Category Archives: Church/Ecclesiology

Ecclesiola in Ecclesia

 

I’ve been told before that it’s easy to see what is going on in my life by simply reading the titles or topics of posts on this blog.  I suppose that’s understandable, given the nature of a blog.  Additionally, this  blog has provided somewhat of a theological outlet for me to work through my own thoughts or to layout particular issues that I’m struggling with or passages that I’ve meditated on.

One recent issue that has churned over again in my mind for the past couple of years is the concept of Ecclesiola in Ecclesia, or “little churches within the church.”  I’m unsure who may have coined this precise phrase, though maybe its origin can be traced to sometime in the 18th century.  It shows up in Phillip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, Vol.#1 (though that ecclesiola sought to live morally perfect), however Martyn Lloyd-Jones brought it to modern significance through his address at the Westminster Conference in 1965[1].  The conference title was “Approaches to the Reformation of the Church.”

In his address, Lloyd-Jones walks through the history of the Reformers, beginning notably with Luther, and details their oft-desired, yet ill-fated attempts to establish an “ecclesiola in ecclesia”.  Here is how he defines the movement, “the idea of those who formed these little churches was not to form a new church. That is basic. They were not concerned at all about separation; indeed they were bitterly and violently opposed to it. They were not out to change the doctrine of the church.”

He goes on, “What were they concerned about? Well, their position was that they were not so much dissatisfied with the nature as with the functioning of the church. They were not concerned about the church’s doctrine, but were very concerned about its spiritual life and condition. 

This is quite basic to our whole outlook upon this subject. The people who believed in the idea of the ‘ecclesiola’ were not out to change the whole church, but to form a church within a church which would form a nucleus of true believers inside the general church. Their object in the formation of this nucleus was that it might act as a leaven and influence the life of the whole church for the better. That is the definition. It was thought of in terms of the local church and local churches. It was not a movement, but something that was to happen in individual local churches.”

In essence, what they attempted to develop was a smaller group, made up of believers only, within the larger church or corporate gathering which was open to any and all and could have a large number of unbelievers present, not dissimilar from our worship services today.  Conversely, within these smaller groups they sought to have a pure meeting of believers.  How were these little churches structured and what did they do?  Lloyd-Jones continues

“But we must give some general indication as to how this idea was put into operation. There are certain things which were common to practically all of them. For instance, they were all animated by that same fundamental idea. They all likewise stressed the voluntary membership of these nuclei. People could either join this inner church, this little nucleus, or not; it was left entirely to their own volition. But the moment you did join you had to submit to a very strict discipline. They kept a list of members and observed their attendances very closely, and if a man or a woman failed to turn up with regularity he or she would be excluded, excommunicated. Sometimes indeed, a fine was imposed.

What did they do in these societies? Actually there was a good deal of variation about this, but the central idea in all of them was that the meetings should be an occasion for instruction which could not be given in the open preaching. Most of them held this kind of meeting of this select company, the true believers in the church, once a week. They met in a more informal manner, and there they could go over the sermons preached on the previous Sunday, and people would have opportunities for asking questions and discussion. Some gave opportunity for people to relate their experiences, others frowned upon that and did not believe in it at all. In the case of those that appeared in Germany there was a good deal of discussion of doctrine, and indeed at times of philosophy, and they almost became debating societies; whereas in others doctrinal discussions were completely banned and prohibited. So you see there was this considerable variation in the way in which meetings were conducted, but this does not affect the principle.

Another thing that is common to most of these meetings is that they gave opportunities to the laymen. This is where we touch on that question of the universal priesthood of all believers, referred to in an earlier paper. These people felt that the laymen had not been given sufficient opportunity, so in these gatherings the laymen were allowed to speak and put questions. That is an important principle for us to bear in mind. There was a good deal of difference with regard to the place of women. In most of them women were allowed. In the case of Spener, the German to whom I shall be referring, women were allowed to attend these meetings but they had to be behind a screen out of sight, and they were not allowed to speak! Others were very careful to divide even between married men and single men, and married women and single women, and particularly where the question of the giving of experiences was involved.”

