The Religious Backslider

The word ‘backslide’ is often used among evangelical Christians in reference to one who has left the church and gone back into the world of sin. While this is basically a Biblical concept, the scripture gives a more comprehensive interpretation of the term.

The Old Testament employs several Hebrew words to describe the backslider. In Proverbs 14:14, cûwg (soog) is used to mean one who flinches, goes back, retreats, turns away or apostatizes. Jeremiah and Hosea used the words 1meshûbâh (apostasy, turning away), ²showbâb (apostate, idolators, forwardly, turn away), and ³cârar (turn away and be refractory, stubborn, rebellious, revolter, withdraw). (Hos. 4:16)

The Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word is ‘parapipto,’ which means to fall aside, apostatize or fall away. (Heb. 6:6). Paul used the word ‘apostasia,’ meaning a defection from truth, apostasy, falling away, or forsaking. In essence, to backslide or fall away from the truth. (2 Thess. 2:3).

The passage in Hebrews 6:4-6 corresponds to the evangelical concept of the word backslide, and describes believers who have fallen away, or left the church, and retreated into a life of sin. The same idea is projected in the story of the prodigal son. Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons: and the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.” (Lk. 15:11-13)

In both of the preceding references, backsliding is portrayed as an overt radical act of leaving the church, and regressing into one’s former sinful lifestyle. But the sad reality of backsliding is that it can also be a covert or pseudo-religious condition which exists in the church today, just as it existed in ancient Israel. (Is. 1:3; Jer. 2, 3, 5; Hos. 4:16; 11:7; 14:1-4). In this case, the backslider remains in the fellowship of the church and functions as any other faithful member of the Body of Christ.

Covert or religious backsliding is not easily recognized, because it is a spiritual condition of the heart. Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). “Who can know it” literally means, who can understand his own heart? Therefore, it is very difficult for the religious backslider to recognize his own pathetic condition unless God touches his spiritual eyes through the ministry (see Is. 42, Lk. 4:8, Jn. 9:39-41).

A careful analysis of the scripture and a thorough examination of our hearts will reveal some startling characteristics of the religious backslider!

Solomon said, “The backslider in heart shall be filled with his own ways: and a good man shall be satisfied from himself.” (Prov. 14:14). The phrase “filled with his own ways” educes two aspects of a backslider in heart:

He will get exactly what he deserves.

He is dogmatic, arrogant in expressing his opinions or ideas, intolerably authoritative, egotistical, self-conceited, selfish, and self-centered.

Paul attested to this trait in the religious backslider when he said, “for men shall be selfish, greedy, boastful, and conceited…” (2 Tim. 3:2A – Good News Bible). He then continued his description by stating that these people are, “heady, high-minded (Greek – tuphoo: high-minded, to inflated with self-conceit, be lifted up with pride) … having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof…” (vs. 4A, 5A – KJV).

The backslider in heart, like Israel, is spiritually idolatrous. God said to Ezekiel, “Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their heart, and put the stumblingblock of their iniquity before their face: should I be enquired of at all by them? Therefore speak unto them, Thus saith the Lord God; Every man of the house of Israel that setteth up his idols in his heart, and putteth the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and cometh to the prophet; I the Lord will answer him that cometh according to the multitude of his idols; That I may take the house of Israel in their own heart, because they are all estranged from me through their idols.” (Ezek. 14:3-5). Israel was so prone to idolatry that it was almost impossible for her to repent.

We also find ourselves in a similar condition and situation. We too have set up several material and spiritual idols in our hearts, which compete with our love for God and loyalty to His church. These idols become our gods and sit upon the “high places” of our hearts. (1 Kings 12:25-33; 13:33-34; 14:22-24). Jesus said “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matt. 6:24). “No servant can serve two masters…but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.” (Lk 16:13-15)

The religious backslider is also very meticulous about externally maintaining his rites and duties to God. Yet, this is only a façade for his spiritual infidelity. Israel is a perfect example of this. Although backslidden at heart, she maintained her outward commitment by offering sacrifices, burnt offerings and observing the festal ceremonies. But God despised her offerings and worship. (Isa. 1:10-15; Amos 5:21-27).

However, her charade was short lived and her backslidden heart exposed when the sacrifices she offered to God were reduced to the blind, lame and sick animals. (Mal. 1:7-8). Israel also robbed God in tithes and offerings, yet still participated in worship and other religious activities. (Mal. 3:8-9). We too can be assiduous in our religious duties, faithful to the church, but if we rob God, our worship and sacrifices will be repulsive in His eyes.

Another characteristic of the religious backslider is found in Hosea 4:16 which reads, “for Israel slideth back as a backsliding heifer…” The Hebrew word used here for backsliding is cârar. It compares Israel to a stubborn, rebellious, revolting heifer (young cow), who slideth back from God’s law.

Disobedience is a gross sin! When King Saul disobeyed the word of God, though he had good intentions, the prophet Samuel said to him, “Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.” (I Sam 15:22-23) When good intentions violate the word of God and the admonitions of the ministry, it is considered disobedience, rebellion and stubbornness.

Like Adam and Eve, the religious backslider can have good ambitions and desires – to be more godly or to even hold offices in the church. But when our ambitions and aspirations are motivated by selfish goals, they are perverted and sinful. Perverted ambitions lead to pride and hypocrisy, whereas ambitions influenced by the Holy Spirit enhance humility and sincerity.

The religious backslider often justifies himself because he prospers materially and feels secure spiritually (Jer. 49:4, Deut. 29:19). Israel manifested this characteristic on several occasions only to be disappointed and destroyed by her enemies. Solomon said, “He that trusteth in his riches shall fall: but the righteous shall flourish as a branch.” (Prov. 11:28, cf Ps. 49:6-14). David wrote, “…if riches increase, set not your heart upon them.” (Ps. 62:10b). We often feel that material prosperity is a sign of spiritual blessing. This is not necessarily true, because there are many rich and prosperous sinners in the world. On the flip side, spiritual health can enhance material wealth.

The religious backslider is also very ingenuous in improvising his own means to cover his sins. He uses spiritual ‘fig leaves’ like charity, compassion, and faithfulness in church activities to conceal his true ambitions, but God sees him. (Is. 30:1, Num. 32:23b).

Finally, while within the safe-haven of the church, the religious backslider holds dissenting doctrinal views and opinions in contradiction to what the Body of Christ teaches. In this sense, he is considered an apostate or one who falls away from the truth. (Acts 20:28, 2 Thess. 2:3-12, I Tim. 1:18-19, 2 Tim. 2:15-19, 2 Pet. 2). He remains in the church for a time, but opposes and undermines the ministry.

The religious backslider then, is not a blatant, presumptuous, worldly sinner who leaves his church. Instead, he appears to love the Lord and the church, but is filled with his own ways, and is blind, naked, and cannot discern his transgression. Jeremiah’s rebuke to him is that, “…thy own backsliding shall reprove thee…” (Jer. 2:19). Every religious backslider is admonished of the Lord to, “Remember…from whence thou art fallen and repent and do thy first works…” (Rev. 2:5).

May God help each of us to examine ourselves in light of these characteristics of a religious backslider. If we are weighed in the balances and found wanting then let us heed the warning from our Lord Jesus and repent.