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Issue 02

John Stott and Political Theology

John Wyatt

Dr John Wyatt is an Emeritus Professor of Neonatal Paediatrics, Ethics & Perinatology at University College London and an author, speaker and research scientist.

John Stott has been aptly described as a “conservative radical” – conservative in terms of his unshakeable commitment to the historic reformed doctrines of the Christian faith, radical in terms of everything else – cutting to the radix, the root. He frequently spoke of being prepared to jettison long-cherished evangelical traditions and shibboleths, whenever obedience to Christ and to biblical truth calls us.

His background was elitist, entitled and conservative. His father was an eminent London Harley Street physician, and Stott attended Rugby school. A gifted linguist, he appeared to be destined for a career as a civil service “mandarin” or diplomat. But his life took a different direction following conversion to Christ as a schoolboy. He took at double first at Cambridge and became ordained in the Church of England. From his mid-20s onwards he was curate and then rector at All Souls church in the centre of London’s West End.

It would seem inevitable, coming from such a restricted and entitled background, that Stott was destined to inhabit the comfortable prejudices and blind spots of the English upper classes. But over the following 60 years his challenging and radical thinking spread across the world with a remarkable and continuing impact.

A spiritual father and role model

I first met him as a medical student when I started attending All Souls in 1973. At first he seemed a rather distant and slightly intimidating figure in the pulpit but I was immediately captivated by the power and the extraordinary detail of his sermons. I found myself furiously making notes during the sermons, trying to capture as much as possible. It was like drinking from a fire hose. 

I can still remember an early series of sermons on “Issues facing Christians Today.” This was the 1970s and the sermons were on topics like labour relations, nuclear disarmament, divorce law reform and so on. I had never heard sermons like this. Stott was taking verbatim quotes from the newspapers and commentators of that time and carefully and persuasively showing how Christian truth could engage directly, demonstrating the relevance and the power of Christian thinking. I can still remember the impact those sermons had on me and his example of careful, respectful and thoughtful engagement with secular thinkers and commentators has remained a role model over the succeeding decades. 

Later on in the mid-1970s, I am now a third or fourth-year medical student and to my utter astonishment I receive a message from the rectory. “Would you like to come and have a cup of coffee with me?” My first reaction is alarm; it was like being asked to see the headmaster in his study. I am solemnly welcomed into his tiny bachelor flat, just two rooms and a kitchenette, where he offers me a cup of instant coffee and a digestive biscuit. 

And so started a friendship which lasted for more than 30 years. He became a spiritual father to me as he was to so many others. We walked together, sharing our lives and hearts through triumphs, tragedies and health crises from the 1970s until his death in 2011. And his friendship, vision, modelling and gentle godly influence were to become defining factors in my life, changing the direction of my career, my priorities and my preoccupations.

Authenticity

How did he have such an impact on me as he had on so many others? It wasn’t primarily because of his intellect, his knowledge of the Bible, his extraordinary memory for people – it was because of who he was. Yes, he was deeply impressive as a preacher and as a public figure, but the truth was that when he was in private, sharing his heart, and there was nobody watching, he was even more impressive. As you got to know him it became obvious that he lived and prayed in the way he preached. His authenticity, his humility, and his concern, interest and love for people who didn’t count, left an indelible impact on others.  

Rico Tice in a recent blog described an incident which occurred as John Stott was on his deathbed. The doctors had said that he was dying and Rico was there at his bedside in the College of St Barnabas. This is what Rico wrote, “I sat with him, and at one point read through John 14. He barely acknowledged me. But when one of the Filipino cleaners at the home came in to say goodbye, with a monumental effort John took his hand and rose up out of his bed to kiss it, before slumping backwards. As I shut my eyes, I can see him giving everything he had to serve the person who had the lowest status. He was a Christian servant to his last breath.”

Perhaps the first lesson I learnt from him about being a witness for Christ in a hostile secular world was that it’s not about how clever your arguments are or the brilliance of your apologetics or political strategy. It has to start with personal authenticity, honesty and humility. It matters much more who you are as a person than what you actually say.  In particular it matters how we treat those who oppose us.

