Will There Be a Great Falling Away?

By Thomas Williamson
3131 S. Archer Avenue ē Chicago, Illinois 60608

 


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"Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God." 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4.

Many of our doctrinally sound Missionary Baptist churches are declining in membership and attendance these days. Some have explained this phenomenon by saying that "it was meant to be this way - the Bible says that there will be a great falling away from the churches. What we are seeing is a fulfillment of Bible prophecy and a sign that the Lordís Second Coming is near."

Is there any scriptural basis for the belief that true Baptist churches will see an inevitable decline in membership before the Rapture? Letís examine the scriptural evidence on this subject.

A review of the commentaries on this passage in 2 Thessalonians reveals a number of different interpretations, most of which can be sorted into the following 4 categories:

1. There are those who see this passage as being fulfilled in the First Century, in the events leading up to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD. The "temple of God" mentioned here is Herodís temple which was soon destroyed, and the "man of sin" is a personage associated with the Jewish rebellion against Rome.

2. Other commentators see the "falling away" as a reference to the rise of the apostate Roman Catholic Church in the 4th Century. The restraining power of 2 Thessalonians 2:7 is the Roman Empire - when it weakened and finally fell in the 4th and 5th Centuries, the Catholic Church arose to take its place. The "man of sin" is a reference to the popes and the institution of the papacy, corresponding to the Little Horn of Daniel 7. The "temple of God" is not a literal structure, but a reference to Christian believers in general, as in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19, 2 Corinthians 6:16, Ephesians 2:21, 1 Timothy 3:15 and Revelation 3:12. This view was held by many of the Church Fathers including Justin Martyr, Cyril of Jerusalem, Jerome, Lactantius, Ambrose, Irenaeus, and Chrysostom as well as many Reformers including Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Knox, Zwingli, Tyndale, Cranmer, Latimer, John Wesley, Roger Williams and Jonathan Edwards. For modern explications of this view, see "Clarkeís Bible" or the book "Great Prophecies of the Bible" by Ralph Woodrow.

3. There are those who believe that the "falling away" refers to the modern ecumenical movement and to the apostasy of the mainline Protestant denominations, as represented by the World Council of Churches. (Some of those who hold this view have used the "temple of God" reference as a proof-text teaching that the Muslim Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem must be destroyed and replaced by a Jewish temple with animal sacrifices. There is no Scriptural basis for this wild speculation. 2 Thessalonians does not tell us where this "temple" is located; the New Testament often uses the word "temple" in a non-literal fashion as in John 2:19-21; the epistle to the Hebrews condemns any return to Jewish animal sacrifices as an unpardonable act of apostasy from Christ, and thus something that true Christians should not support in any way).

4. There are those who hold that the "falling away" reference does not refer to any rebellion or religious apostasy, but rather to the literal falling away of the Earth from true believers as they are lifted up from the Earth in the Rapture, as mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 4. If true, then the "falling away" is not in any sense a prediction of decline in Baptist church membership.

All 4 of these views are held today by preachers and Bible teachers who are good, fundamental Bible-believing Baptists. Therefore, we should be cautious about making any of these interpretations to be a dogmatic test of faith, which all Christians must accept.

But we can be dogmatic about one thing: There is nothing about any of these 4 views that requires, or even hints at, a decline in membership among the Lordís true churches in the Last Days. Even the third view, predicting apostasy in the liberal churches, does not in any way mean that truly fundamental Baptist churches could not be growing in membership at the same time that the liberal churches are going apostate.

There is absolutely no basis for the belief that the "falling away" of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 refers to a decline in membership of true churches, whether in the First Century, the 4th, or the 21st. This is an idea that has been read into the text by some careless folks, but that is not what Paul was saying at all.

WILL THERE BE FAITH ON THE EARTH WHEN THE LORD COMES? There are those who have predicted a decline in true Christianity before the Rapture, based on Luke 18:8, "Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?"

This verse has been interpreted to teach that at the Lordís Second Coming, there will be very few born-again believers on earth, and that true Christianity is doomed to dwindle down to almost nothing before the Rapture.

Those who teach this would have us believe that Christ, at the very outset of His ministry of planting a new religious movement on the earth, plainly told His followers that this new movement was never going to get anywhere and was doomed to eventual failure.

To give the impression that Christ predicted defeat and despair for the religious faith He founded, it is necessary to detach Luke 18:8b from its preceding context, the parable of the unjust judge. Christ is saying here, "Will I find such faith as this, faith such as the widow woman exercised, faith that causes you always to pray, and not to faint?"

Christís remark about finding such faith on the earth at His coming was an exhortation and encouragement to faithfulness, not a prediction of the diminution and ultimate near-extinction of Christianity. It could be compared to a football coach asking his men, "Are we going to win this game or not?" Such a coach does not expect a negative answer, and would probably boot off the team any player who said, "Coach, I think we are predestined to lose this game, and the whole season, so I am not going to strain myself out there on the field!"

WHAT ABOUT EVIL MEN AND SEDUCERS WAXING WORSE AND WORSE? In 1 Timothy 3:13 Paul said that evil men and seducers would wax worse and worse, but he was talking about men living in his own time, in the First Century. He refers to such men in the present tense in 3:5-8, telling Timothy to turn away from them.

In verse 9 he assures us that "they shall proceed no further: for their folly shall be manifest unto all men." In other words, the folly of these men does not necessarily characterize the course of the entire Church Age. There is certainly no prediction here of the ruin of Christianity or of the decline of fundamental Baptist churches in the 21st Century.

In 1 Timothy 3:1 Paul warned of perilous times in the last days. But here again it is evident that Paul was talking of his own time in the First Century. The Apostle John, writing at the same time as Paul, said in 1 John 2:18, "Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time."

