The Spirit of the Age and the Church in our day
By J.P. Thackway
Christians often use the phrase, “The spirit of the age.” By it we refer to certain attitudes and values in society. This prevailing “spirit” can either be that influenced by biblical standards or by atheistic secularism, or something in between. Others have defined it as, “… the spirit of the times … the set of ideas, beliefs, and aims that is typical of people in a particular period in history. The German equivalent is “zeitgeist.”
We know that, through the Fall and the entrance of sin, something deeper lies behind this. This world, in its organised rebellion against God and its default to sin, has a “god” who holds sway over people (2 Corinthians 4:4). Here, “this world” literally means “this age” (Greek aiōn). Therefore, “the spirit of the age” can be a devil-inspired outlook, a world away from what the Holy Spirit-inspired Scriptures would produce.
Again, Paul in Ephesians 2:2 refers to “the course of this world” that we once “walked according to.” Now “quickened,” we are alive to these things and can see this present world for what it is.
The current liberal values, absence of moral absolutes, political correctness, false belief systems are all part of this. Such is the rejection of biblical norms in modern Western society, that the “spirit of the age” is a strong current against Christianity. It is also defensive. Dare speak against it and we are rounded on as “extremists,” “intolerant,” and almost guilty of “hate-crime.” Today’s much-vaunted tolerance turns remarkably in-tolerant when we speak up for God’s word and His righteousness.
The actual phrase “spirit of the age” has a less sinister origin. It comes from the title of a book written by William Hazlitt. He was an English writer, drama and literary critic, social commentator, and philosopher who lived from 1778 until 1830. His book, The Spirit of the Age: Or, Contemporary Portraits, came out in 1825. It consisted of character sketches of mostly men – 25 of them – whom he believed stood for the thought, literature, and politics of the time. They included thinkers, social reformers, politicians, poets, essayists, and novelists.
It is interesting that Hazlitt included Edward Irving, William Wilberforce, and John Horne Tooke in his sketches – a preacher, Christian social reformer, and clergyman respectively. Yet, it is not they who are seen to have moulded the age, but all the individuals, irrespective of religious belief. This may be because Hazlitt believed in what one writer called, “liberty and the rights of man, and confidence in the idea that the mind was an active force which, by disseminating knowledge in both the sciences and the arts, could reinforce the natural tendency in humanity towards good.”
However, by the time Hazlitt and his like were flourishing, seeds were already sown that would make nonsense of his view of human nature. Those seeds would eventually bear fruit in the unbelief and liberalism of the Downgrade Controversy of Spurgeon’s time. And fast forward to our day, to the catastrophic consequences of a society that rejects God completely and abandons biblical righteousness. At that time, secular literature was also contributing to the downgrade, undermining confidence in Scripture and the evangelicalism of former times. Iain Murray’s book The Undercover
Revolution: How Fiction Changed Britain (Banner of Truth, 2009) chronicles this sad change. Little did William Hazlitt realise that the
name of his book would be the catchphrase for all we lament today!
However, the Bible and true religion can mould the spirit of the age as well. And it has done so to a remarkable degree. We need only go back to half-way through the last century for evidence. When Princess Elizabeth became Queen in 1953, her coronation reflected the outwardly Christian character of Great Britain. She solemnly vowed to “Maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel.” She undertook also “to maintain … the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law.” Her Majesty was given the Holy Bible as, “the rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes.”
This Christian heritage goes back to Anglo-Saxon times, and King Alfred the Great in the 9th century. He drew up an important code of laws and blended with it the 10 Commandments. And so was established a basis for laws, recognising God as the ultimate Lawgiver and Judge. This gave sanctity to the law of the land, and characterised British society, coming to its height in Victorian times when Great Britain professed to be a Christian nation. It was officially characterised by Sunday observance, hard work, thrift, honesty, moral decency, respect for others and their property, and the sanctity of life. It was said that Victorians expected the Day of Judgment at the end of the world as surely as they expected their wages at the end of the week.
By the end of the Great War in 1918, however, confidence in the Bible diminished. Theological liberalism, combined with the horrors of suffering brought disillusionment, and undermined respect for Christianity. By the end of the Second World War in 1945, Christian standards also were questioned. Someone has said that World War I undermined Christian doctrine and World War II undermined Christian morality.
