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Stephen N. Williams

WWJSD - The global ministry of John Stott.

The global ministry of John Stott

Well, a remarkable man and a remarkable ministry. In 1999, Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith published the first volume of a biography of John Stott.1 The sequel takes us to the edge of the subject's eightieth birthday, which he celebrated in April 2001. In this second volume—its chronological outline is modified by the need to follow certain broad trajectories in describing the ministry—the biographer picks up the story in the early Sixties, with Stott established as the Rector of All Souls' Church in London.

Under his leadership and expanding staff, the congregation of All Souls' increased in numbers and strength, creative initiatives, and cultural diversity. Those who have mainly encountered Stott outside the United Kingdom will not always appreciate how his international leadership developed out of dedicated, unremitting labor and commitment to the congregation in his care. That leadership itself emerged as he became widely known both through independent travel and through association with Billy Graham in the decade of the World Congress on Evangelism at Berlin (1966). Even those rooted in the United Kingdom may be surprised to learn just how much Stott participated in official and unofficial discussions on various questions that exercised the Anglican Communion. But was his an "Anglican identity," as many supposed during this decisive period in British evangelicalism? Two events highlight this question.

The first is the well-known public disagreement with Martyn Lloyd-Jones at the Second National Assembly of Evangelicals in October 1966, on the question of the nature of evangelical unity. Any summary description of what the disagreement was about risks being an interpretation, for, as the biographer makes clear, the background and the story of the disagreement are themselves matters of disagreement.2 Timothy Dudley-Smith disclaims the interpretation that Lloyd-Jones explicitly appealed to evangelicals to leave the major denominations and form a united church.3 But he finds the nature of Lloyd-Jones's appeal unclear and implies, without saying so, that Stott understood the logic, force, or effect of what was said to constitute an encouragement to separation from "mixed" denominations; hence his response from the chair. Although we know where the biographer's ecclesiological sympathies lie, and although he could hardly have described matters in a way that some will not criticize, Dudley-Smith does what he can to avoid stirring the pot once again and keeps his account to the minimum possible in this kind of biography. Much more could have been said just in the way of report, let alone of interpretation, but one senses his anxiety not to reopen wounds that should have healed a long time ago.4

The second event is the first National Evangelical Anglican Congress, held at Keele in 1967. This marked the public emergence of Anglican evangelicalism as a significant force in church and society. Behind it lay and within it bubbled the energies of John Stott, along with those of collaborators like Sir Norman Anderson. Yet, I believe that nothing should deflect us from the conviction that Stott's Anglicanism is less significant than his evangelicalism, something that appears crystal clear to many Third World leaders (and not just because they might be unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the English scene). His was and is an Anglican churchmanship, but not an Anglican identity. Although Dudley-Smith does not put it like that and might question the felicity of the formulation, it seems to me to be the upshot of his account and one clearly warranted by the evidence.

The most conspicuous public trend in Stott's ministry overall has probably been his increasing concern for and involvement with the Third World. In moving from the Sixties to the Seventies, his biographer documents the changing contours of the ministry, as the university missioner mutated into the global traveler from "Australia to the Arctic." Such a ministry could only develop if things changed at All Souls', and this happened when Michael Baughen was installed as vicar there, just before Christmas in 1970. It signaled the birth of a new era, but not of a new man, save in the sense of one daily renewed. For we are still with the Stott of youth, who gave himself completely to Christ, the Stott of Cambridge days, whose self-discipline was legendary, the Stott of the Sixties, evangelist, pastor and teacher, his parish now increasing and self decreasing in the service of his Lord.

The middle years of life have been called "the exhausted years," at least for that defiantly unstottonian breed which has lapsed into marriage and the family business.5 Readers who accompany him on his travels at this time of life will wonder why they were not such years for John Stott too; they will find it exhausting to keep up with him, while the man himself goes on relentlessly. (The pace does not slacken very much even when variously plumed and speckled birds fly in and out of these pages duly noted, photographed, and reported in writing by their pursuer.)

