What would Spurgeon tweet?
4 tips from the famous preacher on handling controversy.
It happened again this week. Another debate erupted on social media. The issue was different than last week, but the discourse was the same. Angry internet warriors and watch-bloggers used fierce rhetoric, calling for the denouncing of some person, institution, or political party. “They aren’t wearing our jersey. Off with their heads.”
As I interact with church history, I often wonder what it would have been like had such social media frenzy been as present then. What would Spurgeon have done with a Twitter account in the middle of the Downgrade Controversy? How would he have responded to a new controversy every day?
While there is no material way to know how figures in history would have used social media to contend for the faith, they often leave behavioral clues from their own day to instruct us in ours.
Spurgeon’s engagement with his church, his students, and his city demonstrates his attitude toward controversial issues and his example is one we would do well to follow. He displays a fourfold strategy to which I will add one qualifier.
- Not every disagreement is a controversy.
An indiscriminate reader might be infatuated with the obvious success of Charles Spurgeon and forget that his ministry was consistently assailed by controversy and struggle. No conflict was as intense as the Downgrade Controversy (1887-1892), but other battles wearied Spurgeon as pastor-theologian.
He engaged in controversy with the media, especially during the Surrey Gardens tragedy (1855-56). He was assaulted by both Hyper-Calvinists and Arminians for the majority of his ministry, but particular attention was paid to his Calvinism during the early days at New Park Street. He wrote a scathing review of a hymnal containing theologically suspect music in 1856 during the Rivulet Controversy. He passionately spoke against slavery in 1859 even though his publisher warned him that Americans might not continue to purchase his sermons. Later, he engaged those promoting evolution with his famous Gorilla Lecture, and he fought the Church of England in 1864 over baptismal regeneration.
In many of these disputes, Tom Nettles notes that Spurgeon’s polemic can be divided into three categories: Scriptural error, confessional hypocrisy, and theological divergence. In his interactions with both Hyper-Calvinists and Arminians, Spurgeon found Scripture to clearly teach the doctrines of grace.
We only use the term “Calvinism” for shortness. That doctrine which is called “Calvinism” did not spring from Calvin; we believe that it sprang from the great founder of all truth. Perhaps Calvin himself derived it mainly from the writings of Augustine. Augustine obtained his views, without doubt, through the Spirit of God, from the diligent study of the writings of Paul, and Paul, received them of the Holy Ghost, from Jesus Christ the great founder of the Christian dispensation.
In the Rivulet Controversy, Spurgeon took issue with the hymnal’s theological divergence from established truth. He said, “There is nothing distinct in the book but its indistinctness . . . it is more covertly unsound than openly so.”
In his remarks against slavery he refused fellowship with those who called themselves Christians but still endorsed “man-stealing.” He flatly denounced American ministers for their hypocrisy.
I do from my inmost soul detest slavery anywhere and everywhere, and although I commune at the Lord’s table with men of all creeds, yet with a slaveholder I have no fellowship of any sort or kind. Whenever one has called upon me, I have considered it my duty to express my detestation of his wickedness and would as soon think of receiving a murderer into my church, or into any sort of friendship, as a man-stealer.
Spurgeon’s categories of controversy are a great help as modern pastor-theologians navigate whether a social media controversy actually is a controversy. Dr. Mohler’s well-known work on theological triage offers a similar grid through which to evaluate our public engagement. Is the issue in question a first-order doctrine (fundamental and essential to the Christian faith), a second-order doctrine (essential to church life and order, but does not define the gospel), or a third-order doctrine (ground for theological discussion and debate, but does not threaten local church or denominational fellowship)?
Whether we use Spurgeon’s categorical grid or Mohler’s theological triage, some evaluative plan should be used before beginning a polemic assault on another believer, church, organization, or denomination. Ask yourself, “Is this actually a controversy?”
- Spend less time building your platform and more time building your church.
Spurgeon was a pastor-theologian. According to Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan in The Pastor as Public Theologian, the pastor-theologian is as an artisan in the house of God. Simply put, he is primarily a builder of the church. This construction is the mission of Christ (Matt. 16:16-18), focused on the words of Christ (Matt. 7:24; John 6:68), and thus his servants are ultimately called to build up the church as a public witness to the kingdom of God.
Spurgeon was just such a pastor-theologian. He centered his ministry on the people of the Metropolitan Tabernacle and the additional agencies he founded launched from there. Spurgeon spent little time building his personal platform. His deepest concern was for the advancement and edification of the saints gathered at his own church.