At this point, I must comment on the similarities of these “little churches within the church” and our modern-day establishment of small groups.  The small groups or cell groups that exist in our churches today seek to do much of what these early reformers seem to have sought to accomplish.  A weekly meeting of believers only, voluntary attendance, opportunity given to the lay persons that had a variety of discussion topics such as going over previous sermons, question and answer, sharing or relating experiences, some had doctrinal discussions others did not, and some separated on the basis of gender or marital status.  Sounds quite familiar right?  Before we go patting ourselves on the back for carrying on the legacy of the Reformers, let us allow Lloyd-Jones to conclude.

At this point, Lloyd-Jones begins his historical survey in the 16th century with Luther and turns to Franz Lambert, Martin Bucer, the 17th century advocates of ecclesiola in Philip Jacob Spener, August Hermann Francke, Count Zinzendorf, Dr. Anthony Horneck (Savoy Chapel), Josiah Woodward, and George Whitefield.  As he entered into the 18th century overview, he highlights two proponents of these little churches, William Grimshaw, and Samuel Walker.  While some of these names may not be familiar to us, Lloyd-Jones’ survey is significant because he shows that these ideas were not localized geographically, nor were they limited in time or denomination, but instead can be found throughout church history.

Next he answers perhaps the question that’s lingering in our minds, “What happened to these little church experiments?”  They all failed.  “All this is a sheer matter of history; one of two things happened to them all. They either failed in the way I have been describing, or, secondly, they ended definitely in separation and the formation of a new church. That happened, as I have shown, in the case of Methodism in England. It happened in exactly the same way with Calvinistic Methodism in Wales, which became a separate denomination in Wales in 1811.”

Before we get to Lloyd-Jones’ general observation of these little churches, let me first bring us to the modern day experiment of small groups, a relatively new phenomenon within the church.  These small groups as we have come to know them today originated in the church growth movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, but they have at their heart a desire not unlike that given in the address above.  They sometimes find their biblical basis in the “small groups” of Jesus’ disciples, i.e. that He had a larger group of disciples, then the 12, and then an inner group of Peter, James, and John.  Seeing this as a model for ministry, many have developed the small group concept.  Largely, they have as their motivation and goal the relational aspect of the church, something which is nearly impossible during the hustle and bustle of the larger, corporate Sunday gathering.  Here within these smaller groups, more attention to doctrinal detail or experiences can be given within a more intimate setting and fellowship.  Many churches have come to find that the small group is an essential ingredient to church membership.  As to Lloyd-Jones’ point, many churches have likely been birthed out of geographical small groups.

But we must ask, why is it that our Lord’s Day gathering has become insufficient such that an appendix to it needs to be made.  What, if anything, does the New Testament have to offer on this subject?  We’ve seen that oftentimes Jesus’ own ministry has been the foundation for these small groups, but can that argument really be sustained biblically?  And is it observable in the life and ministry of the Apostle’s in establishing the early church?

After raising many critical questions as to the validity of these ecclesiola’s in ecclesia’s Lloyd-Jones summarizes with the following statement

“So I come to the last question which seems to me to be raised, and I think it is the most acute question of all. God forbid that this last question should ever cause a division amongst us who are evangelical, but it does seem to me that this story of the ‘ecclesiola in ecclesia’ raises this great question. It was there at the beginning with Luther; it is still here. Should we start with the situation and the position as it is and try to reform it, or should we start with the New Testament and apply it? It comes to that! The Reformers began with the situation as they found it, and as we have been reminded several times in the conference, their policy was to reform it. If their premise was right I think their procedure can be justified. You must then be patient and diplomatic and so on.

But the great question I am raising is this — were they right in that original question? Where do you start? Do you start with the existing situation and try by adjustment and accommodation and meetings and fellowship and readiness to give and take for the sake of the body that is already there, to get the best modifications you can? Is it that? History seems to show that, if you do start with that, you will soon be having to think of starting an ‘ecclesiola in ecclesia’ because of the dead wood in the church. That seems to me to be the argument of history. Do you start with that then?

Or do you rather start by asking ‘What is the New Testament teaching?’ Let us start with that. Our one object and endeavor should be to put that into practice, cost what it may, believing that as we are trying to conform to the New Testament pattern we shall be blessed of God. It is a difficult, it is a perplexing, it is a vexing question. As I have tried to remind you, in all fairness, the Reformers were concerned to bring back the New Testament idea; but they failed. There was this kind of polarity in their thinking and they kept on swinging between two basic ideas. That is why I am raising this as the ultimate and fundamental question.”