The best-known fruit of this period is the work with the Lausanne Congress and movement, a time and a context which saw Stott's leadership in international evangelicalism evidently consolidated.6 Behind the hopeful scenes there could be painful differences, not just on theological questions about the relation between evangelism and social action, but also on questions of leadership and strategy, involving a degree of tension with Billy Graham at one stage. However, any awkwardness seems to have been short-lived and quickly dealt with, leaving the relationship between the two men warm and strong as ever.

Theological differences arising between Stott and some other evangelicals over "Lausanne" issues were in time compounded by the suspicion, even the charge, that he had broken with authentic evangelicalism in questioning the belief that hell consists in unending penal torment for the wicked.7 Indeed, this controversy belongs to the late Eighties and Nineties, and not to the Seventies. But even if we do not collapse into a single constituency all evangelicals who have theologically disagreed with Stott, the profile of Stott as an "erstwhile evangelical" was taking some sort of shape in the Lausanne years of his establishment as an international leader.

In relation to the question of hell, a particularly sad tale unfolds, more painful for his subject than his biographer tells. Theological disagreements are there to be overcome, if we can manage it, but the church can grow through them where there is mutual respect, acceptance, love, and appropriate trust. Growth is stymied and fellowship marred when people conscientiously committed to Scripture and completely surrendered to Christ as Lord are regarded as bordering on the traitorous when they break rank (or threaten to) on the duration of future punishment. But I must underline that it is only a proportion of those who have dissented from Stott on this question that has consigned him to the ranks of the unfaithful.

During the decade when this began to brew, the decade of the Eighties, as the unstinting traveling continued, the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity was launched under John Stott's directorship. Alongside concern for Christian leadership in the Third World and for the poor, his conviction had grown that we must "penetrate culture for Christ," and the establishment of the institute was designed to enable folk to think Christianly about all the business and all the spheres of life.

Although emphases have sometimes changed over the course of Stott's ministry, the continuities are well indicated in both biographical volumes; there is more unfolding than reversal. What broke surface as fresh emphases over the years appeared one way or another early in that ministry, though there were new configurations. If you have the abilities and the calling, and are rooted and grounded in Christ, then evangelism, pastoral care, biblical teaching, theological thinking, compassion for the poor, and concern for work and marketplace really form one seamless whole. This is something deeply impressed on the reader of both volumes of this biography.

As he used those abilities and interpreted that calling in the last decade of the second millennium (roughly coinciding with his seventies) Stott focused increasingly on the Third World by developing initiatives established under the auspices of the Langham Trust and Evangelical Literature Trust in the United Kingdom, and John Stott Ministries in the United States, now part of the Langham Partnership. Scholarships in the West are offered to Third World Christians to help them gain doctorates in biblical and theological subjects and return to their homelands to train others in biblical understanding and to promote expository preaching. To the same end, books are carefully selected for pastors and grants made to Third World seminary libraries. During this decade, Bishop Dudley-Smith himself produced a "comprehensive bibliography" of John Stott's own writings and a selection from them.8 Naturally, the narrative account in this volume is laced with descriptions of these, from the earlier studies of The Baptism and Fullness of the Spirit or Men Made New to the later Evangelical Truth and including well-known volumes like I Believe in Preaching, The Cross of Christ, and Issues Facing Christians Today as well as contributions to the Bible Speaks Today series.

Time fails us to tell of everything in this biography: this review touches on approximately 1 percent of what is going on in it and the biographer himself touches on rather less of what has gone on in his subject's life. The final chapter draws conclusions about the man and the ministry. It is particularly welcome because in the flurry of activity which is recounted, it is occasionally hard to keep fully in mind the man himself in the midst of that ministry. In pausing to consider Stott's character and qualities, Dudley-Smith reminds us of what lies at the heart of that ministry, namely, the heart of the man, and finely draws together the ways in which Stott has exemplified the "obedience of faith" with a simple and uncomplicated dedication of his life to Jesus as Lord.

