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Remembering the Witness of John Stott

On July 27, Anglican evangelical clergyman John R. W. Stott passed away in England at the age of 90.  Stott brought many thousands of individuals to the Christian faith through his preaching ministry as well as through numerous books, including his two most influential works, Basic Christianity (1958) and The Cross of Christ (1986). He chaired the drafting committee of the 1974 ecumenical evangelical confession, the Lausanne Covenant, which expressed shame at the failure of Christians to bear witness to the Gospel and a renewed commitment to worldwide evangelism.  He was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time Magazine in 2005.

Stott represented a distinctively English and a distinctively intellectual form of evangelicalism that insisted that serious discipleship must include a serious discipleship of the mind.  In contrast to the self-righteous, intolerant, and reactionary “blowhard scolds” this side of the Atlantic who have so badly tarnished evangelical Christianity’s name, Nicholas Kristoff writes in the New York Times, Stott also stood for a deeply compassionate, civil, and socially engaged Christianity. Stott’s life and thought were marked in particular by his concern for the injustices of poverty, oppression of women, environmental degradation, and lack of equal access to education. 

“Christian philanthropy in terms of relief and aid is necessary,” Stott wrote in The Cross of Christ, “but long-term development is better, and we cannot evade our political responsibility to share in changing the structures that inhibit development. Christians cannot regard with equanimity the injustices that spoil God’s world and demean his creatures.”

I feel a sense of personal debt to Stott as a result of time I spent living in England while completing a Master’s degree at the University of London between 2004 and 2005.  After struggling (and failing) to find an Adventist congregation nearby that offered any kind of vital community or vibrant theology, I made a decision to keep the Sabbath by laying aside work and study on Saturdays, and to attend the Sunday evening worship services at Stott’s All Souls Church in Langham Place.  For one year, I was thus a Sabbatarian Anglican—or in any case, a Christian from the Adventist tradition who found refuge and welcome among fellow believers in the Anglican communion.  I had the opportunity to hear Stott speak several times at All Souls, although his speaking schedule by then was already greatly reduced and he was at times visibly frail.  More often his close friend and colleague Richard Bewes (who gave a guest sermon at Loma Linda University Church this past year) would speak.

What I found at All Souls was a theology and worship practice that does not easily fit within the tidy labels of “conservative” and “liberal” Christianity as those terms are now widely used in Adventist circles.  Although the church was part of the “low” Anglican tradition, the liturgical and musical settings reflected a restrained and solemn sensibility that was much higher than any “progressive” congregation I had attended before (or have found since). I welcomed the change. Sermons were always heavily exegetical, reflecting a high view of biblical authority and especially the New Testament narratives.  But they didn’t carry the ominous “patriotic” and political undertones one finds in many American evangelical settings, nor the exclusionary, self-absorbed, and compulsively eschatological overtones one hears in many self-described “conservative” Adventist circles. I welcomed this change too. Sunday evening services were always filled to capacity, with many university students from all around the world attending.

As I have found myself involved in conversations in recent years about religion and science, Stott has continued to illustrate to my mind the possibility of an engaged and non-defensive Christianity in the modern world (along with his fellow countrymen N.T. Wright, John Polkinghorne, Rowan Williams, Oswald Chambers, and C.S. Lewis, among others).  “Not many Christians today find it necessary to defend the concept of a literal six-day creation, for the text does not demand it, and scientific discovery appears to contradict it,” Stott writes with welcome calm and clarity in a passage in Understanding the Bible that may be of particular interest to Adventists:

“It is most unfortunate that some who debate this issue (evolution) begin by assuming that the words ‘creation’ and ‘evolution’ are mutually exclusive. If everything has come into existence through evolution, they say, then biblical creation has been disproved, whereas if God has created all things, then evolution must be false.  It is, rather, this naïve alternative which is false.  It presupposes a very narrow definition of the two terms, both of which in fact have a wide range of meanings, and both of which are being freshly discussed today.”

Derek Morris, editor of Ministry Magazine, pays tribute to Stott on the Adventist News Network. “I learned from Stott’s example that one must first listen attentively to the Word of God before daring to speak for God,” Morris writes, recalling his college years in England when he frequently listened to Stott preach.  “John Stott set a noble example.”

As I reflect on Stott’s life and what it meant to me at a certain point in my religious journey, I am disturbed to think of an Adventist church in which non-Adventists shall no longer be permitted to speak at church meetings or retreats, at least insofar as General Conference officials have any say in the matter (“Avoid inviting non-SDAs as major speakers for church meetings,” we are now instructed). The above quotation on creation by Stott may give some indication of why some think such an astounding closing of the Adventist mind is necessary. But Adventist students and others will continue to discover (and re-discover) Stott’s writings, and through them come to a deeper understanding of Christian discipleship.  John Stott was indeed a noble example—a humble and generous lion of the faith who was a friend and witness to the Adventist church. His ministry helped to keep me an Adventist by keeping me first of all a Christian at a time when the church might not have. For that I am grateful.

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