by Rev. Kenneth Staniforth
The following is a short account of a controversy that took place in England in the late 19th century. The details are taken from “Evangelicalism in England” by E.J. Poole-Connor, who quotes profusely from the records made at the time.
“How much further will they go?” This question was asked by the great preacher C.H. Spurgeon in his magazine “Sword and Trowel” of August 1887. He asked this of the Baptist Denomination – a movement that he had faithfully served for 35 years and in which he was the most prominent preacher. For some time, he, and others in the Baptist Union had been concerned that apostasy from earlier standards might be showing up in the denomination. They were also concerned at the character of the teaching being given in some of the Baptist colleges. After asking the above question, the great soul-winner said, “It now becomes a serious question how far those who abide by the truth once delivered unto the saints should fraternize with those who have turned to another Gospel.” In 1887, Spurgeon launched his “Down-grade Controversy” (– referring to the downgrading of the scriptures.) Baptists, he said, were abandoning the Bible and the Evangelical faith, and “going down hill at breakneck speed.” Many confirmed the necessity for his protest; others charged him with gross exaggeration. Others found the subject a source of merriment! Sadly, the Baptist Assembly of April 1888 finally rejected Spurgeon’s appeal to put its house in order, still claiming to be sound in doctrine. Spurgeon, finding that no headway would be made, withdrew from the Baptist Union. Evidently, the Baptist denomination was committed to the principle that there could be the widest departure from the older Evangelical faith without the least charge of heterodoxy being laid against it. The tide which Spurgeon sought in vain to stem swept steadily outward until in 1925 a rank modernist with anti-evangelical convictions was elected to the presidency of the Baptist Union. The stand taken by the faithful Baptist prophet was vindicated by subsequent events. (p. 235 – 249)
There is some truth in the old adage, “history repeats itself.” I find that there are some striking parallels between what was happening in 19th century England, and what is happening now in many evangelical churches in North America (I was in England recently and the churches there are in a similar state of concern). The church of the Biblical Jesus Christ is under attack from those who repudiate the authority of the written and living Word. This latest onslaught of liberalism calls itself the “emergent church” –“a concoction of Bible, New Age Theology and ancient Eastern mysticism.”
[W. E. McCumber, This Jesus, p. 4]
Most unfortunately, the emergent movement is rapidly gaining ground in many Christian churches and educational institutions – including some of our own in the Nazarene denomination. Veteran pastors in the church are expressing their common concern over the alarming advance of this deviate philosophy which distorts Scripture and diminishes Jesus [See This Jesus by W. E. McCumber].
Nazarenes, in the light of the present serious situation, we need to apply Spurgeon’s question to our Zion – “How much further will they go?” I joined the Church of the Nazarene chiefly for three reasons: It was Protestant (not Roman Catholic), Wesleyan and evangelical. The latter term seems to have undergone a change of meaning in the last forty years! The amazing thing to me about the “Downgrade Controversy” is how far a denomination can drift from sound biblical doctrine and still claim to be evangelical. My understanding of what the term means is clearly expressed in these two quotes by Dr. J.I. Packer M.A., D.Phil. – (one time senior tutor of Tyndale Hall, Bristol):
“It (evangelicalism) is, we maintain, the oldest version of Christianity; theologically regarded, it is just apostolic Christianity itself” [Fundamentalism and the Word of God, p. 38].
“Its basic principle is that the teaching of the written scriptures is the Word which God spoke and speaks to His church, and is finally authoritative for faith and life – what scripture says, God says” [Fundamentalism and the Word of God, p. 47].
According to this definition, the evangelical believes the entire Bible to be “God-breathed” and thus he is completely submitted to its authority for faith and life. Whoever denies the authority of God’s Word cannot honestly claim to be evangelical, no matter how sincere he is or how graciously he comes across on a college platform.
The serpent in the garden was graciously deceitful when luring Eve into fatal error. In 2 Corinthians 11:3-4, Paul uses this incident to warn the church against the preaching of “another Jesus,” and receiving a spirit different from the Holy Spirit. John also warns against believing every spirit but to test them to see whether they are from God (I John 4:1). The test is do they agree with Scripture? Different spirits propagate different gospels and consequently invoke the condemnation of God (Galatians 1:6-9). John Wesley, from whom Nazarenes claim spiritual succession, wrote: “Do not easily suppose dreams, voices, impressions, visions or revelations to be from God. They may be from Him. They may be from nature. They may be from the devil…Try all things by the written word, and let all bow down before it” [John Wesley, The Works of the Reverend John Wesley, p. 521].
