Was there a "great apostasy" of the church after the time of the New Testament?

by Luke Wayne

The message of Mormonism is a message of the supposed "restoration" of the church brought about by Joseph Smith in 19th-century America. For something to be restored, of course, it first must be lost. Thus, at the very heart of Mormon teaching is the idea of the "great apostasy." This is the teaching that, at the time of the death of the apostles, the "priesthood authority" Jesus had given His church was lost. Without that authority, the church could not maintain the fullness of the gospel and thus fell away and needed to be restored. Through Joseph Smith, they say, God restored the priesthood, the gospel, and the true church, all of which had allegedly been lost in that early "great apostasy." Thus, the entire Mormon system hinges on this idea that there was a total apostasy of the early church after the death of the apostles. If this event did not occur, nothing else that Mormonism teaches even makes sense. The problem for Mormonism, however, is that this "great apostasy" is utterly unbiblical and contrary to the very promises and teachings of Jesus Himself! It certainly did not happen. It's not just that the Bible doesn't teach it. The Bible explicitly teaches against such a notion.

Christ's Church Triumphant

Far from teaching that His church would last only a few decades before becoming hopelessly broken and in need of someone else to repair it, Jesus very clearly promised that His church would not be overcome and would carry on its mission from then until the end of the age. For example, after Peter's confession that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus explains:

"I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it," (Matthew 16:18).

Jesus is not ambiguous here. He was going to build His own church. The gates of hell would not overcome His church. Not now and not ever. If His church was destroyed by the death of the apostles and the apostasy of the members within just a generation after Jesus' death and someone else needed to be sent to rebuild it, then Jesus utterly failed to keep His promise. The Mormon notion of the great apostasy is totally inconsistent with Jesus' words. What's more, after His resurrection, Jesus commissioned His disciples in the following words:

"And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, 'All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age,'" (Matthew 28:18-20).

Note that this work was to be carried out under Jesus' own authority and with His very presence from then until the end of the age. There is no interruption here. Jesus did not say He would be with them in authority for only a short time, then absent for 1,800 years, and then suddenly present again. Jesus promised that, all the way until the end of the age, the preaching would go forth to all the world based on the irrevocable authority of Jesus Himself over all things. Again, this promises the exact opposite of the LDS "great apostasy" doctrine.

The Parables and the Ongoing Growth of the Kingdom

The Kingdom that Jesus came to bring was not to be an intermittent, in-and-out, off-and-on kind of thing. It was to begin very small and then spread and grow throughout all the world without interruption. Note Jesus' words in the parable of the wheat and the tares: 

"Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also. The slaves of the landowner came and said to him, "Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?" And he said to them, "An enemy has done this!" The slaves said to him, "Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?" But he said, "No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, 'First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.'"'" (Matthew 13:24-30).

The church and the world, the wheat and the tares, grow together until the final judgment. The wheat is not removed, nor does it shrivel and die or turn into more tares. More wheat never needs to be sown a second time to restore the wheat harvest. Though tares may grow around the wheat, there is no wheat apostasy. They grow together the entire time and then are divided in the last day. This is quite contrary to the teaching of a total great apostasy. Immediately after this parable, Jesus further explains:

"He presented another parable to them, saying, 'The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.' He spoke another parable to them, 'The kingdom of heaven is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three pecks of flour until it was all leavened.'" (Matthew 13:31-33).

In both of these parables, the kingdom begins quite small and then grows triumphantly (though not always noticeably) until it finally accomplishes the great aim for which God intended it. It starts but a seed and slowly grows into a great plant. It starts as invisible as leaven in the dough and slowly transforms the whole lump, even when you can't always tell it's doing so. It is an ongoing, consistent, uninterrupted process that begins when Jesus plants the kingdom and continues on until the end of the age.

The Prophets and Ongoing Growth of the Kingdom

This is, indeed, what the prophets said the Messiah would come to do. When Daniel describes Nebuchadnezzar's dream of the great metal image, he explains that each metal on the image represented a human kingdom. He then describes a rock, uncut by human hands, that strikes the image and causes all the kingdoms to collapse. What begins as a stone grows steadily into a great mountain and indeed fills the entire earth!

"You continued looking until a stone was cut out without hands, and it struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and crushed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were crushed all at the same time and became like chaff from the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away so that not a trace of them was found. But the stone that struck the statue became a great mountain and filled the whole earth," (Daniel 2:34-35).

Daniel explains these words Himself:

"In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever," (Daniel 2:44).

Never destroyed. Never left to another people. Endure forever. From the moment the stone comes to establish His kingdom, the kingdom will go on and spread and accomplish its goal throughout the world. Isaiah similarly prophesied:

"For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this," (Isaiah 9:6-7).