Here is the summary of the point I’m attempting to make by quoting Lloyd-Jones so extensively.  From the time of Luther onward (though we could certainly go back well before him to the Donatists, Waldensians, and so on) there has been a recognition and dissatisfaction with what we modernly call the corporate church, also known as the state church previous eras.  This dissatisfaction has arisen for various reasons and perhaps we see it most clearly today as an insufficiency, such that addendums and additions need to be made.  As a remedy, there has been the experiment, if you will, of these churches within the church, or our modern-day equivalent small groups, that have attempted to remedy any of these unsaid deficiencies.  Yet herein lies the problem and Lloyd-Jones has really put his finger on it, as I’ve highlighted from the last two paragraphs in bold above.  Every example in church history of the failed ecclesiola in ecclesia has begun out of an attempt to influence the larger group with the smaller, or we might say strengthen and mature the larger group by strengthening and maturing the smaller group first.  However, as Lloyd-Jones highlights, perhaps this smaller group IS the New Testament teaching.  Perhaps instead of attempting to reform the larger, more visible group by introducing a smaller group, we begin with the smaller group, or the ecclesiola and stay there.

The great temptation of every church plant, even and perhaps especially those, that have begun out of a small group or Bible study, is to grow larger and expand.  This is often seen as a sign of God’s hand of blessing and a reward of diligent effort and hard work to “build the church”.  But what if it’s not.  What if numerical growth is not the equivalent of blessing?  What if outward numerical growth is actually a hindrance to spiritual growth of the local body of believers?  Within every single church I’ve ever been in the necessity of the small group has arisen.  Why?  Because the of the lack of relationships in the corporate gathering, the lack of dialogue over the Scriptures, the lack of in-depth teaching and learning, the lack of accountability and the ease with which one can hide and mentally drift off in many of our large corporate gatherings.

So here is the proposition: Maybe we should begin with an ecclesiola and stay there.  As the little church begins to grow, split it and multiply.  Perhaps a return to this model would be an appropriate first step to genuine reformation, or better, restoration.  Perhaps this more intimate gathering lends itself more to relationships with built in accountability and intensity in the Word.  Perhaps this is what it means to have “all things in common”.

In closing, Luther identified three worship services, the first was the Latin Mass, which he abhorred, the second was the German Mass open to all, and the third was a smaller more intimate gathering of true believers.  A gathering that he admittedly would have pursued wholeheartedly had he found enough interested parties.  May that not be the case with us.  Search the Scriptures.  Examine them to see if these things are true.

[1] http://www.the-highway.com/ecclesia_Lloyd-Jones.html

Introducing Covenant Theology

 

There can perhaps be no greater theological deficiency in modern evangelical churches and seminaries than a proper and robust understanding of the biblical covenants. Having been a believer for going on 33 years, I cannot recall a time when the covenants were explained or exposited in sufficient detail from any pulpit I’ve sat under. Generally when the subject of covenant arises in a particular passage, that particular covenant is given a passing mention, but larger unity and diversity of the divine covenants is ignored.

Speaking to the issues of his own day, 19th Century Reformed Baptist R.B.C. Howell writes,

“A perfect knowledge of the Gospel therefore, involves necessarily, a correct comprehension of the covenants. But by whom among us, are these covenants clearly understood? To most men, you need only to speak on this subject, and you at once perceive that “Even unto this day, the vail is upon their heart.” They fail to perceive what the covenants are in themselves, in their relations to each other, and consequently in their bearings upon the designs of God in the Redeemer! This darkness is lamentable in all its aspects, since falling short of the knowledge of these, “the rudiments of the doctrine of Christ,” obscurity must necessarily rest upon the whole Gospel system. How can he who does not perceive “the first principles” of any specified science, ever become a master of that science?”[1]

Additionally, unless required seminary courses have changed within the last year or so, one would be hard pressed to find one, let alone multiple courses which plumb the depths of the study of covenants, also known as covenant theology (Reformed Theological Seminary and some of the smaller schools such as Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, Reformed Baptist Seminary, et.al. would be some notable exceptions). This is in stark contrast to the following statement by Charles Spurgeon, “The doctrine of the covenant lies at the root of all true theology. It has been said that he who well understands the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, is a master of divinity”[2], yet we see student after student conferred with the degree of Master of Divinity with little knowledge of biblical covenants. Personally, I was unaware of the significance of the covenants until 5-6 years ago when confronted head on by their presence in the book of Romans, specifically the relationship of Israel and the Church.   These personal witnesses before us, one is left to wonder why this neglect of the covenants is so prominent.

