Are there signs in a person's life that they are headed towards apostasy, loss of faith?
What can a person dealing with doubt do to renew faith and grow stronger?
What can a man do to initiate again that growing edge of faith, one that drives his life, strengthens him as an upstanding man for righteousness, feeding on God's word?
With the recent apostasy of Messianic Judaism blogger Gene Shlomovich, I've been reflecting on these questions deeply and in sincerity.
Apostasy is not new or shocking to me; years ago, my younger brother Aaron gave up faith in Yeshua and converted to Orthodox Judaism. My cousin Anthony went from Christianity to Messianic Judaism to atheism. A family friend, Alice, got involved in Karaite Judaism and lost faith in Messiah. There was a time in my own life where I considered agnosticism.
I grok doubt and sympathize with people going through it.
And in my 10 years writing this blog, I've seen several other Messianic bloggers lose faith:
- Lathan Murdock, aka "David" from the now-defunct TheJewishCarpenter613 blog, wrote a warning for those who follow Yeshua, cautioning that scholarship should not undermine experience with God. He warned against stumbling on Yeshua as the obstacle offense for a true Judaic theology. A few months after writing that post, I am told by a trustworthy source that Murdock himself denied Messiah, writing anti-Yeshua diatribes, performing the very apostasy he once warned against.
- Daniel from the rotting Christian4Moses blog titled his now-ironically named blog as an inverse of the phrase "Jews for Jesus". He used the platform as a fountain of commentary flowing from his inundation in scholarly books on Judaism and Jewishness. Less and less did he talk about Messiah, more and more about religion. Last year he wrote in his final post,
"The rabbis that guided my process have been very helpful...my Beis Din application for conversion has now been completed...No, I am no longer a follower of Jesus."
- Antonio Rivera, aka "Ovadia" from the now-defunct OrGadol 'Just Jewish' blog, would often write of future directions for the religion of Messianic Judaism, often harshly criticizing those who were experiencing God's renewal in the Hebrew Roots and independent Messianic movement because they were outside his vision for Messianic Judaism.
He advocated strongly against Messianic innovation, such as Messianic worship and Davidic dance, and was focused primarily on making the Messianic movement an accepted form of Judaism. He met with some prominent Messianic Judaism leaders, who reported a positive experience. His blogs were reblogged by Messianic Judaism leaders who applauded his rejection of “particular cultural forms of early Messianic Judaism and evangelical Christianity” (code for Messianic music, dance, and other Messianic innovation) discarding them in favor of Orthodox Judaism emulation. He became an apostate months later.
*Update: Antonio comments below, I am glad to report, that he has since returned to Messiah faith, and was unable to go through with his conversion to Judaism.
- Gene Shlomovich of the now-defunct Daily Minyan blog spent a great deal of time in the Messianic blogosphere, much of which was devoted to ridiculing and ostracizing folks in the Hebrew Roots and independent Messianic movement. A staunch Bilateral Ecclesiologist, Gene posted his conversations with Hebrew Roots people in which he "converted" them to Bilateral Ecclesiology, turning gentiles away from Torah observance and what God was doing in their lives for the sake of clear distinctions between Jews and gentiles in the Messianic world.
Is there something we can learn from all this?
I am a man who, by the grace of God and God's multi-generational mercies, has remained faithful to Messiah. During these decades, I have observed signs of apostasy among the family and friends who have abandoned Yeshua.
Sign of apostasy 1: X before Messiah
Judaism before Messiah. Intellectualism before Messiah. Torah before Messiah. Environmentalism before Messiah. Heresy hunting before Messiah. Secret knowledge before Messiah. Religion building before Messiah. Conspiracy theories before Messiah.
I once dismissed "nothing but the blood of Jesus" as Christian over-amplification of Christ. I now recognize I was in error for thinking that way.
Messiah is our salvation, our atonement, the only name by which we have forgiveness of sins. Messiah's arrival was arguably the greatest event in human history: a single Jew who caused billions of non-Jewish people – former polytheistic, sexually deviant, temple-prostitute practicing pagans – to the God of Israel, to the Messiah of Israel, to the Hebrew Scriptures, and to inheritance in the commonwealth of Israel. (Thank you, God! Baruch HaShem again and again!) God sent Messiah so that the nations would be shown mercy. You wouldn't be reading this blog if Messiah hadn't showed up. Messiah's message spread across peoples, poor men, kings, nations, empires, languages, millennia.