When I first became a Pastor in London, my success appalled me, and the thought of the career which it seemed to open up, so far from elating me, cast me into the lowest depth… Who was I that I should continue to lead so great a multitude? I would betake me to my village obscurity, or emigrate to America, and find a solitary nest in the backwoods, where I might be sufficient for the things which would be demanded of me.
For the modern pastor-theologian, spending time and energy ministering to one’s congregation is the entire aim of ministry. Vanhoozer notes, “The Great Pastoral Commission is Christ’s charge to pastors to be public theologians who work with people on God’s behalf, workers who feed Christ’s sheep and build God’s house.” In such a charge, there is little room left for building one’s own brand as a social media warrior for orthodoxy.
- Spend less pulpit time on controversy and more time on theology.
A helpful example for the modern pastor-theologian, Spurgeon spent the majority of his time in the pulpit preaching doctrine. During the years of the Downgrade Controversy he preached 475 sermons. He addressed the controversy specifically in 20% of those messages. In contrast, he addressed the substitutionary atonement of Christ in 40% of those messages. He talked about doctrine twice as often as controversy. He showed himself to be a true pastor-theologian: more than willing to enter the fray of controversy, but doubly certain to construct a theological fortress around his people in the midst of the battle.
His church was not the only group to receive such upbuilding. As he instructed his students, he spoke often of the need to preach Christ as the remedy for the theological ills of the day.
Of all I would wish to say this is the sum; my brethren preach Christ, always and evermore. He is the whole gospel. His person, offices, and work must be our one great, all-comprehending theme. The world needs still to be told of its Savior, and of the way to reach him. Justification by faith should be far more than it is the daily testimony of Protestant pulpits; and if with this master-truth there should be more generally associated the other great doctrines of grace, the better for our churches and our age.
The amount of time spent on social media and in parachurch efforts to stoke the flames of controversy calls into question the amount of time spent in prayerful study for the ministry of the word to the people of God. Spurgeon spoke to his congregation and his students about controversy, but his core concentration was on the doctrinal centrality of the gospel of Christ. So should our concentration be.
- Be a gentleman.
During the Downgrade, Spurgeon was often asked about those with whom he found fault as heretics within the Baptist Union. He refused to name names. He was told of these individuals via letters, and he felt it ungentlemanly to “break the seal of confidential correspondence, or to reveal private conversations.” Even after his withdrawal from the Union in 1888, the president of the Union pressed him to produce names as evidence for his claims of heresy. When he refused, the Union voted to censure him, for without evidence, they argued, “those charge sought not to have been made.” Censure could have been avoided had Spurgeon given names of ministers who were teaching false doctrine. He refused.
While we don’t know what Spurgeon would have done with a Twitter account during the Downgrade, we can say with relative certainty that he wouldn’t have used it as we do. The modern obsession to name names on social media to caricature or condemn is contrary to Christian love of one’s neighbor as well as simple gentlemanly behavior. Just because the forum exists where those with whom we disagree —even for theological reasons— can be publicly outed, is that the most Christ-exalting, gentlemanly idea?
- You’re Not Spurgeon . . . or Luther, or Calvin.
Finally, our Western fascination with the individual heroes like John Wayne or Luke Skywalker can create an unhealthy dynamic when dealing with so-called controversy. Church history has produced significant figures, and modern pastors line up to be tagged as the next one. This happened in Spurgeon’s day. Upon his call the New Park Street in London, one observer remarked, “That young man will shake England like a second Luther.” So, modern pastor-theologians want to be the next Spurgeon, but because we can’t equal his pulpit prowess, we term every dissimilarity a “Downgrade.”
But Spurgeon’s concern in his controversial engagement was Scriptural, confessional, and theological. He was trying to build up his church to publicly display the kingdom of God. Our concerns are often more self-serving. It isn’t so much that we want to stand up for the truth as it is that we want to be known as the guy who stood up for the truth.
Spurgeon didn’t handle every controversy perfectly. But when we look at his life, we see a model worth emulating as a protector of biblical truth in the context of the local church. Modern pastor-theologians are wise to follow in his steps for the sake of the truth, the church, and the glory of God.
May God help us to fight the temptation to engage in controversy for the sake of our own platform and glory. May God help us to fight the temptation to engage in controversy in order to be known.