What shall we say to all this? First, a word of gratitude to the biographer. Biography can take more than one form, including the general form of chronicle. This genre is faithfully exemplified here and we are much indebted to Timothy Dudley-Smith for researching the data and presenting the findings. Selection must have been difficult and no two people would have done it in the same way. Many verbal impressions are recorded of an incident or meeting that featured Stott. It was right that they should be, and the author is to be admired for his skill in their judicious deployment and painting a compelling portrait of his subject through them. Still, judgments they are, of course, and their separation from the account of "fact" is practically impossible for any biographer.

It is possible that, just as we might sometimes border on losing the man in the midst of his activities, so, very occasionally, those activities threaten to be "flattened out" by the need to move on and report on the next matter. For example, we go swiftly from the account of controversy over Essentials and the question of hell to Snow Buntings and American Goldfinches. I hope that I am allowing fully here for the keenness of Stott's ornithological interest. Yet perhaps I am unfair and merely exhibiting the unwisdom of doing what I did, i.e., reading the book in two or three great chunks. In any case, how else could the tale have been crafted?

One thing is clear: this is not a volume about chocolates or speed limits. After reading it, I am not sure whether I need one or two hands on which to count the number of times John Stott has had an "off" day or spoken a significantly misplaced word. In terms of persistent weaknesses, there are two main candidates: the temptation to take one chocolate too many during the season of the blue moon and the occasional calculated imprecision in interpreting the reading on the speedometer. And a measured scrutiny of these two candidates suggests that, even here, the case against Stott might not indubitably stick.

So what do we have in this biography? Hagiography? Actually, nothing of the sort. But a sketch of somebody singular, yes. Tom Cooper "tells how his year as study assistant has replaced 'the "super-star image" we have of such men' with that of a 'mere mortal' who has 'consecrated his life to Christ and whom God has elected to use.' " Idolization of leaders is just that, and it applies to Stott as much as to anyone. He has discouraged it more than anyone. Nevertheless, it remains that, as far as we can judge, this has been a life of singular victory through singular submission, the faults being more evident to God than to others. Some unknown and uncounted men and women have doubtless borne like fruit, but not many prominent leaders have done so.

Indeed, if a reviewer be permitted the dubious privilege of perversity, I think that the biographer could have gone further in drawing out his subject's qualities by correcting one misleading impression, revising one questionable judgment and adding one neglected emphasis. My motive in suggesting this is not to glorify John Stott. It is to secure as accurate an impression as possible for those who will be acquainted with him in future only through his writings or through others.9

The corrigible impression concerns the possibility of Stott's becoming a bishop. Terry Lovell reported a conversation with Stott on this matter: "He would, he admits, in many ways rather like to have been a bishop. Not for the self-gratifying quest for privilege, or the gas-and-gaiters comfort of high office. Rather, for the sheer, naked power." The quotation from Stott that follows these words should of itself have led Lovell to change his sentence about power. As it stands, it is totally misleading to the point of being plain false.10 Here the biographer, who tries to make fair assessments throughout the book, might have interpolated a demurral, for his own account has done everything possible to distance the reader from such an appraisal.

The questionable judgment concerns Stott's demanding global ministry in the late Eighties, when he was drawing toward his seventieth birthday. The "deeper reasons" for undertaking this are (rightly) said to be a burden for the Third World and its leaders in particular, a commitment to preaching and experience of the benefits of international consultations. Yet: "No doubt in some way, as perhaps most work of this kind does, it ministered to his own needs, conscious or unconscious. After so many years his own identity was bound up in it, and reaffirmed visit by visit." In a case like this, one can hardly be definitive on questions of identity and unconscious needs. But I venture to disagree firmly with this judgment. Rare though this might be for someone in his position, it seems to me that Stott's identity has been formed remarkably free of the characteristic constraints in question. We are more safely guided into his psychology when we dwell on the reason for his initial refusal to return to speak at Urbana back in 1967. According to John Alexander, Stott "felt bringing the Bible expositions at Urbana Conventions was such a rare privilege that nobody should enjoy it more than once."