We need to strive against being led astray by the seducing spirits of a movement that is not only intent on changing methods (the way we do church), but is also bent on changing the message on which our faith rests. Brian McClaren, one of the leading advocates of the “Emerging One Church of the New World” stated to his fellow “emerging” pastors: “When we change the medium, the message that’s received is changed, however subtly, as well. We might as well get beyond our naivety or denial about this” [Church on the Other Side, p. 68].
Speaking about the emergent church, Nazarene General Superintendent Jim H. Diehl said, “It sounds very new age. Anything but holiness! It seems centered on “everything must change” and they mean “must” and they mean “change”. In other words, everything you and I have given our lives for must change. If they could have their way, the Church of the Nazarene would no longer be holiness nor evangelistic.”
It seems as though open season has been declared on all the precious doctrines of the one and only Gospel. None of them are safe from the misrepresentation of false prophets. The following comments were made by Marcus Borg, held in high regard by some of his emergent colleagues, one even considering him “an essential part of emerging spirituality.” (Roger Oakland, Faith Undone, p.196.) He wrote:
“I let go of the notion that the Bible is a divine product. I learned that it is a human cultural product … Jesus almost certainly was not born of a virgin, did not think of Himself as the Son of God, and did not see His purpose as dying for the sins of the world.” [The God We Never Knew, p. 25]
Note the sequence – denial of the inspiration of the written Word leads to the diminishing of the Living Word. Jesus did know that His death was for the sins of the world. In the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:17-21), Jesus claimed to be the promised Messiah of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 61). The Master certainly knew His Bible and His revealed destiny. Therefore, it is inconceivable to suggest that He did not know the prophet’s prediction of His death and its purpose. “He was wounded for our transgressions …the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:5-6). The 12th verse of Isaiah 53 is quoted by Christ and applied to Himself in Luke 22:37. In the upper room, as He shared the wine with His disciples, He said, “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Matthew 26:28
The substitutionary atonement of the Savior is the heart and core of the Christian faith. Christ’s shed blood at Calvary is the only acceptable atonement for man’s sin. Our whole salvation depends absolutely on His death – our Redemption (Ephesians 1:7), our Righteousness (II Corinthians 5:21), our Forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22), our Deliverance (Hebrews 9:26), our Sanctification (Hebrews 13:12), and our Reconciliation (Romans 5:8, 6, 10).
And yet, what do we find? Many advocates of the emergent church have reduced His sin-atoning death to mean merely an example of sacrificial service. Others have called the idea that God would send His Son to a violent death for the sins of mankind “a slaughterhouse religion” (Horton, Church History and Things to Come, p. 156), “this vile doctrine” (Alan Jones, Reimagining Christianity, p. 168) and “false advertising for God.” (Brian McLaren, The Bleeding Purple Podcast Interview, 2006)
Clearly, most emergent New-Agers have turned to another gospel, one that teaches that the experience of God is discovered through mysticism and a new form of meditation in direct opposition to the authentic gospel which teaches that penitent believers are saved only by the grace and mercy of God, through the sacrificial shedding of Christ’s blood for sin. Amid the clash of accusation and argument, the Christian cries with Paul, “for I determined not to know anything among you except Christ and Him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2).
“How far will they go?” The question of Spurgeon fell on deaf ears. The church leaders of his day failed to deal with the liberal infiltration of their movement, many even denying there was any such problem. In the 1960s, hundreds of churches pulled out of the Baptist Union when its president cast doubt on the unique deity of Christ. We are not immune to what has happened in other historical denominations which failed to discern the damning effects of liberal theology.
The Church of the Nazarene, of which I have been a member and servant for forty years, has been used by God in wonderful ways for over a century. Praise God that around this sin-sick world, on its mission fields, revival fires are burning and many are turning to Christ. May the great ministry of our church continue to bring blessing to our world!
We need to pray urgently that the ministry will continue but, at the same time, in the words of General Superintendent Diehl, we need to “watch out” and “be on our guard.” (2009 Ordination Service, Grove City, Ohio.) Whatever it costs, we need to distance ourselves from those who propagate a false gospel. “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord” (2 Corinthians 6:17).
We also need to renew our regard for and belief in the plenary inspiration of the sixty-six books of God’s infallible revelation. We are to “hold fast (to keep secure) the form of sound words according to the established doctrines of the gospel” (Nazarene Certificate of Ordination). Jude puts it like this: “….contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3)
*This quote was from an email that was sent to a Nazarene evangelist from General Superintendent Diehl. Concerned Nazarenes have had permission from this evangelist to print this quote.
Rev. Kenneth Staniforth
commissioned evangelist in the Church of the Nazarene