Jesus the Homeless, Timothy Schmalz

Global awareness

Stott’s awareness of and commitment to political engagement started with his experience of work in the parish of All Souls from the 1940s onwards. The parish encompassed startling contrasts – from the wealthy elite of Harley Street to inner London slums, impoverished immigrant communities, bombed-out houses after the Blitz and a significant homeless population. He started the All Souls Clubhouse ministry providing practical support for socially deprived groups and even spent some nights disguised as a homeless man in order to experience the harsh realities of life on the streets!

From the mid-1960s Stott began to preach and teach publicly about the need for evangelical Christians to be engaged in the world on the side of (as he termed them) “the oppressed, needy and neglected,” fighting for social justice as well as engaging in evangelism. He started using a phrase “holy worldliness” that he borrowed from Alec Vidler, a theological liberal.

But there is little doubt that some of the most formative influences on Stott’s developing thought were a number of radical evangelical leaders he met in Latin America, as he travelled as an invited speaker for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. Samuel Escobar, a fiery Peruvian theologian who became a close friend, was publicly critical of evangelicals who opposed the totalitarianism of the left but not that of the right, and who were blind to the evils perpetrated by western governments and multinational corporations in the majority world. Rene Padilla was another Latin-American Christian whose radical views profoundly influenced Stott. Escobar and Padilla represented a new generation of majority world leaders who whilst remaining committed to orthodox reformed beliefs were highly critical of the traditional right-wing political bias, coupled with otherworldly naivety, of much of evangelical Christianity at the time.

The Johannine Commission

Stott was inexorably drawn to neat doctrinal summaries and he frequently drew out the connections between the Great Commandments and the Great Commission. But it was the Johannine version of the Great Commission to which he frequently returned, “Just as the Father has sent me, so also I am sending you…” (John 20:21). The incarnation of Christ is both the model and the motivation for our engagement in the secular world.

“….our mission is to be modelled on his. Indeed, all authentic mission is incarnational mission. It demands identification without loss of identity. It means entering other people’s worlds, as he entered ours, though without compromising our Christian convictions, values or standards.”

Metaphors of salt and light

Stott was not a highly original thinker, and he certainly would not have described himself as a political theologian. But he had a great gift for expounding well-known biblical passages in order to illuminate their fresh relevance to the contemporary world. In his writing and speaking he returned repeatedly to the twin images of salt and light from the Sermon on the Mount. And these simple but profound images of Christian involvement in a secular society have haunted my own thinking ever since.

Salt

The role of Christian people is to penetrate into society, to act as a preservative, to counteract and oppose the hidden processes of decay. Here are Stott’s words: “Of course God has set other restraining influences in the community through his common grace. Chief among these are the state (with its authority to frame and enforce laws) and the home (including marriage and family life). Nevertheless, God intends the most powerful of all restraints within sinful society to be his own redeemed, regenerate and righteous people.”

However, the effectiveness of salt, as Jesus had taught, is conditional: it must retain its saltiness. To be effective, Christians must retain their Christlikeness. If Christians become indistinguishable from the rest of the world, they lose their preservative influence.

Whatever social and professional groups I have had the opportunity to enter in the UK, I have discovered there are Christians quietly acting as salt, penetrating, permeating society. God has his people in every segment of UK society. The National Health Service has Christians working on every hospital ward and in every clinic and department. And for every person overtly identifying as a Christian there are three or four fellow workers who have been deeply influenced by Christian ethics, morality and modelling of self-sacrificial service. Although there are deep structural problems within the NHS I have no doubt that they would be far far worse if it were not for the thousands and thousands of Christians who are quietly acting as a preservative. And similar points could be made about many other areas of UK society in the 2020s.

Light

Here is Stott expounding the passage in Matthew 5 – “What this light is Jesus clarifies as our good deeds. Let other people once see your good deeds, he said, and they will glorify your Father in heaven. It seems that ‘good deeds’ is a general expression to cover everything Christians say and do because they are Christians, every outward and visible manifestation of their Christian faith.”