This double hit meant that by our Queen’s coronation in 1953 we were living on borrowed Christian capital from better days. It was steadily running out. It only needed what happened in the next decade to use up almost all that was left.
The 1960s and 70s were the most ruinous decades in recent history. During that time British society, in common with other Western countries, underwent a social revolution that changed us almost beyond recognition. Before the 1960s, Britain’s Christian past and biblical heritage were generally accepted. However, the 1960s challenged this and all but swept it away.
a] Music became a new and powerful influence.
During the 1950s, Rock n’ Roll came from the USA with Bill Haley and the Comets, and Elvis Presley. The young Cliff Richard at first modelled himself on Presley. As new bands came, and Rock advanced, its music and lyrics gloried in rebellion against authority, in immorality, outrageous dress, drugs, drunkenness and even witchcraft.
The “Pop” music of the 60s followed, as seen in the later history of the Beatles. It was not just a new kind of music. Music is never neutral. It was a driven thing, with a message and purpose. David Samuel summed it up: “Popular music was no longer simply a medium of light relief, but a battering ram for moral and social change.”
b] The cult of the teenager
Before the 1950s and 60s, growing children tended not to have a separate identity. Older sons and daughters looked like smaller versions of their parents in dress, tastes, and lifestyle. It was a straightforward navigation into adulthood. However, Rock and Pop defined a new age group: the “teenager,” from 13 to 19 years old. It gave them their own music, and with it their distinctive clothes, haircut, lifestyle, culture, language, and worldview. The post-war baby boom saw many disgruntled and rebellious young people becoming a distinctive section of society.
c] Broadcasting media
Hugh Greene was the Director-General of the BBC who pioneered programmes that pushed the standards of taste and decency to limits never before allowed. Swearing, blasphemy, obscenity and violence characterised its output. Satirical programmes mocked politicians and the revered institutions of our country. Mrs Mary Whitehouse with her Clean-up TV campaign was its bitterest critic. She once wrote, “If anyone were to ask me who, above all, was responsible for the moral collapse which characterised the sixties and seventies, I would unhesitatingly name Sir Hugh Carleton Greene, who was Director-General of the BBC from 1960-1969.”
d] The Government of the day
The Labour government of the 1960s had as its Home Secretary the Rt Hon Roy Jenkins. During his office (1965–1967) he helped create “The Permissive Society.” That included abolishing capital punishment for murder, abolishing theatre censorship, legalising homosexuality, relaxing the divorce law, and legalising abortion. In his book The Abolition of Britain Peter Hitchens accuses him of being a “cultural revolutionary,” largely responsible for the decline of traditional values in Britain. And the distinguished Daily Telegraph columnist Charles Moore wrote, “Sixties liberalism swept away our shared sense of decency.”
e] The Church
While the dismantling of our Christian heritage was going on, the established church gave little biblical and moral leadership. It tended to go with the new spirit and even encourage it. A notorious example was the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, John A.T. Robinson. In 1961, he defended the publication of D.H. Lawrence’s immoral book Lady Chatterley’s Lover. His own book in 1963, Honest to God, criticised traditional Christian theology and caused a storm of controversy. Social liberals and theological liberals together changed a Christian-based society into a secular one. A brave new world was arriving.
The later history since the 1960s and 70s are decades when all this has accelerated, and we are still going downhill. While we praise God for all His wondrous works of grace in and through His church, we have not seen a move of God akin to revivals of the past that has arrested apostacy, transformed society and brought the fear of God upon the land. As a nation, the UK is sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7). Any news programme will tell the tragedy of a society without God: one which believes self-indulgence and pleasure to be the goal of life, and where social evils and suffering are multiplying.
And what about Evangelical and Reformed churches in this new climate? My contention is that many such churches, instead of counteracting the spirit of the age, are capitulating to it. They are doing this by allowing themselves to be influenced by it. We can demonstrate this by considering two broad areas where this spirit manifests itself: entertainment and relativism.
To see how the spirit of the age is in the church, consider a parallel situation. Compare the type of music used to celebrate our Queen’s 25th Jubilee in 1977 with her 50th Jubilee in 2002. In 1977 the music was serious, “The classical music concert, on Saturday 1 June, will feature two hours of some of the most popular classical music, performed by the greatest artists from Britain and around the world.”
By 2002 and her 50 years’ reign, it was very different.