Perhaps the great neglect of Covenant Theology that may be observed in our day should be laid at the feet of its chief opponent, dispensationalism. One need only observe the harsh sentiments of Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of Dallas Theological Seminary – for a century or more the heartbeat of dispensational theology – to gain a glimpse of why this is the case. Note the following from Chafer:

“Judaism has its field of theology with its soteriology and its eschatology. That these factors of a system which occupies three-fourths of the Sacred Text are unrecognized and ignored by theologians does not demonstrate their nonexistence, nor does it prove their unimportance. A Covenant Theology engenders the notion that there is but one soteriology and one eschatology, and that ecclesiology, such as it is conceived to be, extends from the Garden of Eden to the great white throne. The insuperable problems in exegesis which such fanciful suppositions engender are easily disposed of by ignoring them. On the other hand, Scripture is harmonized and its message clarified when two divinely appointed systems–Judaism and Christianity–are recognized and their complete and distinctive characters are observed. No matter how orthodox they may be in matters of inspiration, the Deity of Christ, His virgin birth, and the efficacy of His death, Covenant theologians have not been forward in Bible exposition. This great field of service has been and is now occupied by those who distinguish things which differ, who, though giving close attention to all that has been written, are bound by no theological traditions whatever. – Lewis Sperry Chafer Systematic Theology, Vol.4, p.248″[3]

Though a dense statement to be sure, notice the heart of what Chafer is suggesting is that there is not 1 soteriology, that is salvation, but 2; that there is not 1 eschatology, that is God’s redemptive plan unfolding in history culminating in the reign of Christ in the New Heavens and New Earth, but 2; that there is not 1 ecclesiology, that is people of God, but 2; and finally that all this is not unfolded and extended from Genesis to Revelation. With all due respect to Dr. Chafer, whose writings and influence on the Church have been profound, he is wrong and not simply wrong, but dangerously wrong.

When these notions are combined with the widespread influence of the dispensationalism that Chafer helped advance throughout America in the 19th and 20th century, there really should be no surprise that covenant theology lay mostly dormant for decades among Baptists, many of whom saw dispensationalism as a correction on the one hand to liberalism and most certainly on the other hand to infant-baptizing forms of covenant theology. Seemingly, many baptists felt left with only those two extreme options and chose the more moderate line of dispensationalism. However, the middle point between two errors does not place one on the path of truth, as can be witnessed in the quote above from Chafer. Without the torch being carried by our paedobaptist brothers and several 20th Century Reformed Baptists, the covenant theology expressed for so long through the ages of church history, would have been left miring in the “Dark Ages”.

Thankfully, in recent years there has been a resurgence of solid, confessional baptist covenant theology. Likely due to multiple factors, including a resurgence in the Doctrines of Grace and a rejection of the errors of dispensationalism, modern Baptists began exploring their own historical identity and found in the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith a robust and developed covenant theology that ran contra to the idea of infant baptism found in her mother confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith, championed by Presbyterians in the 17th century.

Nehemiah Coxe, likely the chief editor of the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession writes, “…further observe that the holy and wise God has always dealt with the children of men in a way of covenant. The display of infinite goodness has always accompanied the discovery of his infinite glory in his dealing with men. Thus he has not acted toward them to the utmost right of his sovereignty and dominion over them. Had he done so, there never would have been any reward of future blessedness assigned and made due to their obedience, as there has been by covenant.”[4]

Such a strong statement by the Baptist statesman, Coxe highlights the importance placed on covenants by the reformed baptists of his day and ensures that Baptists have a covenantal heritage just as rich as those who have adhered to the Westminster Confession.

The study of covenants can be a particularly difficult subject to approach, not because Scripture is unclear, but because throughout history there has been a multitude of views and beliefs such that it is difficult to find a monolithic, orthodox explanation to help guide one’s efforts. In the coming weeks, I hope to devote some attention to untangling this web of confusion and presenting in clear terms a discussion of covenant theology from the historic baptist perspective.

[1] http://founders.org/library/covenants/

[2] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/spurgeon/sermons58.xliv.html

[3] http://www.dispensationalfriends.org/articles/chafer1.html

[4] Coxe – Owen pg. 38

Doctrine: The Dirty Word of Modern Evangelicals

 

The other morning during my daily commute I was listening to a local Christian radio broadcast and was struck by two consecutive statements regarding Christian’s and doctrine. The first was a commercial from a local car dealership stating something along the lines of “People are not saved by believing a system of doctrine, but through faith in Jesus Christ.” This probably needed qualification, but fair enough…for now.