Messiah is the hope of the Hebrew Scriptures, the focus of the apostolic Scriptures, and the fulfillment of the world to come. If we call ourselves Messiah's disciples, He should be our primary focus. This might be obvious to those in Christianity, but it has been blurred in the Messianic movement, with the fruit being confusion and apostasy.
In Shlomovich's apostasy case, Judaism and the Jewish people were of foremost concern, eclipsing even the work God was doing among the gentiles. For Gene, Judaism could never do wrong, but every Messianic out there was in error.
In my cousin Anthony’s case, he became, in his own words, a "save the earth vegan." Maybe it sounds innocuous enough. Yet having experienced religion and religion building, but having never experienced the sweet outpouring of God's spirit in a real and tangible way, his dead religion exposure combined with an imbalanced focus on environmentalism and veganism took a significant role in his eventual embrace of worldly concerns, contributing to his resulting atheism, abandoning the salvation he once clung to.
In my family friend Alice’s case, her amplification of Torah and its supposed pure practice in the form in Karaitism led her away from Israel's Messiah.
In my younger brother's case, he amplified Lurianic Kabbalah. He amplified dreams and visions and special revelation supposedly from God. (He once told me he and his then-girlfriend would be parents to the high priest serving in the 3rd Temple, for example.) His initial focus was on secret knowledge and wisdom from men who rejected Messiah.
For Daniel, his focus was on intellectualism, Jewish scholarship and the beauty of religion, and this became evident in his writings, which soon were devoid of Messiah altogether.
For Antonio, his primary focus was religion building; how to make Messianic Judaism accepted in the Jewish world. He wrote blog after blog about how to throw out the dated Messianic innovations clearly borrowed from Christianity, how to replace such things with Jewishly-acceptable piyyutim and liturgy.
For all of these men, something took the central place of Messiah. They thought they were doing right, perhaps even thinking they were approved by Messiah or tangentially amplifying Messiah through it. Shlomovich believed he was amplifying God by tearing down One Law and Two House Messianics. Rivera believed he was doing right by focusing on how to build modern Messianic Judaism.
But all these practices subtracted glory from the only One fit to receive it. They all, every one of them, in time abandoned Messiah for their love of Else.
For those of us who remain faithful to Messiah, he must be our solid rock foundation, and everything else must be subservient to Him. Without this, we pervert his glory and, being guided by our own intellect, are shown to be imbecilic before the throne of the living God.
If the centrality of Messiah is missing from your religious life, it's time to make an adjustment. If Messiah's centrality is missing from your congregation, it needs a rebalancing on the rock of salvation, the living Word made flesh, Yeshua. He is the living Scriptures, our spiritual food. Everything else is details.
Sign of apostasy 2: Heresy hunting
Judaism and Christianity agree on this: an indicator of righteous character, and evidence of God at work in a person, is the character trait of awe. Standing in awe of what God has done. Marveling at God's power, his work in the world. Blessing the name of God for it.
The inverse of this is what I call Heresy Hunting. Instead of rejoicing at what God is doing, praising God for his work in your life and among the nations and among the Jewish people and wherever you see God at work, you instead spend most of your time criticizing what other people and ministries are doing.
For example, leaders in Messianic Judaism have wisely observed that too many in folks Hebrew Roots spend all their time bashing Christianity and pointing out flaws in God’s people in the Church. This leads to spiritual dry land.
Amein and thank you, Messianic Judaism, for correcting us in Hebrew Roots.
But on the other hand, too many in Messianic Judaism have spent a great deal of their time mocking and flippantly discarding the work God is doing among the gentiles through Torah and the Hebrew Roots movement.
There are some religious people who spend time every week devoted to criticizing that ministry, this theology, and that one real bad guy in the other camp. If that's you, it’s time to re-evaluate your faith life and focus again on the things above.
Think of it like this: if you spend a great deal of your time criticizing other religious people, you will be consumed by anger and frustration. But if you instead focus on what God is doing in your life, what God is doing in the earth, and rejoicing at all of it, you will be consumed by supernatural joy and divine strength.
Arguing about theology and religiously disagreeing with others is like alcohol: In moderation, and don't make it a habit.
If your spiritual life is characterized primarily by criticism of others, it is time to refocus on the rock of Yeshua, his kingdom, and how you can serve in it.
Sign of apostasy 3: Faithless friends, faithless future
There's an old adage that I've found applies well to religious life:
"Show me your friends, I'll show you your future."