Guitarist Brian May (of the Rock Band Queen – Ed) will open the Queen’s Jubilee concert by playing the National Anthem on the roof of Buckingham Palace. Fellow members of the band Queen, along with singer Phil Collins and a full orchestra will then join in from a plastic stage in the palace gardens below. Organisers of the £4m extravaganza had been searching for an unusual way of performing “God Save the Queen.”
Such a thing would never have happened in 1977. In fact, at that Jubilee an attempt was made to gate-crash it by Punk Rock band the Sex Pistols as they sailed down the Thames on Jubilee Day playing their controversial version of “God save the Queen.” Radio stations were banned from playing the single. The group were arrested as they left the boat. The vast difference 25 years later reflects a massive cultural shift. It is not a question of tastes in music so much as a new spirit that deems nothing sacred.
This is now replicated in the church. Rock-music type worship would once have been sacrilege to past generations of the godly – now it is considered necessary to attract people into the services. It is getting hard to find an evangelical or reformed church these days that does not have guitars and a drum kit at the front of the sanctuary together with a “worship leader.”
Worship has been largely moulded by the craze to make things “enjoyable.” “God Deserves Our Worship. AND It’s Fun!” greets the visitor to a certain church web site
(https://gracehillschurch.com/god-deserves-worship-fun). Much is made of the role of modern music in worship. Contemporary worship in many churches makes their “services” little different from a Rock concert. It is the music of our degenerate culture employed in the sacred worship of God.
Such “worship” is a gross misrepresentation of, and affront to, the Most High God. The solemn question needs to be asked, What kind of God are such congregations really worshipping? One who requires, or allows, this kind of debased and worldly performance? Is it not a god of their own imagination and not the true and living God? No wonder Iain Murray once wrote an article on this subject entitled, “Sensual Worship – A Sign of Impending Apostasy”
That article should be read by everyone who is in any doubt about this matter.
When Israel sinned with the golden calf, one of the features of that heathen worship was, after they had feasted, they “rose up to play” (Exodus 32:6). The word “play” is expressive in the original and can be rendered: “to laugh, mock, jest, toy with.” What does this say about modern evangelicalism and its conformity to the spirit of the age? Aaron, in a piece of wishful thinking, called it “a feast to the LORD” (verse 5). God called it something different: He said the people “have corrupted themselves” (verse 7). And Moses and Joshua, far from approving the entertainment, were the only serious men on that occasion (verse 19) – and they were the only ones who were right!
The same can be said of evangelism, which at one time was a sincere concern to further the gospel to needy sinners. Although sometimes more man-centred, nonetheless there was the awareness that evangelism was “commanded” by Christ, (Matthew 28:19,20). The Lord owned much of this zealous endeavour, with true works of grace and conversions. People were
invited to services to hear a biblical gospel preached. As far as the church was concerned, the only attraction was God.
Now the spirit of the age has taken this over as well. Instead of word-based spreading of the gospel message, worldly and entertaining devices are freely used. It started with music and drama in the 1960s, then, as the spiritual climate worsened, more daring means arrived. Puppets, conjuring, ventriloquists, now even Gospel clowns and Christian stand-up comedians “preach” the gospel and, in the words of one review, “had the congregation rocking with laughter as the Gospel of Christ was communicated.”
The spirit of the age is an entertainment mentality that trivialises the serious and does despite to reverence and respect. And the connection between worship and evangelism is clear. If the spirit of the age in the church trivialises the worship of God, it also trivialises the next greatest thing we do: serving God in furthering the gospel of His momentous grace.
In the great commission, our Lord includes the words, “Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). It means that new disciples must be under Christ’s authority – not only for their conversion and baptism – but for all future obedience: they must “observe” … “commanded” things. His word is regulative for church practice and daily conduct. In His own words: “If ye continue in my word,
then are ye my disciples indeed” (John 8:31).
Relativism is the opposite of this. The Oxford dictionary defines it as, “the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.” This is the spirit of the age, and is implacably opposed to biblical standards.
However, we find something similar in churches and Christian lifestyle.
A massive shift has taken place from, “What saith the scripture?” to “Why can’t we do it?” Certain areas once considered sacrosanct are now invaded by the relativistic spirit of the age.
