Dialogue with Robert Prater: Robert’s Doctrine of Apostasy, Part 1

dialogueA few days ago, Robert Prater, pulpit minister in Shawnee, Oklahoma, wrote an extensive reply to my earlier post to him. At long last, Robert explains which doctrines are salvation issues and which are not (this is the question that began this discussion) —

Quickly, let me attempt to try to finally outline the fellowship issue when it comes to error. Fellowship may be restricted, to one degree or another, from the following general classes.

(1) The rebelliously immoral — In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul clearly states that impenitent, immoral persons, e.g., fornicators, drunkards, and extortionists, are worthy of church discipline. Such characters are to be “delivered unto Satan” (5:5), or “put away” (5:13), for their own soul’s sake (5:5), and for the protection of the church (5:6-7). The church of today is woefully remiss in this duty.

(2) Apostates-Those who “fall away” (Luke 8:13) or who “depart from the faith” (1 Timothy 4:1) are surely subject to some degree of discipline. Formal withdrawal of fellowship may not be appropriate for a “babe” in Christ who almost immediately leaves the faith (such a one may not even understand the significance of the act), but for those who have matured somewhat, and then depart, discipline surely should be exercised (2 Thessalonians 3:6,14-15).

(3) Teachers of false doctrine-Inspiration instructs us to “turn away from” those who teach divisive doctrines contrary to apostolic truth (Romans 16:17). A heretic, after proper admonition, should be rejected (Titus 3:10). Hymenaeus and Alexander made “shipwreck of the faith,” and Paul “delivered them unto Satan” (which means he severed fellowship with them-cf. 1 Corinthians 5:5) that they might be taught not to blaspheme (1 Timothy 1:19-20). But the problem with this is: How does one determine which teachings are significantly erroneous to warrant disciplinary action?

When brethren hold opposite viewpoints on various points of Bible interpretation, quite obviously someone is in error. But the question may be: Is that error of such serious consequence as to be a threat to the eternal welfare of others? Let us consider several matters.

1) Some error reflects upon the nature and/or character of the Godhead

2) Some error attacks the credibility of the Bible as an infallible revelation from God

3) Any error that undermines the finality of New Testament revelation is worthy of censure

4) Error that denies the Lord’s clear plan of salvation and who obliterate the concept of the distinctiveness of Christ’s church. (Gal. 1:6-10; 1 Cor. 15:1-4; Eph. 4:4 “one body”, “one baptism”). What about teachers in the Lords’ church who publicly advocate that Christians may/should extend fellowship to those “baptized” as infants, to those who have been sprinkled instead of immersed, and to those who endorse the idea of salvation by “faith alone?”

5) I believe those who argue that the New Testament establishes no pattern for acceptable worship. (Matt. 15:7-9; John 4:23-24; 1 Tim. 3:15 [which included “worship” instructions]; Acts 2:42 “breaking bread [Lord’s Supper reference, that abided in that apostolic doctrine]; 1 Cor. 11:23-34; 14:33-34)

(brackets in original). I agree with some of what Robert says.

Salvation issues

Let’s take them one at a time. But before we do, let me summarize my own views: a Christian falls away when he no longer submits to Jesus as Lord but instead rebels (Heb 10:26ff), when he gives up his faith in Jesus (1 John 4:2-3), or when he seeks to be justified by works rather than faith (Gal 5:4).

You will notice that the verses I cite not only declare these things sinful, they declare them damning. And there’s a difference. Merely showing something to be sinful hardly proves it damning. Otherwise, there’d be no grace at all.

Let’s work through Robert’s list one at a time.

The rebelliously immoral. I agree. As noted already, Heb 10:26ff is quite clear on this point.

Apostates. This is what the logicians call a tautology. “Apostate” is just an Anglicized word for the Greek word meaning “fall away.” Yes, apostates have fallen away. That’s what the word means.

The Greek word appears only in this one passage —

(Heb 6:4-6)  It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, 6 if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.

These are people whose souls are so blackened that they are incapable of penitence. Yes, they are lost.

The verses Robert cites deal with a different kind of falling away —

(Luke 8:13)  Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.

(1 Tim 4:1)  The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.

Both refer to someone who has lost his faith. And, yes, if you lose your faith, you are lost.

Notice that “faith” in the New Testament refers to faith in Jesus, not a system of doctrine. Hence, the scriptures’ teaching on, say, how often one should take communion is not “faith,” and if you and I disagree on the subject, we do not have different faiths.

