downgrade of discernment doctrine in the church

The Downgrade of Discernment: Where has Doctrine Gone in the Church?

When my son, Pierce, was three years old, I took him to a local park. The park’s new jungle gym had lots of ladders, climbing walls, and slides. One particular slide looked appealing. It was a tubular slide starting at the highest level, about fifteen feet or so up. Pierce and I eagerly climbed the steps and stood there, looking down into our dark destiny. As I put my son on my lap we steadied ourselves and away we went. The first four feet were fine, but then there was a sharp turn and a drop. As we began our free-fall I put my feet out to the side, and while clutching my son with one arm, I reached with my free hand to find the inside of the tube hoping to slow our descent. We slowed only a little. I had never been on a slide like that before. I wondered as we fell, “When will this ride ever end?”

The Down-Grade

In March 1887, English preacher Charles H. Spurgeon became involved in what came to be known as the “Down-Grade Controversy.” Spurgeon was troubled by many of the churches in the Baptist Union which were allowing Unitarian thought and modernism into their pulpits. When these unorthodox messages were given, no one opposed them. There was a fear of offending those who held these tenants because, although the doctrines were clearly aberrant, these teachers were of high character and moral excellence. Unity was chosen rather than truth.

Contending for the faith was less appealing than compromise. In October 1887, Spurgeon left the Union under the conviction of belonging to an organization which allowed false doctrine not only to go unchecked, but to flourish. His numerous articles on the Down-Grade Controversy and correspondence with several officials of the Union about his concerns only led to his censure by the Union.   The “Prince of Preachers” was declared a pauper in thought because he believed that Scripture alone should guide the ideas of the church.[1]

Spurgeon showed discernment that only a few other, lesser-known individuals seemed to have. Not long after the rise of the Down-Grade Controversy, church attendance began to dwindle, and spiritual apathy replaced the zeal that started with the Puritans generations before. The churches of England had placed their footing on the slippery slope of poor theology and their decline was imminent. Worldly wisdom convinced those who were supposedly “called out” that they needed to “call in” philosophy and liberal thought in order to be accepted by their fellow man. When philosophy and modernism infiltrated the sanctuaries, they were not seen as hostile invaders. The ways of the world did not breach the spiritual walls of the churches of England. The leadership of those churches simply opened the gates.

History has a way of repeating itself. Because of the tolerance of differing beliefs and the phobia that some seem to have of offending others, many of today’s churches do not merely display a lack of discernment, they exude it. Just as it seemed no one wished to repudiate the mantra that in Spurgeon’s day was spoken in the church, no one seems to be willing to question the messages from the church that end up on the marquee. The reason, oddly enough, is the same for both. The men in Spurgeon’s time were seen as having moral clout, and they were excused because what they said was deemed as their personal opinion instead of deviant doctrine and heresy. Today, churches are excused because the messages some churches promote have nothing to do with true Christianity, the church is still seen by many as an establishment that has concern for mankind and an organization that pursues a higher morality than the rest of society. Silence, not criticism, is the supposed solution, for it is assumed and accepted that every church at least has the right motives in what they say.

The silence from those within the church is deafening. The people are silent for one or more of four reasons: (1) They do not know proper theology; (2) They are afraid of offending others in the congregation; (3) They do not care about proper doctrine and reason that no one else does either; or (4) They believe that they are not responsible for what is put on the marquee so it does not really concern them. What ties all these reasons together is discernment, or the lack thereof.

The Lack of Discernment

Discernment—determining what is right and what is wrong, what is acceptable and what is not acceptable—is a vital attribute for everyone in the congregation. Discernment allows us to take in what is good and to avoid or remove from ourselves the things that are impediments to our spiritual walk. Without it, the individual suffers from either making wrong decisions or from having a lack of peace concerning decisions that have to be made. Corporately, the church should be discerning as well. The church should understand what is profitable, upright, holy, and acceptable while at the same time avoid things which are questionable in character, unprofitable, and unholy.

