April 19, 2024

Sabbath School Reflections: The Apostasy of the Early Church

A call to faithfulness

Dumisani J. Hlatywayo
Photo by Tasha Lyn on Unsplash
Listen to the Reflections Sabbath School lesson review for this week

The term apostasy refers to a deliberate abandonment or rejection of one’s faith, beliefs, or religious practices. In the biblical context, it means turning away from the truth of Jesus Christ and the teachings of Scripture. The apostle Paul uses the word apostasy in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 to describe what he calls a great “falling away” from the faith before the return of Jesus Christ. In Hebrews 3:12, he uses it to describe those who have known the truth but have since turned away from it. Apostasy is therefore a serious transgression. It involves a conscious rejection of God’s law, His revelation, and His offer of salvation.

The third chapter of The Great Controversy describes how the early Christian church, after the death of the apostles, gradually deviated from the teachings of Christ and the apostles. This apostasy was marked by a departure from the simplicity of the gospel, the introduction of pagan practices and doctrines, and the rise of an oppressive church structure. The chapter highlights key figures and events that contributed to this decline, including the influence of Greek philosophy, the establishment of the papacy, and the persecution of those who held to the original teachings of Christ. Overall, the chapter presents a sobering account of how the early church lost its way perpetuating the great controversy between Christ and Satan.


With the passing of the apostolic era, the church began to deviate from its foundation. Greek philosophy, Gnosticism in particular, introduced a false intellectualism and spiritualism that undermined the simplicity of the gospel. In Gnosticism humans possess a divine spark that seeks reunification with the divine and they must undergo a quest to rediscover their inherent divinity. These false teachings led to a decline in the authority of Scripture and the rise of speculative theories and traditions.

The rise of speculative theories and traditions in recent years reflects a growing desire for meaning and understanding in an increasingly complex world. From conspiracy theories to spiritual practices, these belief systems offer a sense of control and agency in the face of uncertainty. Fueled by social media and online communities, speculative theories have become more accessible and widespread, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. While some provide a sense of belonging and purpose, others perpetuate harmful ideas and misinformation. As we navigate this landscape, it’s crucial to approach speculative theories with critical thinking and discernment, recognizing both their potential allure and the importance of grounding our beliefs in evidence, reason, and above all else, faith in Jesus who is the Christ.

It’s crucial to approach speculative theories with critical thinking and discernment, recognizing both their potential allure and the importance of grounding our beliefs in evidence, reason, and above all else, faith in Jesus who is the Christ.

The Roman Emperor, Constantine, promoted Christianity as a state religion, which brought a flood of pagan converts into the church. These converts brought with them their own practices and beliefs, which were incorporated into Christian worship, further corrupting the original teachings of Christ. In some countries today, Christianity is promoted as a state religion through government policies, laws, and rhetoric that prioritize Christian values and beliefs above others. This can involve the establishment of Christian institutions, funding for Christian programs, and the promotion of Christian ideology in public spaces and education. Laws and policies may be enacted that restrict the rights and freedoms of non-Christians, effectively creating a second-class citizenry. This can blur the lines between church and state, undermining the principles of religious freedom. This form of Christian nationalism is harmful to the separation of church and state.

It’s All About Worship

Satan, both in the past as well as in the present, has used institutions of higher learning to further his acts of persecution of the church of God. In 1974 I was a second-year student at the University of Zambia and just a year and a half old in the Adventist faith. Students at the university had a very strong and vibrant campus ministry that they referred to as “The University Seventh-day Adventist Collegiate Forum.” We encouraged each other to stand firm and faithful in Jesus Christ. Yes, you know that those are the movements that are targeted by Satan.

University working hours were Monday to Friday with no lectures over the weekend. Since Friday evenings were technically part of the working week, however, lecturers would, from time to time, schedule tests on those evenings. It was, nonetheless, always possible to negotiate with those lecturers to either re-schedule the test or sit for make-up tests. Uncharacteristically, the end of year examinations scheduled for May in 1974 included a Saturday morning. This was a departure from the previous years where examinations were scheduled for Mondays through Fridays. It was also a test of faith for the Adventist students.

We prayed and fasted. We petitioned the university Vice Chancellor to give us a chance to sit the missed examinations for those courses as though they were supplementary examinations. But all to no avail: God purposed that we should endure the test and trial, and ultimately go through it. We encouraged one another to stand firm and remain faithful. Come Sabbath morning when the examinations were scheduled to be written, the entire group was found at church. More than 17 of us did not sit for the examinations; each one of us being marked absent. An absent at the examination was equivalent to a fail for the course.