Light penetrates dark places. It reveals truths which powerful people want to keep hidden. Being light means standing up for the vulnerable, being a voice for the voiceless, and a defender for the defenceless. And Stott pressed home the force of the metaphors. “The Lord Jesus called us to be the world’s salt and light. If darkness and rottenness abound, it is largely our fault and we must accept the blame.”

A commitment to listening

Listening was a constant refrain of Stott’s teaching and he not only taught about it, he put it into practice. Listening to God, listening to the world, listening to fellow Christians in the global Christian community. His commitment to listening to others was grounded in an attitude of respect. It’s that quality of respect which undergirds the desire to genuinely listen and not just to pretend. Respect for God and his Word certainly. Stott often talked about humbling ourselves before God’s truth and allowing it to exercise authority over our thinking and behaviour.

But also respect for the other, especially for those who oppose us and all that we stand for. Respect for their humanity, for their creation in God’s image, for their life experience, for their suffering, for their intellectual integrity, and for the grace of God in their lives. Stott believed firmly in the Reformation concept of common grace, the God who gave good things to the righteous and the unrighteous. So respect for the other leads naturally to careful and detailed listening to what they say, a desire to understand.

In The Contemporary Christian Stott spelled out what listening involves and I’ve slightly paraphrased his words. First, there is the need to enter into other people’s thought world. We need to try to see the world through their eyes, to understand how they have come to the beliefs and commitments that they hold. God made them rational beings and we need to try to understand their reasoning.

Second, we need to enter other people’s heart world, the world of their angst and alienation. To weep with those who weep. In everyone there are hidden depths of pain. We can reach them only if we are willing to enter into their suffering.

Closely linked to listening was the concept of dialogue. It’s interesting that 50 years later the word dialogue applied to political engagement sounds quaint and old-fashioned. Indeed the very concept seems to have become deeply unfashionable, both in evangelical circles and in the wider political and cultural world. Stott defined dialogue as “…a conversation in which each party is serious in their approach both to the subject and to the other person, and desires to listen and learn as well as to speak and instruct.”

Stott argued that true dialogue was a mark of authenticity. In dialogue we share our common humanity, its dignity and fallenness, and we express our common concern for that humanity. Dialogue was also an expression of humility. As we listen carefully to the other, our respect for that person as a human being made in God’s image grows. We realise we cannot sweep away all their convictions with a brash, unfeeling dismissal. We have to recognise that some of their misconceptions about Christianity may be our fault – and that because of us they are rejecting a caricature of the truth. As we listen to the other we may have uncomfortable lessons to learn. We may have to repent of a lingering sense of our superiority. Our desire becomes not to score points or to humiliate the other, but to enter into their experience.

Finally, dialogue was a mark of integrity. As we listen to the other we listen to their real beliefs, problems and experiences, and we divest our minds of the false images we may have harboured. Our goal is that out of our dialogue, our respectful engagement, the truth should emerge. But argued Stott, “as a Christian I know that Christ is the truth and so I long for Christ himself to emerge. But since Christ makes demands on all, I may well find that my own understanding and commitment are revealed to be inadequate. So the dialogue will be challenging to myself as well as to the other person…. It is a matter of personal integrity that I respect the freedom and dignity of the other person, of my dialogue partner, and I do not expect of him or her anything that I am not willing to ask or hope for myself.”

How different this is to the vicious and polarised interactions we so often see in the national media, in social media and in the so-called culture wars. How much have we as Christians been infected by the spirit of the age which encourages attack, shaming and humiliation of our opponents?

Voiceless, Janna Prinsloo

I had the privilege of observing Stott as he modelled respectful dialogue in many different contexts, both with Christians of many different traditions and with those from an entirely secular background. I saw how he spent so much effort trying to understand, asking thoughtful questions, requesting clarification. This was not just an opportunity for him to go on about his own preoccupations – he wanted to listen and understand.

It is a model that I have tried hard to adopt in the opportunities I have had in public debates and private conversations with academics, medics, activists and politicians in the public square. His concept of respectful dialogue has also had a major effect on the way I have tried to work and teach others as a doctor. I have tried to develop and popularise the concept of “expert-expert relationships” as a model for doctor-patient and doctor-parent collaboration. It turns out that respectful humble listening, careful dialogue and gentle persuasion is an excellent, albeit countercultural, way to practise clinical medicine.

