This term, “Dissection of a Downgrade,” refers to the way in which Downgrade ordinarily happens within popular evangelicalism. The term was first coined in a 2013 article in the Reformation Montana Journal. As written in the Journal, which explains the phenomenon of Downgrade (the definition is linked above)….
Much Down Grade, Spurgeon argues in his rejoinder, is done with the very same excuses that we often hear today. Spurgeon writes, “Numbers of easy-minded people wink at error so long as it is committed by a clever man and a good-natured brother, who has so many fine points about him.”
Essentially then, elaborating upon that which Spurgeon spoke, Downgrade happens ordinarily in three different steps:
DISSECTION OF A DOWNGRADE
(1) Someone we like or admire does or says something that is theologically troublesome, and because we like or admire them, we defend them anyway.
(2) Over time, in order to defend the person we like or admire, we end up going beyond a mere defense of the individual, and begin to defend the theologically troublesome thing that they have done or said.
(3) Over time, our defenses of that theologically troublesome word or deed causes us eventually to take part, or perhaps persuades others to take part, in that theologically troublesome word or deed.
For example, most would see the error in enrolling practicing Muslims into a seminary designed to equip Christian ministers. The vast sum of Christian leaders would rightfully think the idea absurd. However, when Paige Patterson was exposed for breaking Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s bylaws in 2013 to enroll Muslims in the SBC seminary, people defended it on the grounds that Patterson was a staunch inerrantist, doctrinal conservative, and did it for the sake of evangelism. Patterson was then given a standing ovation by Southern Baptist messengers, and SWBTS trustees changed the policies to allow the president to make similar exceptions in the future without breaking seminary bylaws.
For example, most would agree that deciding not to vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race was an acceptable decision of Christian Liberty, but the vast sum of evangelicals would be aghast at any evangelical leader endorsing Hillary Clinton. And yet, when Thabiti Anyabwile (also known by his given name, Ron Brown) did that very thing, he was defended and supported in his decision to vote for a politician with a systemic worldview even (arguably) more foreign to the Bible than Donald Trump. After several weeks of defending Anyabwile on the grounds that he was an other-wise orthodox and sound Bible teacher, the Gospel Coalition and others ran articles in explicit endorsement of Hillary Clinton, and pressuring evangelical pastors to do the same.
For example, Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has demonstrated a strong social progressivism on nearly every political issue other than abortion (and even then, has hired ERLC research fellows who claim that abortion is not murder and calling it so is “unchristlike”). Moore has said he would attend a gay wedding reception. In his push for amnesty for illegal aliens, he has called Jesus an illegal alien. He has partnered the ERLC with radical animal rights organizations. Moore has engaged heavily in ecumenism, leading multifaith prayers with Muslims and Sikhs. Moore has told Christian judges to resign rather than follow their conscience. Moore’s “softening tone on homosexuality” was noticed even by secular press outlets like the Wall Street Journal. Moore has served on the George Soros-funded evangelical immigration table. And yet, most criticism of Russell Moore is met with the defense that he is a well-respected theologian, is associated with Dr. Albert Mohler, and is a Southern Baptist (and so, the argument goes, he can’t be a social progressive). Under Moore’s leadership, it has become fashionable to now speak of “social justice” in the positive rather than the pejorative sense among younger pastors.
In all three examples, it might rightly be argued that enrolling Muslims in an evangelical seminary, endorsing Hillary Clinton for United States president, and popularizing social justice in a once-conservative denomination probably would never had been normalized without “Dissection of a Downgrade” occurring through the propagation of celebrity leaders and then defended by others, based upon their popularity as men of high character or theological prowess.
Dissection of a Downgrade is not merely a modern phenomenon, however. History is replete with examples of this occurring as early as the second century. For example, as the Christian Church was at large anathematizing Montanists for the Montanist Heresy, they found one notable defender in Tertullian, an otherwise orthodox and sound teacher. Without Tertullian’s support, Montanism would have most likely died out completely in the second century due to the Church’s explicit condemnations. However, when Montanism found a brief renewal in North Africa in the fifth century, followers of Montanism chose to go by Tertullian’s name rather than Montanus’ name. Tertullian’s tacit approval of the heresy lent credibility to the false teaching, keeping the heresy alive for many centuries to come. For many people, the sheer fact that Tertullian approved of Montanism was enough to consider it orthodox, and Montanists today continue to defend their beliefs by invoking Tertullian.