God has patiently put up with a history of leaders who defect—of whom I am one. I defect often. Although I am more aware of my sins of commission than omission, my every sin denies and defies allegiance to the Lord I love. I must return to the One I belong by confession, quickly and regularly, about attitudes and actions not aligned to His standards.
Short History Two higher-profile defections in 2019—a mega-church pastor and a prominent worship leader—have generated a number of questions for those of us who are the lower-profile faithful. Before I provide biblical, theological and pastoral comment on our perplexity, here’s a short history on defectors in the Bible. Spiritual defection began in heaven.
Lucifer, the best among the best of God’s creation, turned traitor. He ran an insurgency against the Highest One. However, God’s Son, to whom all things have been handed by the Father, saw Satan thrown out of heaven (Luke 10:18; see also Rev. 12:7–10, Satan eventually thrown down to the earth). Defection started in heaven and continues on earth. The first couple yielded to the tempter and locked the rest of humanity in a default rebellion and defection from divine intent. In the Old Testament, Israel is more known for defections than faithfulness to God and His law. Her worship of idols was led by her kings (e.g., 1 Kings 14:22–24) and denounced by her prophets as spiritual adultery and apostasy (e.g., Jer. 8:5).
Judgment always followed defection (e.g., the cycles of the book of Judges) while a remnant line preserved the promise of a renewed future (e.g., post-exilic prophets). New Testament characters also fare poorly in spiritual fidelity. Judas, the best-known case and an unbelieving devil (John 6:64, 70), deserted the One he had followed and who had trained him for years.
Even when we have experienced spiritual regeneration, a defector tendency runs in us. Left to ourselves to persevere in faith, we defect to prior allegiances and act in propensity toward alternate commitments. But while the Father has not left us to ourselves and has delivered us from the kingdom of darkness, transferring us into the kingdom of His beloved Son (Col. 1:13), He merely invites us to interact with his Spirit to mature in belief and behavior as citizens of a new kingdom; He does not force us to comply. Since in Christ we have redemption and forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:14), we have been rescued from our state of rebellion. That rescue, however, doesn’t keep former rebels from defecting from the ranks and deserting camp by falling into grievous sin. And what happens if a believer intentionally changes sides and turns traitor? Well, those are some of the matters to ponder as we think about where our personal tendency fits in the ongoing history of defection.
Spiritual defection traverses a spectrum from doubt to denial to desertion. John the Baptizer’s doubt (Matt. 11:2–3) about Jesus’ messiahship or Thomas’ doubt expressed at our Lord’s resurrection (John 20:26–29) are classic cases that Jesus quickly assuaged with an early version of show-and-tell. Indeed, there is spiritual defection every time we sin. Our spiritual fathers, both Abraham and David defected morally—a practical apostasy. As Christians we believingly confess our sins. The faithful and just God forgives and cleanses us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). He restores us to fellowship without asking us to guarantee a sin-free future. Spiritual doubt and defections happen all the time, but these are temporary. When leaders morally defect, consternation spreads among followers. My prayer is that I never use another’s sins to justify my own.
A subset of spiritual defection is ministry desertion. “In love with this present world,” Demas, a firm and former supporter of the apostle Paul, deserted him (2 Tim. 4:10; cf. Col. 4:14). Ministry desertion breaks the heart of fellow leaders and shocks relevant publics. Yet just as spiritual repair was extended to John (also called Mark), we will take the long view on any person’s ministry desertion. John/Mark was not only eventually welcomed back by Paul (2 Tim. 4:11), he likely became the Gospel writer with the apostolic backing of Peter, the denier. Peter extended to John/Mark the restoration he had experienced himself.
What, however, if core Christian convictions are repudiated, not just in heresy by the ignorant, but as doctrinal, Christological apostasy by the well-informed? And more urgently, how should we think of a defector’s previous fruitful ministry when he or she renounces all past beliefs and accomplishments? All defection is sin, and all sin is defection. But not all defection is apostasy, though all apostasy is defection. There are greater and lesser sins (see John 19:11, of Caiaphas and Pilate). Apostasy of a permanent kind (e.g., false teachers, Hymenaeus, Alexander and Philetus, 1 Tim. 1:20, 2 Tim. 2:17) is a more grievous sin than an apostasy of a temporary kind. Both are sin, but permanent, blasphemous apostasy appears as unpardonable as a sin leading to death (1 John 5:16).
While Jesus prays for forgiveness of those who do not know what they do to Him (Luke 23:34), He also speaks of unpardonable sin: attributing a demonic source to Jesus’ Spirit-credentialed works (Matt. 12:32). This sin the Pharisees were about to commit without remorse, regret or repentance reflects the hardened heart and calloused conscience of those repudiating the Jesus they once knew.
When we encounter this doctrinal apostasy, especially from leaders we respected and loved, how do we as ordinary but growing believers in Jesus respond to the questions that come to the fore? Let me identify and address five relevant questions.