The Child was born. The Son was given. It was Jesus our Lord. His government will continue to increase or, as the NRSV translates it, "His authority shall grow continually." This cannot mean that the Son will be given and then His authority will quickly depart from the earth and remain absent for nearly two millennia. It is a picture of unbroken authority on the earth. Thus, we have in the prophets the same image we find in the parables; that of Christ's people, founded by His unbreakable authority and His eternal rule, beginning as something small and spreading triumphantly. This was Christ's plan. This was God's Promise. And it is utterly undone by the doctrine of the "Great Apostasy."

A Famine of Revelation?

Yet, many LDS argue that the great apostasy is indeed taught in Scripture. One of their favorite proof-texts is from the Prophet Amos, who wrote:

"'Behold, days are coming,' declares the Lord God, 'When I will send a famine on the land, Not a famine for bread or a thirst for water, But rather for hearing the words of the Lord. People will stagger from sea to sea And from the north even to the east; They will go to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, But they will not find it," (Amos 8:11-12).

They claim that this points to the time when the "priesthood authority" was supposedly removed from the earth and thus revelation ceased (i.e., the great apostasy). What they fail to note, however, is that Amos was not writing about the early church, the death of the apostles, the coming of Messiah, or any such thing. This was an oracle of judgment on the northern kingdom of ancient Israel which would climax in the Assyrian exile. Note how the chapter begins:

"Thus the Lord God showed me, and behold, there was a basket of summer fruit. He said, 'What do you see, Amos?' And I said, 'A basket of summer fruit.' Then the Lord said to me, 'The end has come for My people Israel. I will spare them no longer. The songs of the palace will turn to wailing in that day,' declares the Lord God. 'Many will be the corpses; in every place they will cast them forth in silence,'" (Amos 8:1-3).

This is a judgment on the kingdom of the ten northern tribes, with its capital in Samaria, for their idolatry, immorality, and injustice. Immediately after the verses that Mormons love to quote, we read:

"As for those who swear by the guilt of Samaria, Who say, ‘As your god lives, O Dan,’ And, ‘As the way of Beersheba lives,’ They will fall and not rise again," (Amos 8:14).

The early Christians after the death of the apostles did not swear by the guilt of Samaria or worship the golden calf in Dan. This is not talking about the early New Testament church. It is talking about Old Testament Israel. This prophecy had already been fulfilled by the time Jesus walked the earth.

Unless the Apostasy Comes First

A second passage to which LDS often like to point is in Paul's letter to the Thessalonians:

"Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God," (2 Thessalonians 2:1-4).

This does, indeed, speak of an apostasy in the last days that must occur before the Lord's return. But is this prophesied apostasy anything like the Mormon doctrine? There is no mention of "priesthood authority," no hint that the fullness of the gospel has been lost from the earth, and nothing to indicate that this "apostasy" is a complete falling away of the entire church. "But," the Mormon objector might say, "there is nothing that says it is not that kind of apostasy. Aren't you assuming it isn't?" But here they are wrong again. First of all, the unified teaching of Scripture discussed above precludes the possibility of that kind of complete apostasy, failure of the church, or loss of Christ's authority with His people on the earth. But there is actually a more direct way to see that Paul is not talking about anything like the LDS "great apostasy" doctrine. You see, Paul's words here are only echoing things that Jesus already explained. Just as Paul is warning against the false teaching of those who said "that the day of the Lord has come," so too did Jesus warn in the Olivet Discourse:

"Then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ,’ or ‘There He is,’ do not believe him. For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect. Behold, I have told you in advance. So if they say to you, ‘Behold, He is in the wilderness,’ do not go out, or, ‘Behold, He is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe them," (Matthew 24:23-26).

In this same discourse, Jesus also predicts an apostasy. He says:

"At that time many will fall away and will betray one another and hate one another. Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many. Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved. This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come," (Matthew 24:10-14).

Note that many will fall away, but not all will. There will also be those who persevere to the end. Indeed, they will be out preaching and advancing the gospel until the very end. The gospel and the authority to preach it has not bee lost, and there is still a faithful church carrying out the work throughout the earth. This is not a complete apostasy. It is not a total failure of the church after which a full restoration is needed. A lot of people will fall away, but there will remain those who are faithful. They will be saved. The Church will continue even through this. Paul and Jesus are talking about the same event. Just as Paul couches the apostasy in the context of the "man of lawlessness" who sets himself up in the "temple of God" and claims to be God, so too does Jesus connect this falling away with similar language:

"Therefore when you see the abomination of desolation which was spoken of through Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand)," (Matthew 24:15).

Indeed, Paul follows Jesus' teaching on this so closely that just as Jesus says, "Behold, I have told you in advance," (Matthew 24:25), so too does Paul write "Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things?" (2 Thessalonians 2:5). Thus, the words of Jesus and of Paul clarify one another. They are both describing the same thing. And when we set them together, it is clear that the apostasy described is not an event where the gospel or Christ's authority are lost by the entire church. Christ's church goes on, just as He promised it would.