Acts 20:29-30—Does It Teach a Total Apostasy?
“I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” (Acts 20:29-30 ESV)
Acts 20:29-30 and the Doctrine of the Apostasy
Both Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses cite Acts 20:29-30 in support of their claim that the Christian church became apostate soon after the first-century apostles died. Neither religion claims that there were no Christians whatsoever from the second century to the nineteenth century. What they do claim is that the church as an institution, organization, or authoritative entity ceased to be present on the earth for those eighteen centuries or so. The Watchtower Society, example, explains the text this way:
Toward the end of his third missionary journey, Paul warned members of God’s name people: “I know that after my going away oppressive wolves will enter in among you and will not treat the flock with tenderness, and from among you yourselves men will rise and speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves.” (Acts 20:29, 30) This foretold apostasy had clearly manifested itself by the end of the first century…. After the death of the apostles, that apostasy blossomed and produced the churches of Christendom…. Thus, for centuries, Jehovah had just a sprinkling of faithful worshippers on the earth but no organized “people for his name.”1
Mormon scholar Andrew Skinner, writing in the Ensign magazine—the official flagship periodical of the LDS Church—likewise argues that Acts 20:29-30 teaches that the church died shortly after the death of the first-century apostles:
This may be the most pointed and succinct description in all scripture of how the great apostasy of the early Church came about…. Paul foresaw that once the Apostles met their demise, the demise of the true Church would follow.2
Richard Lloyd Anderson, probably the preeminent Mormon scholar on the apostle Paul, understands Acts 20:28-29 to have been Paul’s warning “that all that he had worked for would be spoiled”3 and that the church leaders to whom he spoke “should expect the church’s disintegration in their lifetime.”4
Kent P. Jackson, the LDS scholar who has written most about the Mormon concept of “the great apostasy,” wrote an article for Ensign that argued that the New Testament taught this doctrine:
The New Testament writers prophesied that apostasy would take place in the Church and that the Church in fact would be overcome by it…. Though the Apostles labored with great zeal to bring souls to the Lord and establish the Church throughout the world, still their prophetic utterances concerning the end result of their efforts foretold tragedy. In short, they knew that the Church would fall into apostasy shortly after their time, and they bore candid testimony of that fact, as the following passages demonstrate.5
Are these writers correct? In Acts 20, was the apostle Paul prophesying that the church would be overcome by apostasy, completely fall apart, and cease to exist on the earth—and that everything that Paul had worked to accomplish would be spoiled?
“Not Sparing the Flock”: Total Apostasy of the Church?
Paul’s statement that “wolves” would come into the church, “not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29), might sound to the modern reader as though he meant that the “flock” as a whole would be destroyed. However, neither the word for “sparing” (pheidomai) nor the context supports this understanding. The point of Paul’s statement was that the wolves would not refrain from attacking the flock; they would show no pity toward the flock, no restraint in their treatment of the sheep that were members of that flock.
Two examples will show this understanding of the verb “sparing” to be correct. First, when Paul wrote in Romans 11:21 that “God did not spare the natural branches,” he did not mean that God removed all of the natural branches (the Jews) from the “olive tree” of God’s people. Rather, he meant that God did not show them any special favors or pity because they were Jews; being a “natural branch” did not exempt them from being removed from the “tree.” Likewise, Paul’s point in Acts 20:29 was that the wolves were not going to exempt the flock from their vicious attacks. He did not mean that they would completely destroy the flock.
Second, in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament we have the only other occurrence in the Bible of the Greek verb for “sparing” being used with the word for “flock” (poimnion). In Nathan’s parable told to David to illustrate how evil was his sin against Uriah and Bathsheba, Nathan spoke of a rich man who “spared to take from his own flocks and from his own herds” (2 Sam. 12:4 LXX). Here the meaning is clearly that the rich man could have taken a sheep from one of his own flocks but instead stole someone else’s lamb. Similarly, Paul’s meaning in Acts 20:29 was that the wolves would not refrain from seizing sheep from the flock. He did not mean that the wolves would take over the entire flock.
Guard the Flock—Don’t Abandon It!
If we read Acts 20:29-30 in the context of the whole speech that Paul gives in Acts 20:18-35, we can see that his point was not that universal apostasy of the church was impending and inevitable. Indeed, we can see this in the verse immediately preceding Acts 20:29. “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (v. 28). In short, Paul has just urged the Ephesian elders to be on guard for the flock. Why, if it was inevitable that the flock was soon to be completely destroyed and to disappear from the earth? Clearly, Paul was urging the elders to do the work of shepherds (v. 28) and protect the flock from the wolves that were coming (v. 29). That is the reason for mentioning the wolves: the elders’ job was to function as shepherds of the flock and protect the flock’s members from the wolves. Had it been inevitable that the church was very quickly going to become an apostate religion run by wolves, Paul’s message would not have been to guard the flock, but to abandon it!
Immediately after his warning about the wolves that were to come, Paul continued, “Therefore be alert” (v. 31). Paul knew that the wolves were coming after his departure, but he did not throw up his hands and conclude that there was nothing that could be done about it. Instead, he urged the elders to be good shepherds who stay alert and protect the flock from the wolves.
After this charge, Paul expressed confident hope in God’s ability to keep his flock intact despite the wolves: “And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (v. 32). These are not the words of a man who expected the church to cease to exist shortly after his departure. He expected rather that the church would be built up, that it would realize its heritage. After all, the flock is not the property of the elders; they are merely the shepherds that are set over it on behalf of the owner. The flock is God’s flock, “the church of God which he purchased with his own blood” (v. 28b). Having redeemed the church at the expense of his own blood, God is going to build up the church through his word, the message of his grace (v. 32).
At the conclusion of the passage, we find something else interesting. The Ephesian elders were very upset by Paul’s message, but notbecause he was predicting the complete demise of the Ephesian church, let alone the church worldwide. Instead, Luke tells us that they were “sorrowful most of all because of the word he had spoken, that they would not see his face again” (v. 38). What especially upset them was Paul’s prediction that they would not see him again (see v. 25), not any supposed prediction of the “demise” of the entire church (worldwide!). Luke’s report as to what upset the Ephesian elders is consistent with the explanation of Paul’s speech presented above.
Conclusion: No Worldwide Apostasy of the Church
Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 does not teach that there would be a worldwide apostasy of the Christian church, either shortly after his death or at any future time. Far from teaching such a “great apostasy,” Paul’s speech makes it quite clear that while individuals would fall away and false teachers would arise, the church as a whole would remain. Thus, the claim of such groups as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism that the Christian church ceased to exist on the earth for some seventeen or eighteen centuries and needed to be “restored” in modern times is contrary to the teaching of Scripture.
1. “Now You Are God’s People,” Watchtower, Nov. 15, 2014, 25. This use of Acts 20:29 is common in Watchtower literature; for example, see also “The Righteous Ones Will Shine as Brightly as the Sun,” Watchtower, March 15, 2010, 21; “The Bible—a Book of Accurate Prophecy, Part 5,” Awake, Sept. 2012, 14-15. All of these articles appear on the Watchtower Library, part of the official website of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
3. Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1983), 65.