(Read time: approx. 31/2 minutes.)
I have been acquainted with numerous people who have fallen away from the faith. One I knew well and remains a friend. Some have been Christian ministers.
I am distressed when people leave the faith. I find myself wondering why it happens – what are the dynamics involved? Is there a reason why some people stick, and others do not? Is there a way to predict who will make it and who will wash out?
Apostasy is hardly a new thing. People were falling away from the faith and from the faithful even in biblical times. The Bible does not attempt to hide the fact; rather, it warns of the possibility and encourages people to take steps against it.
One of St. Paul’s colleagues was a man named Demas, which was probably short for Demetrius, a common enough name in Greek-speaking regions in the first century. Demas is mentioned three times in Paul’s letters.
The first time he is mentioned, he (along with three others) is described as one of Paul’s fellow workers. High praise indeed to be called a fellow worker by the great apostle. It is comparable to being called a teammate by Lebron James or a business partner by Warren Buffett.
Demas is mentioned again in another list of Paul’s associates. This time, five other men and one woman are mentioned and each of these receives comment. For example, Luke is “beloved.” Nympha hosts the church at her home. Epaphras is a servant of Christ.
In this list, only Demas receives no commendation of any kind. This cannot be without significance. What could have been in Paul’s mind that he offered commendation to everyone but Demas?
The answer comes in St. Paul’s final biblical letter. During his imprisonment, he wrote his closest colleague, Timothy, a final letter. Paul knew that death would soon take him from this “son in the faith,” so he wrote to offer encouragement and guidance while he still could.
Near the end of the letter, he urges Timothy to do his best to come quickly. The shocking reason for this is that Demas had deserted him. The man who had once been his fellow worker had left him in the lurch.
There seems to be a progression here – or perhaps a regression. On first mention, Demas was a member of the company of the committed, the great apostle’s fellow-worker. The second time, he stands apart from the company, for Paul can find nothing positive to say about him. And by the third time, Demas is gone. He has deserted the apostle and possibly even the faith.
The author of the Book of Hebrews had warned believers to “pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” This, I believe, is what happened to Demas. He didn’t wake up one day to say, “Today, I am going to desert my post, abandon my friends, and leave the faith.” Rather, he drifted away into competing desires and diminishing commitment.
Marooned in the dead waters of diminishing commitment, faith flounders and doubts grow. People like Demas, who thrive in the current of love, lose their focus and sometimes even their faith when they leave it. Outside that current, they drift, and it is rare indeed that someone drifts to their goal.
This is not to say that intellectual problems do not contribute to apostasy. Thoughtful people wrestle with real and troubling questions concerning the faith. It is possible to find answers to those questions in the swift current of love and obedience. They are impenetrable everywhere else.
When European and American adventure-seekers raft the wild waters of the Zambezi River, their guides caution them to stay in the current when – not if – they are thrown from the boat. Their team will come and get them but, whatever they do, they must not swim to shore. Why? Because crocodiles are waiting to eat them in the calm waters near the shore.
Doubts do not live in the current of love and obedience, but they consume people who try to get as near to the shoreline of cultural accommodation as possible.
(First published by Gannett.)