There is gold all around us, yet it stands in unexpected places. When my colleague reviewed The Forgotten Spurgeon by Murray, it prompted me to check out the book that has been waiting on my shelves. Murray titles should not wait too long. And what gold had been stored up for me there? Why as so often happens, a great appendix.
In 11 pages Charles Noble, a church member living about 25 years after Spurgeon’s death, takes the then-current Pastor, Deacons, and Elders to task for not following the constitution of the church. If you own the book, go read the Appendix as this church member raises some important issues for all churches.
The author’s frustration could be summarized in two headings. First, unethical treatment of interpersonal relationships. Secondly, the introduction of revivalism to the church.
From a relationship perspective, it is sometimes shocking to me to see Christians who are known to be faithful in certain areas ignore the most basic rules of the faith in conversation and relationships. The fruit of the Spirit is patience, kindness, and gentleness which goes perfectly with Christ’s Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12. But the serpent can slither into an unguarded crack in the life of an otherwise committed Christian. Or, maybe more transparently, he slips into the unguarded cracks of all our lives. It is interesting that this kind of sin found its way into such a famous church with such a well-known pastor.
But the second concern was even more interesting—if not quite so devotional. I summarize his concerns as revivalism, or the idea that men can work up a movement of God’s Spirit. As usual the trouble is with the “-ism” since every believer should love true revival. Possibly because it goes hand in hand with the can-do, pragmatic American ethos, American Christianity has been indelibly marked by revivalism. So numbers at church services, statistics from church programs, increases in income, and total number of “decisions made” serve as the measuring sticks of success. After all, we need some way to gauge our work, and saying, “I preached 120 accurate sermons last year,” doesn’t sound that impressive.
What fascinated me was that, the fourth pastor after Spurgeon, A. C. Dixon was an American, and the frustration that Noble expressed fell chiefly on him. In the letter, he charges the current leadership with abdicating the constitution written by Spurgeon some 60 years earlier because that document required both the pastor and the church members to be Calvinistic.
Furthermore, Dixon introduced the “Tithe” to the church which Spurgeon had opposed as being part of the law that was done away. Not only did he urge tithing on the church members, but he also took offerings at each service—a first for that church. Tithes and offerings do not have to be tainted with a man-centered ideology, but if a man already saw himself as the primary catalyst for a great work of God, though none would say it so crassly, the temptation would gnaw on him like the Ring on Gollum.
Noble disliked the other programs that were new to what had been the largest Baptist church in the world. He specifically indicts using “worldly instruments, concerts, soloists, and the purse of rich but worldly men” and “the holding up of hands after every service, which was an effort to hustle people into making some sort of profession of faith and desire to come into the Church, so as to look like doing wonders in the way of conversions and additions.” Rather than preaching the gospel with power and boldness as had been done during Spurgeon’s unprecedented days of evangelism, the church was trying to work up a fair show in the flesh. Amazingly, the Metropolitan Tabernacle was shrinking while using these methods when it had expanded with the Whitefieldian methods of Spurgeon.
The author of the letter saw that the doctrines of grace did not spawn programs to “hurry things up a bit” (a phrase actually used by Dixon in defense of his American innovations).
I find all of these reflections particularly remarkable since the Metropolitan Tabernacle was a model of an evangelistic church. During Spurgeons’ days, they held prayer meetings and constantly baptized new converts without the aids that sometimes are deemed vital to the task.
Don’t misunderstand what Noble was saying: a return to the gospel that Jesus and Peter preached would not guarantee that great numbers of people would be saved like before, but it would guarantee that the church was faithful and that those who responded would be much more likely to be genuine believers.
All this and more from an open letter 96 years old. Go read it.