The Jews of Berea in Acts 17 displayed perhaps one of the greatest examples of discernment. After the Jews of Thessalonica formed a mob and began a riot in the city because of the preaching of the gospel, Paul and Silas left Thessalonica and went to Berea. Arriving there, they went, as was their custom, to the synagogue. In verse 11 Luke writes concerning the Bereans, “These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.”

Think about this for a moment. This is the apostle Paul’s teaching. He’s proclaiming the Word of God and these people have the audacity to check to see if what he is saying matches up with the Scriptures. But is it really audacity or just common sense? They were using discernment. What was Paul’s probable response? “Good. Check the Scriptures because you will see what I say is true.” As a pastor I want my flock to think and not just be part of a mindless herd. I want them to search the Scriptures for themselves so that they do not just put their faith in me and in what I say, but that they properly put their faith in the Word of God.

A lack of discernment leads to spiritual apathy. Spiritual apathy grows into doctrinal complacency. Doctrinal complacency, when it reaches fruition, produces spiritual ignorance. When there is ignorance, a lack of information, or a failure to be informed of what one believes, a person is not confident in defending the truth because the whole truth is not known. Therefore—when one does not know what he believes and why that belief is held—wrong opinions, false doctrines, and unorthodox teachings take root and are followed without thought.

Doctrine Divides

One thing that I was taught in seminary (from the pulpit of the chapel, no less) was that we should not preach doctrine. The reason? Doctrine divides. Many of my professors were concerned about unity within the church and not offending part of the body. They did not want us to have to deal with people who became so upset with what was said from the pulpit that the possibility of losing our jobs would arise. I believe, just as my professors, that preaching doctrine does divide. However, I do not believe it divides people in the same way they believed. I believe it divides the sheep from the goats. If someone proclaims to be a Christian and does not like to hear doctrine proclaimed and explained, I personally have serious doubts about his salvation. Even a babe in Christ wants to know the doctrines of the faith so that he can learn more about the Savior, the attributes of God, and the work of the Trinity.

I preach expositional sermons, meaning that every verse, every word even, is analyzed.  I explain the background and the circumstances in which the original writing took place, often referring to the original language in which it was written. I do this because every word in the Bible is inspired, inerrant, infallible, and sufficient. There is a reason why each word was chosen by God to be used by the writer. When the Word of God is preached this way, one cannot help but preach doctrine. Doctrine is preached every Sunday at my church because doctrine, proper thought, belief, and practice is what the Bible contains.

I know there are many churches that try to stay away from preaching and teaching doctrine. They believe it to be stale and boring. They would rather teach life principles and things that make the message “relevant” to the hearer. This tends to produce people who act morally, but have no idea why they are doing so. This type of teaching becomes a program of works without reason. It makes people react and live according to their feelings instead of using their transformed mind. The Bible never instructs us to not use our minds. Mindless worship is not worship at all.

If there is no thought and no reason inside of the church, it should not be surprising when there is nothing of any merit that is offered on the outside marquee. Instead of the marquee giving a taste of what the church should be about, it becomes a showcase of the church’s lack of theological discernment. The same one-line pep phrases and shallow theology on the outside are most likely what churchgoers receive on the inside as well. There is nothing good about this, except that there is at least some consistency. What you see is exactly what you get. There is no doctrine, no theology, and no explanation of “what our belief is and why we believe it.” This is the new face of Christian churches. It is not about the glory of God; it is about us. It is not what we can do for God; rather, it has become a man-centered philosophy based on what He can do for us. We want to be important. We want God to fit into our lives.  We want Him to be relevant.

Do We Have to be Relevant?

“Relevance” is the buzz word being used in today’s church growth manuals. Advertisements on radio abound proclaiming how a particular pastor or church makes the message of the Bible relevant for us today. Relevant messages, or at least the idea and promise of them, bring a crowd. There is a definite problem with this concept.