Immediately after that commercial, the next scheduled program began with an introduction of an anti-doctrinal statement and then the speaker began (the sermon?) with a quote from a questionable book, paraphrased as follows: “I don’t know a lot about doctrine. I’m just not inclined in that direction. But I have been able to take the word of God and apply it to my everyday life and I have had a lot of wonderful experience with God and from that simple, child-like experience with God, I would like to share with you how you can be a happy Christian.”

The speaker reaffirmed this by stating “That’s me!” And goes on to say “I think its sad when all people hear is more and more doctrine and it’s not that I don’t think we need good solid doctrine. You need to know why you believe what you believe. But we have to know how to live. And so, I heard more about the doctrinal side of grace and not the practical side of grace”

And so we have the elevation of experience and feeling above the sound, objective, doctrinal truths of Scripture. It’s this perspective that is so prevalent among believers and churches today. You’ve likely heard it expressed in different ways; perhaps, “Doctrine divides; Christ unites” or from a popular mega-church pastor, “No Creed but Christ,” which is laced with irony because in itself it’s a creedal statement. Too often this artificial chasm between unity and truth is the driving factor for divorcing doctrine from the church.  Martin Luther once famously quipped, “It is better to be divided by truth than united by error.” Can anyone argue that Luther took an anti-doctrinal, pro-unity stance at the expense of standing for the truth? Absolutely not. He fought for doctrinal truth at all costs, even if it cost him his life.

In our day, one could make a strong argument that this anti-doctrinal sentiment is the majority report in much of what calls itself evangelicalism. I know personally that those who hold these particular anti-doctrinal views have sometimes accused me of only wanting to talk about doctrine and I’ve had people counter doctrinal statements by saying they are just a simple Christian who reads the Bible and has no theological education or desire to understand or learn doctrine.

I suppose the majority of those who hold to this stance are largely ignorant of what doctrine is and is blind to the pervasiveness which doctrine is used in Scripture, the doctrinal statements expressed in Scripture, and the summary doctrinal statements about the Scripture. Simply stated, a doctrine is a summary statement or belief about a particular biblical truth.  For instance, stating the Bible is God’s Word is a doctrinal statement. If you believe and say, “The Bible is the Word of God” you’ve just expressed in condensed terms the Doctrine of Inspiration, i.e. that the Bible is the God-breathed Word (2 Timothy 3:16). To divorce oneself from this doctrinal position for the sake of the artificial façade of unity leaves one standing not on the Word of God, but on quicksand.

A second example is the Doctrine of the Trinity. Think that’s not important? As a Christian, please tell me who it is you believe in apart from the Triune God? If you do not explain that the Creator God of all the universe is triune, distinct in person but one in essence as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it is not doctrine that you’ve abandoned, but orthodoxy, nigh you’re promoting another god.  So we can see in these two brief examples that doctrine is not opposed to faith, unity, or even Christianity, but is indeed integral because it helps summarize and explain what it is that we believe.

Consider the following statement by the Apostle Paul writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” Ephesians 4:11-16

Paul is not contributing to the false chasm between unity and doctrine, instead he is pointing out the theological vacuum that takes place when good doctrine is absent. Notice what he says in this passage:

  1. God has given Apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers for the purpose of:
    1. Equipping the saints
    2. Building up the body of Christ
    3. Leading the body to the unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God
    4. To mature manhood
    5. Complete in Christ
    6. To avoid being tossed around by errant doctrine
      1. By human deception
      2. Craftiness
      3. Deceitful schemes
    7. Contrary to this we are to speak the truth in love
  2. This is how the Body of Christ, in all its parts, are built up in love

God has given the Church ministers of the Word and their job is to instruct, teach, exhort, and rebuke. What are they to teach? Doctrine, for the purpose of helping their flock mature and avoid the dangers of false doctrine. Observe what Paul tells his young disciple Timothy at his church:

  • “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, 4 nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.” 1 Timothy 1:3-4 and 8 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 9 understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, 11 in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.” 1 Timothy 1:8-11 Paul is not warning Timothy against those who teach doctrine, but those who teach false doctrine and makes explicit mention of the good purposes of sound doctrine.
  •  “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, 3 who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. 6 If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. 7 Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness” 1 Timothy 4:1-7 Again, Paul has warned Timothy of those who will enter the church teaching false doctrine. He is not speaking against doctrine, but false doctrine. He once again contrasts these various false teachings with the statement that Timothy was trained in good doctrine (vs. 6) that he has followed.
  • “16 Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.” 1 Timothy 4:16 NKJV Here, Paul explicitly states that Timothy’s doctrine, i.e. the sound, truthfulness of Scripture, will save both himself and those who hear him.
  • “Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. 2 Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved. Teach and urge these things. 3 If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, 4 he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, 5 and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.” 1 Timothy 6:1-5 Notice here who it is that is creating division and disunity. It’s not those who teach the sound doctrine of Christ, that which accords with godliness. No, it is those who teach a different doctrine, i.e. a false doctrine. Those who teach false doctrine are puffed up with conceit and understand nothing. It is they who desire controversy and quarrel about words. Those who are of sound doctrine are to confront and rebuke these false teachers.

When the Apostle addresses Titus and encourages him in the establishment of his church he writes on the qualifications of elders who “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Titus 1:9 This is precisely consistent with the message given to Timothy, that those who are pastors/elders/shepherds/teachers must teach sound doctrine, “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine” Titus 2:1; not abandoning doctrine; not marginalizing or ostracizing those who teach doctrine; but rebuking those who teach false doctrine. Again, this is a theological vacuum. Abandoning sound doctrine for the sake of anything, even unity, does not simply leave a void. It is always replaced with bad doctrine.

The only anti-doctrinal statements that the Bible makes has to do with false, unsound doctrine, not the avoidance of doctrine altogether. There is no such thing as “No Doctrine”. There is only “Good Doctrine” and “Bad Doctrine”. When good doctrine leaves, bad doctrine inevitably takes its place.

Anti-doctrinal sentiments are the heart of liberalism and no one fought this battle more fiercely than Charles Spurgeon. What was known as “The Downgrade Controversy” was Spurgeon’s all-out assault against the doctrinal decline of the Baptist Union. The Downgrade referred to the slippery slope or “Downgrade” away from “essential evangelical doctrines.”[1] Concerning this, Spurgeon wrote, “We are glad that the article upon ‘The Down Grade’ has excited notice.… Our warfare is with men who are giving up the atoning sacrifice, denying the inspiration of Holy Scripture, and casting slurs upon justification by faith.” When doctrine is abandoned for the sake of anything else, the sure footing of truth turns slippery and the slide naturally ends in apostasy.

In his article on the Downgrade, Erroll Hulse writes, “The emphasis in the churches was on evangelism, missions and practical social work. Doctrine was taken for granted and its importance minimized.”[2] He cites specifically the decline in Calvinism, “a coherent well-knit body of truth” in favor of higher criticism as what led to a theological vacuum. Spurgeon cited the abandonment of three chief doctrines as central to the Downgrade Controversy: 1) Biblical infallibility 2) Substitutionary Atonement 3) The finality of judgment for unbelievers. How could the church expect to stand in the midst of the advance of liberalism apart from a staunch doctrinal defense? Simply put, they couldn’t, nor can they now.

This historical example should serve us well as a caution against the anti-doctrine rhetoric that is so prevalent today. Doctrine is never merely absent; ignore the promotion and advancement of sound doctrine and false doctrine worms its way in. This was as true in the Apostle Paul’s day as it was in Spurgeon’s and certainly ours today. If doctrine had been abandoned the young apostolic church would have had no foundation. If doctrine had been abandoned the early church fathers would have floundered instead of holding fast in the face of such heresies as denying the divinity of Christ or the truthfulness of the Old Testament. If doctrine had been abandoned there would have been no Reformation and Christianity would have remained a slave to Rome. If doctrine had been abandoned, liberalism would have won out the 19th and 20th centuries. If doctrine is abandoned now, we’ll be swallowed up by secularism that seeks to undermine scripture at every turn.

History is a fascinating thing. Someone once said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That’s precisely where we are today, once again in need of a Reformation and once again faced with the daunting task of confronting those on the Downgrade within the church who shrink away from teaching sound doctrine.

 

 

[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1991/issue29/2931.html

[2] http://www.reformation-today.org/papers/CHS&downgrade.pdf