Attendance at places of worship is declining, and reverence for holy things is vanishing; and we solemnly believe this to be largely attributed to the skepticism which has flashed from the pulpit and spread among the people…Have these advanced thinkers filled their own chapels? Have they, after all, prospered through discarding the old methods?…In meeting houses holding a thousand, or twelve hundred, or fifteen hundred, places once packed to the ceiling with ardent hearers, how small are the numbers now!
-Charles Spurgeon, “The Sword and the Trowel,” August 1887
In the late 19th Century, a theological controversy arose in England which became known to historians as “The Down Grade Controversy.” During this time, churches and universities, pastors and academics, began to question the inerrancy of Scripture, the Deity of Christ, and put little or no emphasis on doctrine and theology. At first, the reaction of many Christians was to write off this new way of thinking. It was not taken seriously and so it was ignored. It proved to be a costly mistake and the new thinking soon spread to almost every church in England. Church attendance quickly declined, and England today is considered to be a post-Christian society, along with the rest of Europe.
A handful of faithful preachers, led by the Prince of Preachers himself, Charles Spurgeon, fought for the Christian values mentioned earlier that we hold dear today. Spurgeon, in his magazine The Sword and the Trowel, began to address the issue in 1887, a piece which included the quote above. He continues on afterward, hoping to stir action within the Church and to bring realization to the seriousness of the moment:
The house is being robbed…but the good people who are in bed are far too fond of the warmth, too much afraid of getting broken heads, to go downstairs and meet the burglars…Inspiration and speculation cannot long abide in peace.
To his disappointment, no such action was ever found among his brethren. A month later, at the autumn meeting of the Baptist Union, Spurgeon withdrew from the Union. The issue of the Down Grade was completely avoided. The desire of the denomination was peace and unity rather than to address the errors within. Spurgeon wrote in his November issue of The Sword:
Believers in Christ’s atonement are now in declared union with those who make light of it; believers in Holy Scripture are in confederacy with those who deny plenary inspiration…who call justification by faith immoral, and hold that there is another probation after death…Yes, we have before us the wretched spectacle of professedly orthodox Christians publicly avowing their union with those who deny the faith…To be very plain, we are unable to call these things Christian Unions, they begin to look like Confederacies of Evil…
Fast forward 129 years, and here we stand in the exact same situation. Churches do not value doctrine, and pastors question their own teaching, leading their members to do the same. We are now facing a second Down Grade Controversy. Or, perhaps it never left.
In Spurgeon’s day the controversy was sparked from skepticism. That is still very much a part of our controversy today; but I think for those within the Church a different root has begun to sprout. Our battle for right doctrine doesn’t seem to be coming from the advancement of knowledge, but lack of it. I would say that skepticism is evident in the Church, but I find it to be rare because most Christians don’t seem to value intelligence enough to be skeptical in the first place. They prefer “simple.” Simple sermons. Easy Bible studies. No challenges. No conflict. No controversy.
Nevertheless, the results have been the same as that experienced in the Down Grade. Doctrine has lost its value. The questions and objections that Spurgeon had to address are the exact same objections we see in our modern Church. The Bible does not have the authority it once did. Love has become something that it’s not to the point that hell is not real and “judge not” now means that it is wrong to call sin for what it truly is in another person’s life.
I want to be clear, this is not about the world. This is not about people in society who do not identify with Christianity. This is about the people in the pews, and for that matter in the pulpit. We, like the Baptist Union of the late 19th Century, are seeking unity and peace to the point where we are compromising the truth. We cannot make the same mistake as our English predecessors. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We cannot compromise. Let us heed the words of Spurgeon:
Christian love has its claims, and divisions are to be shunned as grievous evils; but how far are we justified in being in confederacy with those who are departing from the truth?
As Christians, we seek both unity and truth, but not when the former means compromising the latter. Compromising on truth means accepting a lie. Because of compromise, so many weekly church-goers are sitting in a comfy, cushioned, stadium-style seat or a 100-year-old church pew with a one-way ticket to hell, and they don’t even realize it. But we don’t want to call out sin in ourselves or others, because “we are supposed to be loving.”
When did love start meaning letting people do whatever they want? Is that how a good parent loves their child? The child wants to play in the road so the parent allows it for the sake of love? It’s entirely possible to love someone all the way to eternal punishment because you did not have the courage or conviction (or the love) to speak the truth.
“The house is being robbed!” But rather than fight the burglar and defend the home, we have set the table and invited them to dinner, just as the churches in England did over a century ago; and now they have gone to bed, and the burglar has cleaned them out, energized by the warm meal they were so foolishly offered by the homeowner. Christians in Europe chose to ignore this problem a century ago; and now, for all intents and purposes, Christianity in Europe is dead.
Will this, too, be our fate?