What can today's evangelicals learn from John Stott, 100 years after his birth?
It is 10 years since the famous Anglican evangelical leader John Stott passed away – and a century since he was born.
If you've never previously heard of the man, the brief introduction on Wikipedia sums him up succinctly. He was, it says, 'an English Anglican presbyter and theologian who was noted as a leader of the worldwide evangelical movement. He was one of the principal authors of the Lausanne Covenant in 1974. In 2005, Time magazine ranked Stott among the 100 most influential people in the world.' His birthday was April 27th, 1921.
Today, his legacy lives on – for example through the work of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, the Langham Partnership International, and his more than 50 books. But as we survey contemporary evangelicalism in the UK and US especially, are there lessons we should particularly mark as the 100th anniversary of his birth passes? Here are just three out of many that could be cited:
1. A desire to build bridges rather than burn them, and to reach out rather than retrench.
Stott's evangelicalism was not of the variety that sought to circle the wagons closer and closer in ever tighter and smaller 'theologically-correct' circles. It was, while maintaining doctrinal clarity, gracious-spirited and warm-hearted. At the second National Evangelical Anglican Congress in 1977, which he chaired, the closing statement included the words: 'Seeing ourselves and Roman Catholics as fellow-Christians, we repent of attitudes that have seemed to deny it.'
Whatever one makes of those words – and they were controversial with some fellow evangelicals at the time – it is a far cry from the somewhat insular and defensive sectarianism which has sometimes dominated parts of evangelicalism in the decades since.
2. A commitment to apply the Bible to all of life – not just some of it.
In 2006, as The Times recollected a few days ago, Stott said: 'My hope is that in the future, evangelical leaders will ensure that their social agenda includes such vital topics as halting climate change, eradicating poverty, abolishing armouries of mass destruction, responding adequately to the Aids pandemic, and asserting the human rights of women and children in all cultures. I hope our agenda does not remain too narrow.'
He might be disappointed if he could see how far there is still to go in fulfilling that vision in 2021. Too often, some evangelical churches seem obsessed with the morality of sexual issues (which is, of course, vital), while altogether ignoring other issues such as global warming and racial justice.
There are, though, some who carry the torch in this regard. Perhaps the best-known of these is Tim Keller, who only a few days ago tweeted: 'The early church was marked by a deep concern for the poor and for racial equality (Gal 2:10; 3:28). At the very same time, it taught that sex was only for within a mutually self-giving life-long covenant of marriage (1 Thess 4:3-8; 1 Cor 6:12-20).' He added: 'The Bible and the church has always seen sex-only-within marriage and doing justice as a whole cloth united by the principle of self-sacrifice, of losing one's self to find one's self.'
3. Humility arising from recognising the authority of Scripture.
The grace which Stott exemplified flowed from his trust in the truth of the Bible. Today, in the days of evangelicals often bashing each other over the head on Twitter and on Facebook, this connection between Scripture and humility is perhaps something we need to re-discover.
In The Contemporary Christian (1992) Stott wrote: 'Submission to the authority of Scripture is the way of personal Christian humility. Nothing is more obnoxious in us who claim to follow Jesus Christ than arrogance, and nothing is more appropriate or attractive than humility. And an essential element in Christian humility is the willingness to hear and receive God's Word. Perhaps the greatest of all our needs is to take our place again humbly, quietly and expectantly at the feet of Jesus Christ, in order to listen attentively to his Word, and to believe and obey it.'
There are dozens of other ways in which we could learn from the life and ministry of John Stott – such as his preaching of the cross. But Stott himself would not, I think, want us to leave this article thinking first and foremost about him. He would, rather, want to point us to Christ.
Love for Jesus, he wrote in 1967, is not a 'sentimental attachment' but a concern for Christ's honour in the world. Quoting Psalm 115, Stott then continued: 'Not to us, O Lord, but to thy name give glory...' For, he added, God has bestowed on Jesus 'the name which is above every name...that at the name of Jesus, before his supreme rank and dignity, every knee should bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord...'
David Baker is a Church of England minister, Contributing Editor at Christian Today, and Senior Editor of Evangelicals Now.