the preaching has not been sufficient. In many cases, the preaching may have been inoffensive and insufficient (cf. 2 Timothy 4:1-4). Perhaps it was just assumed that the people would know the truth when they really did not. These circumstances are lamentable, and all those who preach the Gospel of Christ should consider themselves and their preaching to make sure that they are truly promoting the “whole counsel of God” and providing the necessary encouragement and instruction for the saints (Acts 20:27, 2 Timothy 3:16-17)!
Nevertheless, we should not be deceived into thinking that a lack of knowledge is always the problem. It would seem that some believe that as long as the proper information is communicated and understood, people will act properly and accordingly. Such is not consistent with the teachings of Scripture, although it does reflect the philosophy of Socrates and others. According to Socrates, knowledge is the ultimate good, and evil is therefore based in ignorance. As long as one has proper knowledge, Socrates taught, one will live in accordance with righteousness.
As in all things, we ought to learn from Christ, and not the philosophies of men (Colossians 2:1-10). Living righteously involves a lot more than just having proper intellectual knowledge, as the Scriptures abundantly attest (James 2:14-26)! Consider Isaiah: God commissioned him to preach His message, and made it clear that they would not listen because of their hardened heart (Isaiah 6:9-10). Jeremiah prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem to the people of Judah, and they certainly understood the message. They simply did not like it, and in their rebellion they devised evil against Jeremiah (cf. Jeremiah 19-20; 26-28; 36-38; 42-44). One also can read in Ezekiel and Hosea and many others of the prophets, presenting the very same message over and over and over and over again, as it is written:
“Be ye not as your fathers, unto whom the former prophets cried, saying, ‘Thus saith the LORD of hosts, “Return ye now from your evil ways, and from your evil doings:”‘ but they did not hear, nor hearken unto me,” saith the LORD. “Your fathers, where are they? And the prophets, do they live forever? But my words and my statutes, which I commanded my servants the prophets, did they not overtake your fathers? And they turned and said, ‘Like as the LORD of hosts thought to do unto us, according to our ways, and according to our doings, so hath he dealt with us'” (Zechariah 1:4-6).
It is sadly true that a significant element of Israel’s sinfulness involved ignorance of the truth regarding God, ignorance of priest and commoner alike (cf. Hosea 4). Nevertheless, the prophets constantly prophesied to the people what would befall them if they did not repent. Can the blame for the apostasy of Israel be laid at the feet of the prophets? Consider what God says to Ezekiel:
And it came to pass at the end of seven days, that the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, “Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the house of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me. When I say unto the wicked, ‘Thou shalt surely die’; and thou givest him not warning, nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thy hand. Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul. Again, when a righteous man doth turn from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, and I lay a stumblingblock before him, he shall die: because thou hast not given him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteous deeds which he hath done shall not be remembered; but his blood will I require at thy hand. Nevertheless if thou warn the righteous man, that the righteous sin not, and he doth not sin, he shall surely live, because he took warning; and thou hast delivered thy soul (Ezekiel 3:16-21).
While the responsibility laid upon the shoulders of Ezekiel is great and grave, we have no reason to believe that he did not fulfill it. He, along with Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, and many other prophets, gave the proper warnings to the righteous and wicked alike. Yet Israel still rebelled.
Rebellion, therefore, is not based only in a lack of knowledge. It is entirely possible for someone to receive proper instruction in God’s truth and righteousness and yet turn away from it (2 Peter 2:20-22).
Our investigation, therefore, cannot just end at the pulpit. Christianity, after all, is not merely a set of ideas to understand– it is a belief system to be lived (Hebrews 11:1, 6, Matthew 10:35-39). Proper education of all believers cannot merely involve the communication of facts and doctrines– it must also include examples of the faith in practice (James 2:14-26). Are elders, preachers, and other seemingly spiritually “mature” believers really practicing what they preach and teach? Are parents providing proper instruction in righteousness? Ephesians 6:4 does not teach that Bible class teachers and preachers are responsible for the proper spiritual instruction of children, but that fathers are to have that job. Proverbs 22:6 is exactly correct: children will go in the way that their parents teach them to go. If the parent, by their words and deeds, teach children that sports, secular education, careers, popularity, money, or other such things are where they ought to go, why should they be surprised when those are the most important things for their children? Fathers and mothers must be very active in providing their children with spiritual instruction, both through teaching the truths of God found in His Word and through providing a model of the Christian life through their own conduct and priorities.
We must also make sure that when the truths of God’s Word are taught, they are taught clearly, understandably, and with proper explanation. If we never make much sense out of why we believe and practice what we believe and practice, why should we expect anyone to share those beliefs and practices?
Many other exhortations could be provided: the need to maintain a loving and encouraging attitude toward God, the church, preachers, elders, and fellow brethren, the need for spiritual role models within local congregations, the need for older men and women to mentor younger men and women in the faith (cf. Titus 2:1-5), among many others. We also must come to grips with the fact that even if we do all that we can to teach and live God’s truth, some will still rebel against the truth and reject it (cf. Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23; Hebrews 10:26-31; 2 Peter 2:20-22). In the end, we are responsible for working out our own salvation with fear and trembling (cf. Philippians 2:12). Each person will stand or fall before their Master (Romans 14:10-12). All we can do is encourage each other to hold fast to the faith while watching for ourselves lest we stumble (Hebrews 10:24-25, Galatians 6:1, 3-5).
Seeing apostasy taking place is painful and difficult. While it may be easy and/or comfortable to just blame the quality of preaching, and even though the preaching may very well be part of the difficulty, let us keep in mind that Christianity is a lot more than just doctrines to be preached, and recognize the sober truth that people can understand the truth and yet decide to reject it. Let us look to ourselves and do all that we can to believe and live the truth and encourage all those with whom we come into contact to do the same!