The neglected emphasis concerns the personal cost of Stott's ministry, a cost that he believes is just intrinsic to discipleship. He has somewhere stated his belief that books on evangelism tend to give insufficient weight to the place of personal suffering in evangelism. The basis of this belief is his reading of the Bible. But beneath the remark there also surely lies personal experience not to be paraded before the public eye. The biography makes one or two explicit allusions to what it constantly implies, namely, the centrality of personal prayer in John Stott's life. We see only the outward effects of his experiences of God, but those who pray as God would have them pray are bound to suffer as Scripture warns that they will suffer.

Timothy Dudley-Smith presents us with a person of unusual all-round abilities, character and discipline. What are we to emulate? Abilities obviously differ in their distribution and indicate the diversity of God's people. Qualities of character, on the other hand, are meant to express the unity of that people. Holiness and love form the root, but the root can be planted properly only in the soil of humility. Nothing is more striking about John Stott than that humility, as his biography reveals. Its foundational Christ-centeredness has at least one unexpected, but entirely natural, effect. It is this: many influential leaders consciously or unconsciously make those exposed to them wish that they too could become such figures so that admiration becomes spiced with a little envy. Doubtless people have felt this with Stott, but not on account of any spirit that he exudes. If I may speak personally, I should say that time spent listening to or talking with John Stott over the years has always left me wanting simply to discover what my particular tasks are in life and fulfill them obediently, without aspiring to do anything or to be anyone else. It is profoundly liberating.

In his last chapter, Dudley-Smith makes much of the comparison between Stott and Charles Simeon, a welcome comparison which, one hopes, will stimulate increased interest in Simeon amongst non-Anglican (and, for that matter, Anglican) evangelicals. It is worth adding that Simeon learned from one John Thornton "the three lessons which a minister has to learn: 1. Humility.—2. Humility. —3. Humility."11 They are, of course, lessons we all equally need to learn.12

Abilities are one thing, character another—but should John Stott be emulated in respect of discipline? Among the sections in the biography that are both most illuminating and most amusing are those that record the experience of his study assistants over the years. They asked themselves whether he was to be emulated in respect of his discipline and cognate meticulousness. The concept of "discipline" and the elements ingredient in it have to be analyzed carefully, of course. But whatever temperamental factors or physical capacities enter into such things, the root of John Stott's conviction about the importance of discipline is the biblical exhortation to redeem the time.13 Without loading upon ourselves unrealistic expectations or unwarranted guilt, we must surely acknowledge the importance of his example in this area too.14

Unrelenting discipline is part of a wider picture of unrelenting thoroughness in Stott's general approach to life. But this is embedded in a spontaneous love of and interest in all things, nature and people. His ornithological interest is well-known, but note the strong general statement:

Scripture bids us go beyond birds and include in our interest everything God has made: "Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them" (Psalm 111.2, NRSV). Since "the works of the Lord" refer to his works of both creation and redemption, it seems to me that nature study and Bible study should go together … We ought to pursue at least one aspect of natural history.15

Less well-known, but almost as conspicuous, is his interest in all things human. He would surely own Terence's famous dictum: Nihil humanum a me alienum puto (I consider nothing human alien to me).16 Ultimately, I think, this intense interest has biblical roots not distant from those that underlie Abraham Kuyper's classic lectures on Calvinism.17

But the biography summons us to think beyond John Stott, so let us switch focus in conclusion. It has long been noted, and often lamented, that while the majority of the world's population of Christians lives outside the West, Western voices have a disproportionately large say in the public formation of evangelical theology on the international scene, and Western leaders are frequently slow to learn from others and share with them the tasks of leadership. This is not the place for a treatise on the matter, for which the reviewer is unqualified anyway. The last thing we need is to foster a competitive spirit in these matters. But while this biography should lead us, first, to rededicate ourselves personally to Christ and to the privileges of our particular responsibilities, it is to be hoped that it will generally and widely make us think the harder about life and leadership in the Third World. We should miss the point of John Stott's life and labors if these occupied us more than the mission of Jesus Christ in his world.18