Our student group stood fast on the issue of the Sabbath. The University Senate sat on the issue to consider our petition. They resolved and decided that the University, starting with the following academic year, would not schedule examinations to be written on Saturdays. As for us, our fate had been sealed; we had failed our various courses, but our God had triumphed. Through our actions, we had preached a message that impacted the entire university. A group of no more than 30 students had influenced university policy and the message had been sent —the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord God Almighty. Sometimes, we have to wade through pain and painful trials, but His light will pierce through the darkness. In the controversy between good and evil, despite unfortunate causalities, God is always the winner: the great controversy is all about worship.

But God Is Faithful

The year now is 2017. I am the pro-vice chancellor at a public university in Zimbabwe (the equivalent of an executive vice president at an American university). Seventh-day Adventists are making a huge impact on the university community. In administration the pro-vice chancellor, registrar, deputy financial officer, and deputy registrar are all Seventh-day Adventists. Beyond that is a host of Adventist university employees and students. Being a public university, its activities could easily span the entire week, from Sunday to Saturday, but a transformation had taken place at the institution. It had become the norm that all major business and meetings would not go beyond sunset on Friday. In the classroom, lectures would generally end two hours before sunset on Friday afternoons because both students and lecturers preferred it that way. Sabbath observance was not a challenge until it was.

It happened around noon one Friday. The Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, a renowned and celebrated academic professor, known to be a professed Seventh-day Adventist, surprised the university registrar with a request for a meeting with the university senate the following day, Saturday, at 9am. The senate consisted of senior university officials—myself included. I prayed. Those of us who were Adventists liaised with one another and we prayed. I went home that afternoon bewildered and dejected. That night I prayed again, that it would pass and for God to help me with a decision. Being the second in command, the minister would be looking for me when he arrived the next day. He had neither disclosed nor shared with anyone the purpose of his meeting with the university senate. Come Sabbath morning, I communicated with the registrar to find out if, perchance, the minister had cancelled his meeting. The meeting was indeed on. I decided to attend the meeting. All the other Adventist members were there. We all failed the test. But God is Faithful.

We all failed the test. But God is Faithful.

At exactly 9am the minister was there and the meeting started with a word of prayer. The minister informed us that he was an Adventist who knew that Saturday was the Sabbath and should be reserved for church issues. But then he went on to lecture us about how God would understand why he had called this meeting on a Sabbath. Oh how Satan sometimes schemes!

There we were, faced with an arrogant government official whose remarks on the Sabbath bordered upon profanity. Soon, after offering no apology for his irreverent act of calling a meeting on the Sabbath day, an act he knew was wrong, he started explaining the meeting agenda. Before he could spell out exactly what it was that he wanted to discuss, he was interrupted by a call on his cellular phone. His daughter, who had been studying in Cape Town, South Africa, had been found dead in her apartment. The news was shocking! She had not been ill. We had barely made it thirty minutes into the meeting when it had to be called off.

While we all sympathized with him on the loss of his daughter, his actions and our complicity had left an haunting scar on the perception of the sanctity of the Sabbath. Satan has, in the past, used people in positions of power to fight his battles. On this day, he had effectively used the minister to tempt God’s people and we had failed to measure up to the stature of the three Hebrew boys of Daniel 3. Had we been faithful, we would have found that God already knew that the meeting would not proceed.

The great controversy is about worshipping God, the Creator and in particular, worshipping Him on the Sabbath day. Satan may use people who are outside the church to derail God’s followers, but they do not understand what goes on within the church. His most effective onslaught on God’s people usually occurs when it’s carried out from within the church, using men and women who are in apostacy.  

Throughout history, the papacy’s abuse of power has left a trail of suffering, marginalization, and oppression, casting a dark shadow over its claims of spiritual leadership. Those who held to the original teachings of Christ, such as the Waldenses and Albigenses, were brutally suppressed by the papacy. They were labeled heretics and subjected to persecution, violence, and massacres. The Waldenses were hunted down, imprisoned, and executed, and their properties were confiscated. The Albigenses faced the Albigensian Crusade, which was a 20-year military campaign that resulted in the slaughter of tens of thousands of people. These actions were sanctioned and encouraged by the Catholic Church, driven by a desire to maintain power and suppress dissent. Today God’s people are not immune to the allure of power. Nor to the enticement of spiritualism and intellectualism. Whatever the temptation may be, we are called to be faithful to the foundational teachings and practices engendered in Scripture.