Take feminism for instance. God has defined male and female roles, “from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female” (Mark 10:6; cf Genesis 1:27). This is to be honoured in marriage (Ephesians 5:23), distinction in dress (Deuteronomy 22:5), deportment (1 Timothy 2:9), and submission to the ministry of men in the church (1 Corinthians 14:34; 1 Timothy 2:11-14). While many and valuable services are open to women in the church, the administering of the means of grace where men are present is not one of them.
The modern pathological hatred for God-given gender distinctives is creeping into the church as well. We now find, to our astonishment, professed evangelicals weakening on same-sex marriage and justifying it on the grounds of “love.” Women are reading the Scriptures in church services, and even preaching the word! Men are abdicating their responsibility and allowing women to have their way.
Some even conforming to current fashion and looking effeminate in their dress instead of exuding a Christian manliness that glorifies God. Moreover, it is almost pathetic to see pictures of men in their fifties
speaking at Christian conferences wearing jeans with open-neck shirts outside their jeans, trying to look contemporary. It is common now, even in professed reformed churches, to find ministers casually dressed: no ties or jacket in many cases, aping the “dressed down” mentality of the world and looking less and less like ministers of the gospel. If the aim is to convince outsiders that Christians – even preachers – are not much different from them, the aim is succeeding. But is God being glorified, and are sinners humbled before Him in repentance and faith? (1 Corinthians 14:24,25).
This spirit, ironically, is encouraged by a Bible: the gender-neutral edition of the New International Version, where references to males are changed in the way they are in our politically correct society. For instance, Proverbs 13:1 “A wise son heareth his father’s instruction” became, “A wise child heeds a parent’s instruction.”
This impudent wresting of God’s holy word was mooted by the International Bible Society back in 1997, but amid loud protests had to wait until the climate had changed. The time came, as it usually does, in 2005 and it appeared, amidst both welcome and criticism. On the Bible League web site there is a thorough review of this:
The TNIV was eventually withdrawn, but has now re-appeared as the New International Version 2011. This claims to be a revised, much less gender-neutral edition, but a glance at:
will show this is far from the case. Bible translations both catch and drive the spirit of the age at the same time. And the tragedy is that many in evangelical and reformed circles are enthusiastic for this “Bible”! See, for example,
Another feature of this degenerate age is its obsession with youth. The concept of God-given adult authority (Exodus 20:12) and the young respecting this and learning from them (Leviticus 19:32) has suffered a levelling effect. The modern trend is to push children and young people forward and take their views and contributions seriously. Children are even interviewed on news programmes, and youngsters who have hardly begun to live are canvassed for their views. We have lived to see the spectacle of arrogant young people lecturing older people in high office on social and political matters. According to the liberal elite of our day, the voting age should come down to 16, and the age of consent lower than that.
And this has seeped into churches. Young people are encouraged to read the Scriptures in the services, lead worship, and even have a try at preaching! If protest is made against these innovations, the retort is,
“The young people like it, and it helps bring more of them into the church.” God’s judgment is upon the state when, “Children are their oppressors, and women rule over them” (Isaiah 3:12). The like judgement, we fear, is also happening to the church.
Another feature of this present world is the love of pleasure and self-indulgence. Hedonism is the philosophy of life for so many. And, accordingly, John Piper’s Christian hedonism catches that spirit of the age and is making inroads at an alarming rate. Far from being biblical it is derived from the world and leaves its professed converts comfortably in the world.
There is much more that can be said. But it boils down to this: evangelicals who drift with the spirit of the age are betraying the biblical heritage our forefathers lived for, fought for, and died for. It is nothing other than conformity to the world which is enmity with God (James 4:4). Yet, such guilty perpetrators arrogantly maintain that every church needs to adopt this modern model. If we do not, according to them, we have only ourselves to blame for being left behind and missing out on blessing!
It is not the spirit of the age that we need, it is the spirit of repentance and return to authentic evangelicalism. We cannot turn the clock back to better times. But we must ensure that the church of God does not move with our decadent and degenerate times. What is outlined is a spiritual problem – and it can only have a spiritual solution. In place of following the current of the times let us return to the old paths of authentic evangelicalism where the good way is and where the Lord’s favour rests (Jeremiah 6:16).
A worldly-wise Christian once said to G. Campbell Morgan: “The preacher must catch the spirit of the age.” In a flash Morgan replied, “God forgive him if he does. The preacher’s business is to correct the spirit of the age.” May the Lord help us all, whether preacher or hearer, to do likewise in our day!