1. See Bruce Hindmarsh, "Basic Christianity—with an Oxbridge Accent." Books & Culture, September/October 2000, p. 6.

2. See the correspondence featuring Hywel Jones and Hindmarsh in Books & Culture, January/February 2001.

3. He regards Iain Murray's account as "admirably objective" (p. 464, n. 73).

4. I know that some will find this way of putting it frustrating and objectionable.

5. Not, it should be said, that John Stott regards singleness as anything other than a special calling given only to some, probably only a few.

6. Perhaps it will be asked whether "international evangelicalism" is a coherent notion, but I put it thus for convenience.

7. His position, much misunderstood, is that hell is both actual and final, but annihilation, rather than perpetual consciousness, may be the ultimate end of those condemned.

8. See John Stott: A Comprehensive Bibliography (Leicester: IVP, 1995); and Timothy Dudley-Smith, ed., Authentic Christianity: From the Writings of John Stott (Leicester: IVP, 1995).

9. I have myself been privileged to know John Stott for over 30 years, but I know him no better than do thousands of others and less well than many of those.

10. Stott's sentiments should be read in the light of 1 Timothy 3:1.

11. Handley Moule, Charles Simeon: Biography of a Sane Saint (London: IVF, 1965), p. 65. Timothy Dudley-Smith wrote the foreword to this edition. In this biography of Stott, Dudley-Smith quotes Sir Marcus Loane's characterization of the parallels between Stott and Simeon, including the remark that they are not comparable in personality (p. 429). Perhaps not, but temperamentally both fought the fight against impatience. Possibly Dudley-Smith plays this down. But it is hard to say. While Stott is extraordinarily gentle with the faults of others, he seems unsparing in his attitude to his own. He has written of having made rather a mess of his life before he came to Christ, but the first volume of the biography shows little evidence of this. That is not because anything is concealed; it is because of Stott's high standards. So where many of us deem our impatience to be a trivial fault, Stott takes it far more seriously in himself. In light of Scripture, his is the right perspective.

12. Reflection on John Stott forces us to pose the question whether it is possible to be humble to a fault. (The answer is: "Not really"!) See Stott's responses to Moltmann (p. 205) and to David Edwards in David L. Edwards and John Stott, Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988), p.33.

13. Though this is not Stott's preferred rendering of Ephesians 5.16; see God's New Society: The Message of Ephesians (InterVarsity Press, 1979), ad loc.

14. To the question of whether anything in this account amounts to a depiction of eccentricity, I am tempted to say that John Stott is eccentric in the way Geoffrey Nuttall described Richard Baxter, whose "position, in fact, was so central as to be eccentric." G. Nuttall, The Puritan Spirit (London: Epworth, 1967), p. 116. I am indulgently expanding the scope of Nuttall's comment to apply it, mutatis mutandis, to Stott's Bible- and Christ-centered life. Incidentally, it is interesting to see Baxter mentioned at one point in the biography alongside Cranmer, Hooker, and Simeon (p. 87). Stott has the highest regard for Baxter's The Reformed Pastor.

15. John Stott, The Birds our Teachers: Biblical Lessons from a Lifelong Bird-Watcher (United Kingdom: Candle Publishers, 1999), p. 9f. Is that a realistic application for all of us?

16. This was described by John Ferguson as "the greatest sentence to emerge from the Hellenistic age." Quoted by Laurence Lampert, Nietzsche and Modern Times: A Study of Bacon, Descartes, and Nietzsche (Yale Univ. Press, 1993), p. 11.

17. Calvinism (Eerdmans, 1943). Kuyper quotes this saying on p. 30.

18. I am grateful to David Johnston for his comments on an earlier draft of this piece.

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