Teachers of false doctrine. I doubt that Robert means that any error at all in teaching damns. But if the standard is “false doctrine,” that’s the conclusion we’d have to reach. It would be astonishing indeed if the verses Robert cites actually say that we must treat as damned all who teach any doctrinal error. Let’s see what the verses really say.

Robert first cites Rom 16:17. Now, I explained the meaning of this in a post responding to an earlier comment of Robert’s

Let’s suppose that a church adopts instrumental music being, as you say, honestly mistaken. Now suppose a church down the road damns them and refuses all fellowship. Which church did the dividing? Plainly, the second. And I think they are at serious risk of violating Galatians – seeking to be saved by works rather than faith in Jesus.

And they stand under the command of Rom 16:17 –

(Rom 16:17)  I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them.

You see, the “teaching you have learned” includes, at the least, Rom 14 –15, which Paul had just taught. Dividing contrary to Rom 14 –15 plainly places one under the penalties of Rom 16:17.

Romans 16:17 is quite plainly warning us against those who divide contrary to Romans 14 and 15.

He next cites Titus 3:10. Let’s consider it in context —

(Titus 3:4-11)  But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

This is a classic declaration of God’s grace. We are not saved by our own righteousness but by God’s mercy poured out on us through Jesus.

8 This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.

Paul next explains that the teaching of God’s grace is trustworthy, excellent, and profitable. And Paul explains that teaching grace encourages us to do good.

9 But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless.

While the teaching of grace is profitable, arguments about the law and foolish controversies are not.

10 Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. 11 You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.

“Divisive person” in the Greek is hairetikos. “Heretic” is a transliteration, but a poor translation, despite being the translation found in the KJV. Hairetikos refers to division, whether or not resulting from false doctrine. The ESV translates “a man who stirs up division.” The warning is against division.

Both passages are condemnations of division immediately following powerful lessons on grace. You see, when we understand how much grace we receive from God, we should also understand how much grace to extend to one another.

Now, for an example, if church A believes the Bible requires that communion be celebrated with just one cup, they are not divisive for that reason. If, however, they refuse fellowship to a multi-cup church over that issue, then they are.

If the multi-cup church refuses fellowship to the one-cup church, then they are divisive.

We sometimes want to pretend that the church we think is in error is the one being divisive — for having the audacity to disagree with us. But that’s obviously not true. The church that divides is divisive — unless the division is one that God makes as well. And God divides over faith in Jesus and over submission to Jesus as Lord. But both the one-cup church and the multi-cup church believe in Jesus and both believe that they are honoring God by their choice of how to take the Lord’s Supper. Neither is in rebellion. Hence, whichever one is in error is covered by God’s grace — which means that the one choosing to divide over the issue stands under the teachings of Rom 16:17 and Titus 3:10 — whether or not it’s otherwise correct.

The “false doctrine” that these passages condemn is false division.

Robert next says,

Hymenaeus and Alexander made “shipwreck of the faith,” and Paul “delivered them unto Satan” (which means he severed fellowship with them-cf. 1 Corinthians 5:5) that they might be taught not to blaspheme (1 Timothy 1:19-20).

The critical passages are —

(1 Tim 1:19-20)  holding on to faith and a good conscience. Some have rejected these and so have shipwrecked their faith. 20 Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.

(2 Tim 2:17-18)  Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, 18 who have wandered away from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some.

Notice, that Hymenaeus and Alexander are charged with shipwrecking their “faith.” Again, “faith” doesn’t mean “system of doctrine.” Rather, it means faith in Jesus. In the next passage, their false teaching is obviously contrary to true faith.

Obviously, these men were not just in error, they were teaching an error that destroyed faith, and this costs people their souls. No wonder Paul removed them from the fellowship of the church.

And so we see the original premise confirmed once again. All these passages are dealing either with a threat to or loss of faith in Jesus or else with rebellion against the authority of Jesus as Lord. There is nothing here about an honest disagreement over some other issue.

Next, Robert’s discipline issues.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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6 Responses to Dialogue with Robert Prater: Robert’s Doctrine of Apostasy, Part 1

  1. I pause a bit at the Luke 8:13 verse as a reason for excluding someone … for one thing, it would seem that they have already excluded themselves. But, as both Jay and Robert note, they would be hesitant to exclude the young-in-faith. Perhaps that's because what Luke 8:13 describes is exactly what happened to each of Jesus' chosen 12 in one degree or another – after following Him for about three years. I guess I just don't really see this as parallel to the 1 Timothy 4:1 passage.