SCRIPTURAL EVIDENCE FOR THE EXPANSION OF CHRISTIANITY. The Bible does not give us any details as to the specific course of events in the 21st Century AD, nor was it ever meant to do so. However, the Bible clearly teaches that over the long haul and in the long run, there will be an expansion of true Christianity. Though there may be reverses, and though we may indeed possibly see a temporary decline of true church membership at times, the defining characteristic of the Church Age is overall expansion over the long term.

1. Daniel 2:44 predicts that in the days of the kings of the 4th of the great world empires (the Roman Empire), "shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever." Daniel 2:35, comparing this kingdom to a giant stone, tells us that "the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth."

2. Isaiah 9:7 tells us that the result of the Messiahís First Advent will be a Kingdom that increases forever: "Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this." Some have tried to escape the force of this teaching by assigning it to Christís Second Coming, but we are told in 9:6 that this is all the result of a child being born, a clear reference to Christís first coming. Does anyone really believe that Christ is going to be born as a baby at His Second Coming?

3. In Matthew 13:31-33, Christ compared His Kingdom to a mustard seed which becomes a tree, and to leaven that grows in impact until the entire lump of meal is leavened. These parables speak of the expansion of Christianity, not contraction or diminution.

4. In Acts 1:8, Christ predicted that Christianity, at that time represented by only one Baptist church located in Jerusalem, would soon expand to all Judea, Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the earth. This indicates a growth enterprise, not a movement that would shrink and eventually die out.

TRUE CHURCHES ARE GROWING ALL OVER THE WORLD. Church historian Kenneth Latourette has published a major set of volumes entitled "History of the Expansion of Christianity." The reason for the title is that Christianity has been steadily expanding over the centuries. The last 200 years have seen a dramatic expansion of evangelical Christianity into almost all nations of the Third World. No one has published a "History of the Contraction and Diminution of Christianity," because such a title would be contrary to the facts.

The BMA Department of Missions has reported a dramatic increase in professions of faith worldwide in the last few years. Those statistics may go up or down in the future, but there is nothing in Bible prophecy that says we cannot see a vast further expansion of Godís Kingdom.

Some of our churches in America are not doing so well, but there are many fundamental Baptist churches that are booming and growing by leaps and bounds. The June/July 2003 issue of the Baptist Bible Tribune reports on a number of Baptist Bible Fellowship churches that are growing.

Edgewood Baptist of Rock Island, Illinois has completed its most successful spring in 100 years, with an average attendance of 1000 and 1545 present on Easter. Bible Baptist of Wilmington, Ohio has grown from 8 members in 1995 to 800 in 2003. These examples can be multiplied hundreds of times. Are these churches going against Bible prophecy and Godís plan for this dispensation? Should they start listening to the "Bible teachers" who insist that revival is not for today?

The June 11, 2003 Baptist Trumpet reports on the completion of a new $5 million facility by Central Baptist Church of Conway, Arkansas, affiliated with the BMA. In 1988 this church reported 599 members and 215 average Sunday School attendance. In 2002 they reported 1102 members, 480 worship attendance and 311 average SS attendance. This is just one of many, many BMA churches that are rapidly growing, while some of us sit in the mud and make silly excuses about how there is supposed to be a "great falling away" in the end-times.

SELF-FULFILLING PROPHECY. We dare not sit in judgment on churches with declining attendance, many of which have been faithful in carrying out the Great Commission and reaching out to their communities.

However, we must avoid having our churches decline in membership because of the no-win pessimistic stance of some preachers, who insist that the church is meant to decline, based on "Bible prophecy," current adverse trends in society, or for whatever reason.

When pastors have a lack of vision and make it clear to their people that they expect decline and failure in their ministry, this will have a devastating and demoralizing effect on the church members. They will become discouraged and drop out of church, thus making the predictions of doom and gloom for the church a self-fulfilling prophecy. (The fortunate ones will find another church with a sense of purpose and an optimistic view of their ministry, their impact on society and their place in history).

BAD COACHING. How many colleges or high schools would tolerate a football coach who instilled his team members with a sense of failure, instructing them that they are not really meant to win any games or accomplish anything?

How many Fortune 500 corporations would put up with an executive who publicly stated that "as a matter of conviction, "I believe that this company will see fewer profits, fewer sales, bigger deficits, a reduced market share, and that all this is meant to be, and there is nothing we can or should do about it?"

The children of this generation are wiser than the children of light. They will not tolerate leadership that promotes a pessimistic view of any earthly enterprise. But we as Christians will rush to send our money to

"prophecy teachers" who teach that our churches and our religion are destined to imminent wreck and ruin.

America suffered a terrible defeat in Vietnam because we allowed ourselves to be led into that war by leaders who admitted privately, and later publicly, that we would not be able to win the war, at least not the way we were going about it. Does anybody care to sign up to fight another war like that, where we are defeated before we even get started?

NABOBS OF NEGATIVISM: "A lot of our young men have lost their heart. A lot of older pastors have lost their heart. A generation of pastors my age and older are sort of hanging on until the rapture, just trying to survive. They think it doesnít work anymore, that it canít be done anymore, that society is too bad, that the folks who are getting it done have had to compromise in order to get their crowds.

"Some of these good men donít want to compromise, so they do nothing. Others want to do something, so they think they have to compromise. A generation of young preachers want to do something, but they look at us and see such discouragement and negativism and down-in-the-mouth unhappiness that they go somewhere else to try to find something exciting about the work of God." - R. B. Ouellette, in Sword of the Lord.

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