1. Is Christianity even true at all? There is only one right response, a prohibition and a pointer: Do not look to any Christian or leader, not even the best apologists, for your confidence in, corroboration of, or convictions about the Faith. Each of us as a fallen human being is capable of disappointing. Look to Jesus alone, and point others to Christ alone. He will not fail. Why? Because, He is true and the truth. He will be true to you and is the truth for you and all people. A student asked Princeton philosopher Diogenes Allen about why he should go to church. “Because Christianity is true” came the astute reply. The truth of Christianity does not depend on whether anyone believes it or acts consistently, since no Christian is fully consistent. Christianity is true and truth because of Jesus the Christ, and exceptionally so because of His historically, verifiable and unique self-resurrection from the dead. Let Him be your only standard, the author and finisher of everyone’s faith (Heb. 12:2).
2. Is Christian conversion real? All kinds of conversions go on, from political switching to fashion trends. This is one reason we do not probe the conditions, circumstances and causes of conversion to and from Christianity. There’s also something real about conversion within and between religions. As I write this, a Sikh young lady in Pakistan has turned Muslim “of my own freewill.” Christian Paul, too, was considered a Jewish apostate (Acts 21:21), as are “infidels” who leave their birth-faith to believe in Christ. The reality of conversions makes no conviction true or untrue. Indeed, we know, see and hear incredible testimonies of changed lives as a result of coming to Jesus. These stories confirm what happens in a person who comes to God through Jesus, but they do not prove the Christian faith. We shall neither consider nor publicize high-profile conversions (nor defections) as enabling (or disabling) consideration of Christ. Testaments of conversion (or de-conversion) corroborate but neither verify nor falsify the faith (or its lack) to a potential convert or anyone else. Personal, ongoing assurance of conversion arises from the declaration by Jesus that “he who hears My word and believes on Him who sent Me has eternal life” (John 5:24, emphasis added). The possession, not just the possibility of future eternal life, holds good through disaffection, dryness or defection. May I alert you to never base assurance of the reality of your conversion on anything other than God’s Word, not even on the presence of your good works? A prayerful, meditative life will experience subjective assurance of God’s Spirit, confirming God’s objective word that you are the child of God. With God’s Holy Spirit witnessing to the human spirit, let’s never get over the miracle of conversion. It will help overcome shorter-term dryness and prevent longer-term spiritual defection.
3. Is perceptible fruit necessary to prove the truth and reality of one’s salvation? Recent defectors did once bear fruit—and much fruit—in pastoral and worship leadership, which accounts for our confusion.
Just as we must nuance and extend questions in such discussion and debate, perhaps we will find help by slicing into smaller pieces this theological question about their betrayal of what they professed. Here’s the knife we will use: “Prove one’s salvation to whom?” 3a. Is perceptible fruit the proof of salvation to God? No. God innately knows who is saved in His own way of intuitive and immediate knowing. 3b. Is perceptible fruit the proof of salvation to ourselves? Not at all. Merely our sins of omission would keep us uncertain about our salvation. The apostle John states that certitude about our salvation is based on what is written (1 John 5:13). 3c. Is perceptible fruit the proof of salvation to others? Yes indeed. Whether accurately or inaccurately, others may conclude that a person is not saved, has never been saved, or has lost his salvation by the lack of good works in the life of the believer. That is, you shall know them (others, not yourself) by their fruit (Matt. 7:16, 20). One can confidently know his or her own eternal salvation by Scripture but reasonably conclude that another is unsaved by his or her unchristian behavior. And since you don’t want to confuse others (not yourself), examine your behavior by Scripture, and seek to become like the Son by the Holy Spirit. Please do not confuse us by your unbiblical behavior as we will come to the wrong inference about your conversion. For God’s sake, change your behavior. Or change your behavior for the sake of the rest of us to prevent our erroneous conclusion about your lack of salvation.
In view of the defection of Christian leaders, is Christ’s salvation permanent and safe forever? Before we go into this answer, a biographical comment will allow for deeper understanding of the commentary. Hindu parables on human relationship to deity, especially the role of meritorious works in salvation, began at least a century prior to the Protestant Reformation debates. Those frame well the consideration of this and the prior question in view of the superficial state of the contemporary church.
My salvation understanding began in India embracing a monkey school of justification and sanctification. An infant monkey clings to its mother even as the mom holds on to it. I was taught and believed that at some point, by some final sin, we can come to the end of God’s rope and our salvation becomes unraveled. For after all, Hebrews 6:4–6 seems to grant no possibility for those who fall away to be renewed again to repentance. I now hold to the cat school of salvation and the spiritual life. A kitten is picked up and carried by the mother without the kitty clinging. Unafraid of getting dropped, the beloved kitty jerks and jolts through many a twist and turn, but is safe on its journey to the destination. Similarly, knowing everything about me, my potential times and actual layers of belief and unbelief, the sovereign Savior picked me up, carries me now, and delivers me to an eternal destination. He finishes the good work He has begun in me (Phil. 1:6). I don’t have to be afraid of being dropped even when I object to His carrying me by my neck. For every biblical text that creates doubts about one’s eternal salvation, another passage, by the very same author, confirms the permanence of salvation. For example,
Stay tuned for Part II.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Ramesh Richard serves as the founder and president of RREACH; general convener of the Global Proclamation Congress for Pastoral Trainers 2016; professor of Global Theological Engagement and Pastoral Ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary; and founder and chairman of Trainers of Pastors International Coalition. He holds a ThD in Systematic Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Delhi.
Read previous articles from Dr. Richard here.