    I have other thoughts at my post Questions of Fellowship, but I won't snitch your pixels for them here, Jay.

    Thanks for being willing to work on these questions with all of us.

  2. Joe Baggett says:

    Here is the issue. There is significant evidence to suggest that the Apostles addressed moral error in the NT and there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the Apostles addressed doctrinal error. But what was the context of doctrinal/moral error? This is important. Not all doctrines are equally important. Time and time again Jesus and the Apostles say “these things I give you are of first importance”. Now does this mean that other things the bible may speak of are not important? No, but I do believe I it suggests that some things should be understood first and only a good understand of the first things can a good understanding and context of the subsequent things be gained. I would suggest the first thing that must be understood before you get into all the finer points of the “work, worship, and organization of the church”; is the character of God and his nature. Without understating those things we can sincerely read the Bible and come up with all kinds of doctrines and rules that seem like they are supported by scripture but in brutal reality are nothing more than reading our own culture into some more obscure section of scripture. When you go back and read the Bible without the lens of trying to establish the “Work Worship ad Organization of the church” and rather ask what does this part of the bible tell us about God in his nature and character then you realize that many parts of the bible that we thought we talking about the “Worship Service” are not really talking about the format of a one hour assembly but rather a spiritual formation process within each believer. Also without understanding the nature of God first then things like women’s’ roles, weekly communion, acapella music become just as important as Jesus being God in the flesh and doctrines like that. The false teachers that Peter warns of were those who denied the deity of Jesus not those who were struggling to understand women’s roles or the specific religious acts and rituals that were to occur in one hour assembly once a week. The Anti Christ that John warns of were the Gnostics who denied the deity of Jesus and thought he just had special knowledge. I would suggest that damnation for doctrinal error is reserved mostly for those who teach things that actually undermine the foundation of Jesus Christ such as denying his deity. Beyond that we would all be in trouble because we are all in some sort of doctrinal error because we are human. I know I will be labeled a heretic for just saying this but through serious study this I have come to believe. To me legalism is reading the bible (with sincere conviction) and making up and enforcing religious laws or doctrines that on the surface seem to be supported by the bible but on a deeper level that are contrary to the nature of God. Here are some things I have come believe are manmade doctrines. The law of silence, CENI, we speak where the bible speaks and are silent where the Bible is silent. A much better saying should have been we speak where we want the bible to speak and we are silent where we want the bible to be silent. That is why we demand that women shut up during a one hour assembly but do not require them to wear a head covering. That is why we excuse the four or five times we are directly instructed to give each other a holy kiss but settle for a hand shake instead. It is human understanding that excuses one direct instruction but makes damnable error out of an issue of silence such as instrumental music. This may seem unfair but if we apply the logic Phil seems to suggest consistently and strictly we are all damned for one error or another. Notice I agree that doctrinal error can damn but disagree with the context. I also agree that moral error can damn but only when there is no longer a remnant of faith otherwise we would all be damned for that as well as we all have some sin in our life that we are willfully involved in even if it is something as seemingly insignificant as gossip or covetousness. If we say that we don’t then I would suggest that is woefully close to claiming we have no sin. Which John says is a lie.

  3. Thanks, Jay. I think divisiveness and fellowship may actually be the more difficult issues. And you address them well in this post.

  4. Jay Guin says:


    You are right that we often "disfellowship" those who are no longer in fellowship. They may have left the church altogether or may have just left our church. Either, people aren't likely to repent just because you strike them from your roll and send them a postcard. For disfellowshipping to work to bring penitence, the person must be disciplined while they are still a part of the congregation — and the congregation must enjoy such love and community — fellowship — that being left out of it would be unbearable. Otherwise, the process will have little chance of restoring the brother to a healthy relationship with Jesus.

    Sadly, it's really hard to keep up with our members well enough to know who is about to leave the church — perhaps forever. This makes small groups critically important, as they both foster the kind of community that a Christian would genuinely miss and create an accountability group who will know when someone is struggling with his penitence.

    The idea, to pursue the sower metaphor, is to notice the shoot wilting before it dies, and then either remove the rocks or till the soil.

  5. Jim Haugland says:

    Joe Bagget's comments are right on target, and are consistent with the loving but just nature of a holy living God.

  6. nick gill says:

    Joe's comments would be read more often if he would do the blogosphere the courtesy of editing his offerings in such a way that they were easier on the eyes.

    I know ancient manuscripts were written more like that, but breaking into paragraphs, etc. just helps the reader, and the posts look less like rants.

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