How important is our understanding of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 as far as what the "falling away" refers to?
"Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you, not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come. Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God" (2 Thessalonians 2:1-4).
Does this refer to:
a) the falling away that began in the Church in the first century when people turned to a false gospel?
b) the falling away that occurred in the Church after the death of Mr. Armstrong?
c) a future religious deception to occur worldwide when the beast and false prophet described in Revelation rise up?
I am not going to try to answer this question, but I raise it to set the stage for answering my first question, how important is it?
If we know what 2 Thessalonians 2:3 refers to, would it add much to what we already know about past history or prophecy about the future?
At the time Paul wrote this to the Church, none of the events I have labeled a, b, and c had happened. Also, the book of Revelation had not yet been written, and the brethren would not necessarily know all the events that must take place before Christ returns, including the rising of the beast and false prophet, yet to occur in our time. Paul wrote this because some brethren were troubled because some apparently were saying that Christ had already come. The intent was that the brethren not be troubled.
If there is a doctrinal change about what this passage refers to, no one in the Church should be upset over it. We already know about the three events this could refer to, which the brethren in the Church when Paul wrote did not know about.
We know about the falling away that occurred in the first and second centuries because we understand, at least in broad outline, the history of the true Church and the false church. When Paul wrote his letter, the Church did not know about that because it hadn't fully happened yet. We know about the falling away in the Church that occurred in the decade following the death of Mr. Armstrong because we lived through it. And we know about the great religious deception that will occur in the days of the beast and false prophet because we have the book of Revelation which explains those events.
We know what has happened in the past and what will happen in the future from sources other than 2 Thessalonians 2:3.
If Bible research, perhaps based on a better understanding of the original Greek, shows that 2 Thessalonians 2:3 refers to the future religious deception, that is interesting and good to know, and a doctrinal change is appropriate, but does it change what we already know has happened and will happen?
There is one thing we may get from 2 Thessalonians 2:3 that may be important, not because it teaches us something new that we don't already know from the rest of the Bible, but because there is a warning for us, and we need the repetition of the warning for emphasis so that we heed the warning.
Some may say that you can't "fall away" from the truth if you didn't already have it, so this must refer to the Church of God. Others may look at the original Greek and say that what is translated "falling away" could be translated in a more general sense of rebellion against God and thus could apply to the deceiving of all the world by the beast and false prophet. Those who teach that this applies to a worldwide event point out the association of this falling away with the "man of sin" being revealed and his exalting himself above all that is called God or is worshipped. This seems reasonable to me. I do not know Greek, but I can understand why worldly translators would translate Greek wording that refers to rebellion against God as "falling away", because from their point of view, it is the same thing. They think there has been no large falling away. They believe that mainstream traditional Christianity is the truth, and any large-scale rebellious religious deception would be the same as a falling away from mainstream Christianity.
But here is a warning we in the Church can be reminded of. It may not be just the world that will be deceived by the beast and false prophet. Large numbers of those who are attending the Church of God may be deceived at that time as well. So the "falling away" may refer to the future deception of the world (if the Greek really means just deception and rebellion against God even by those who never knew the truth), but also it can refer to a future deception of those who are "in the Church" by the same beast and false prophet and at the same time as the world is deceived. In that case, for those of us in the Church who are caught up in that deception, it would be a literal "falling away".
That the deception will be very strong and great should be no surprise. Christ warned that, if possible, even the elect would be deceived (Matthew 24:24).
Could we in the Church be deceived by the beast and false prophet?
"Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12).
"You will say then, 'Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.' Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off" (Romans 11:19-22).
"For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they fall away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and put Him to an open shame" (Hebrews 6:4-6).
Mr. Tkach and other leaders in Worldwide changed just about all of doctrines that made Worldwide different from mainstream churches. In just one decade, thousands in the Church went along with those changes. Yet Mr. Tkach performed no signs and wonders. If so many in the Worldwide Church of God fell away from what they believed at that time, even without signs and wonders, how much greater will be the danger to the brethren when the beast or false prophet and other false prophets begin working great signs that cannot be explained as natural occurrences?
Let's not underestimate the spiritual danger ahead or our need to draw close to God while we can. We need to take 2 Thessalonians 2:3 as a strong warning to us in the Church. We need to do whatever is necessary to draw close to God and stay close to Him, zealously believing, trusting, and obeying Him, to the end. What happened in Worldwide from 1987 through 1996 may be just a tiny foretaste of the danger ahead for anyone in the Church of God who neglects to be close to God.