Dialogue is costly

But dialogue is costly. It takes hard work, intellectual and emotional effort, with detailed research and preparation. Stott prepared meticulously before public debates and engagements in the public square. As a result he often knew far more about his dialogue partners, their background and their thinking, than they did about him. Dialogue takes time and patience. But it also can be emotionally challenging as my prejudices, preconceptions, narrow-mindedness and hard-heartedness are being revealed.

Perhaps it’s understandable that many Christian preachers and apologists don’t wish to follow this path. The traditional approach of just “proclaiming the truth” seems so much easier. But it’s not what Stott modelled, and I believe it is not the Christlike way as we reach out to a secular, cynical and hostile world.

Persuasion

Along with the centrality of dialogue in the public square, Stott was committed to the value of rational persuasion. “We have no liberty to impose our views and opinions on other people. But in a democratic and open society we have the precious freedom to seek to persuade others, to marshal arguments and evidence in favour of a Christian thinking and Christian behaviour.” Elsewhere he referred to developing an “ethical apologetics.” We must “…reason with people about the benefits of Christian morality, commending God’s law to them by rational arguments. We believe that God’s laws are both good in themselves and universal in their application because, far from being arbitrary, they fit the human beings God has made.”

How relevant is Stott’s understanding of political engagement to the contemporary situation?

Stott’s vision of Christian engagement was framed in the 1970s and 80s. But the world has changed radically since then. Is his vision still relevant for the world of 2021 and beyond?

1. Polarisation and tribalism

Sadly it seems that genuine dialogue, respectful listening and the meeting of minds is even less common in the public square than it was 50 years ago. The quality of political and moral debate seems to have become more intemperate, coarsened, hostile and polarised than before.

Unfortunately there are aspects of this polarisation within the Christian community too. There seems to be a greater tribalism and often deep suspicion, mistrust and incomprehension between members of different Christian tribes. How often do we see thoughtful, respectful and genuine listening, an authentic dialogue, taking place between Christian leaders of different groupings and traditions?

I am reminded of the words of GK Chesterton: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” The same could be said about Stott’s ideal of dialogue and respectful listening.

2. Open hostility to Christianity

In the public square, orthodox biblical Christianity is increasingly dismissed as morally inadequate and even repulsive – homophobic, racist, patriarchal, hypocritical, abusive, oppressive. The hermeneutic of suspicion has had a corrosive effect on trust in Christian leaders, and this has been amplified by recent scandals in the UK and USA. Can Stott’s emphasis on persuasion, arguing, marshalling rational arguments still carry relevance in this increasingly hostile and suspicious environment?

3. “Truth decay”

Deepening levels of mistrust in all forms of authority and the rise of bizarre conspiracy theories mean that it is not possible to find agreement on even the most basic of truth claims. Over the last year we have seen many extraordinary things. The replication, transmission and mutation of a physical virus across the world has been matched by an online pandemic of disinformation and lies which have also replicated, mutated and spread worldwide. And paradoxically it is turning out to be easier for us as a society to control, resist and vaccinate against the physical virus than to control and resist the spread of disinformation and truth decay.

It may be argued that Stott’s vision of rational persuasion can no longer carry the weight it once did, when there is no public agreement on what is true and false. Speaking personally  I remain committed to the vision of “marshalling rational arguments’’ in the public square, of “ethical apologetics,” whilst recognising that the power of persuasion is being dramatically undercut by suspicion of truth claims and by bizarre conspiracy theories. Yet my conviction is that in the strange and disorientating world of 2021, John Stott’s vision of incarnational engagement is even more urgent. In particular, when words cease to have the impact and meaning that they used to carry, then the way we live, the quality of our caring, the authenticity of our actions, the reality of sacrificial service – these can still communicate the unchanging good news of Christ to a suspicious and divided society. My own belief is that it will be the incarnational ministry of ordinary lay Christians – being the hands of Christ: humble, respectful, sacrificial –  that will be the principal means of being salt and light for Christ in the confused and confusing world we find ourselves in.

Sharing Stories of Our Grief, Anthony Vasquez