First of all, the word “relevant” means vital and important. Saying that a pastor or church makes the Bible relevant would mean that it takes them to make it important. The Bible does not need to be made relevant because it already is.

The second issue is that the Bible does not need to be made relevant for us today. It is the very Word of God; hence, it has the characteristic of God as being eternal. It is relevant because it supersedes time. It is as relevant today as it was when it was written. It is the pastor’s responsibility, as well as the church’s responsibility as a whole, not to try to pull everything that is written in the Bible into our time, but to put ourselves in its time and discover what the original intent of the author was. Then and only then can we find true application for us today.

This is a simple principle of hermeneutics, the art of interpreting the Bible. Yet, what people are interested in is not finding out what God says concerning a particular people, concerning a particular subject, in a particular time. They want to know what the message the preacher-teacher delivers has to do with them. This mindset is faulty. A message or a sermon may not directly deal with you. If it is truly a message worthy to be spoken in the church it must be about our Lord. Shouldn’t we have this same attitude about the messages on the church marquee?

Discernment is dying in our churches because our churches are made of people who are more concerned about themselves than the name of Christ. We live in a postmodern society where one truth is just as valid as another. Yet this approach is a result of sin. There is truth. There is absolute truth. Yet we entangle ourselves with our culture, and we decide that what is important to us is not really important to anybody else. The preaching and the teaching of the church need not be critiqued because there really is no right and wrong way of performing those tasks. It all comes down to personal preference. Right?

Many church members assume that leaders in the church know best or at least know more than they themselves do. This is why the majority of those in churches that have poor theology on display in front of their buildings do not say a word. People in church tend to have a dependence on those who are in leadership that is unnecessary and dangerous. It is the leader’s responsibility to shepherd the sheep and bring them to good pastures in their study, but it is the sheep’s responsibility to actually eat. Church members should not depend totally on what they receive from the pastor. If they do, then they are only getting fed spiritually two to three times a week, while starving themselves the rest of the time. Not only do congregants many times depend on the pastor to teach them, but they rely on the pastor to think for them as well.

One of the saddest things I see on television are church services where the camera keys in on some members of the congregation who have their Bibles open, their pen and paper ready—yet they are not writing a thing. Why are they not writing? They are not writing anything because the pastor is not really saying anything. They really do not need their Bibles open because the pastor never really uses it himself. But even worse than this is when I see those in a congregation who hear false doctrine and write it down feverishly, nodding their heads in approval, as if what they heard was the most profound thing ever said. They do not question what the pastor says; they do not think about it, and they do not test it against the Scriptures. It is just readily accepted. Why? It is accepted because the pastor is seen as having moral clout, intelligence, blessings from God, God-given status, good intentions, and whatever else can be ascribed to him.

Paul tells Timothy in his last letter before his death that “the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Notice it is the congregation that will—by its own accord—put teachers in place that will say what they want to hear. These are not false teachers who have crept in as Jude 4 states. These teachers were placed there by the church for a purpose—no doctrine, no theology. The choice of these types of teachers shows a lack of discernment. We live in a time when the most famous of preachers in this country do not even consider themselves preachers. They think of themselves more like coaches or administrators. Will there ever be another Spurgeon to decry the lack of discernment? If there is, will he be criticized and censured as well? Discernment may not be dead, but it is fading quickly.

Where Do We Go from Here?

By our flippant use of Scripture and the desire to be humorous rather than holy, it is a clear indication to the world that the church has willfully left its lofty position in society. We have begun down the slide. It may have started out as an innocent experiment, but wisdom was laid aside at the very beginning. The catchy phrases in the supposed “thought-provoking” messages seemed to start out as a new and exciting way to bring people inside the church building. The end of discernment, however, was the sharp turn into the darkness. Now we are in the midst of the descent. The question no longer is, “How can we stop the fall?” We are far past that. The question now is, “How much further will we fall until we reach the bottom?”

[1] John MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2010), 233-260.

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