It is difficult to overstate the influence other people have on you. Maybe you're secure in your beliefs now, after some years of trials and doubts, and so you're cool with reading unbelieving literature, groking their websites, getting involved in their communities. Your "certainty" of faith doesn't matter: surround yourself with faithless men and you will become as them. It's the timeless, inevitable erosion known as assimilation, but applied on the individual scale.
My younger brother Aaron surrounded himself with unbelieving Jewish voices. Not with the intent to abandon Messiah, mind you, but he listened to prominent Jewish voices, some of whom spoke against Messiah. For a mind already conditioned to look negatively at Christianity (see apostasy sign #2), it was easy for him to swallow anti-Christian sentiment from anti-missionaries.
It was no difficult thing, in time, for that same sentiment to be turned towards the New Testament and Yeshua himself; suddenly, it was clear the New Testament was unreliable, redacted heavily by the ugly gentile Church fathers. And Jesus was maybe a candidate for Messiah.
Next, the New Testament was a book of lies authored by anti-Semitic gentiles in the 3rd and 4th centuries.
A progression of apostasy enabled by a mind conditioned through heresy hunting and brought to fruition by voices against Yeshua.
For Antonio, his imbalanced focus on religion building and intellect (see apostasy sign #1), coupled with his often-harsh criticisms of the broad Messianic movement and its innovations (see apostasy sign #2), was blossomed via his surrounding himself with unbelieving voices that produced first his conversion, then his eventual denial of Messiah.
For my cousin Anthony, to this day I'm unable to speak with him in a public forum without his atheist friend jumping in, inserting paraphrases of St. Dawkins, reinforcing my cousin's new atheism through insults and mocking members of my cousin’s former faith.
For Gene, he found such fault with Messianics that his place of worship was with an Orthodox Jewish shul in Florida for years. When his often-harsh criticisms of other Messianics (see apostasy sign #2) was coupled with a religious community who denied Yeshua, it's a small thing to join in their rejection of Yeshua.
Amusingly, as I was doing research for this post, I stumbled on this post warning against intellectualism and study over Yeshua, containing an amusing interaction between myself and the believers-at-the-time Murdock, who authored the post, and Shlomovich, who commented on that post,
"Ah, yet another post about the grave dangers of Judaism and getting dangerously too close to Jews..."
I responded in truth:
"The danger here isn't Judaism. The danger here is in being influenced by certain voices within Judaism, voices that tear down the name of Messiah."
2 years later, both Murdock and Shlomovich are apostates.
And here I stand today, and that wisdom is as true as ever. I earnestly ask disciples of Yeshua to heed that truth: who you listen to, who you are in community with, who you read, these are the people who will influence your future.
There are voices within Judaism that sling mud on the name of Messiah. Their influence, and their intellectual dishonesty, has caused men to abandon Yeshua.
There are voices in the world that tear down the name of God, and men have been influenced towards dead atheism.
We all acknowledge that, but few acknowledge the other side of that coin: surrounding ourselves with such people will invariably influence us towards that religion, philosophy, and world view.
If you surround yourself with voices that reject Messiah our rock, you will invariably be influenced by such people.
Show me your friends, I'll show you your future.
If this is you, may I suggest joining a Messianic community. Join a place that has people who love each other, support each other in tangible ways, people who stand in awe of God, people who worship God together not in judgmental criticism of this or that, but worship God unashamedly and with one voice.
Surround yourself with such people, and your faith will be strengthened.
X before Messiah. Heresy hunting. Faithless friends.
These three are contributors to a weakened, anemic faith, one characterized by shrinking and recession, rather than a growing, strengthening edge.
The antidote comes down to focus.
Above all, place Messiah as King over every philosophy, religion, idea, worldview; above every human thing. If Messiah truly is King, then put him in that place. Religion building, intellectualism, Judaism, the sages – these are all fascinating, but if they become our primary religious experience, we will end up spiritually dry.
Acknowledge God at work, even in places outside your niche religious experience. Praise God for it. (Do it out loud, it’s liberating.) Focus on the things God is doing, focus on God’s coming Kingdom, focus on the truly spectacular work God has done in the world, even on the work he’s doing in your life. Find ways to serve God in that kingdom. You’ll be spiritually watered.
Surround yourself with people who do the same. Consume the Scriptures, and you’ll be built up and strengthened and influenced by the Scriptures and by Messiah’s community.
Focusing on Messiah, God’s work in the world, standing in awe of all that God has done and is doing today, increasing your own service to God while having patience, kindness, and grace for others – in such things, there is only a strengthening of faith.
Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek disciples of Yeshua.