After news of John Stott‘s death nearly two weeks ago, a range of tributes and obituaries came out in various quarters (like this, this, this, this and perhaps most notably, this). As some noted, though Stott was hardly a household name in the US or the UK, he had enormous influence on evangelicals in those countries and others. Some considered him a sort of Protestant pope. I remember being at the Urbana conference during college, excited to hear him speak, when we learned that he wasn’t able to make it due to poor health. That was eight years ago.
I’d read one of his books a few years ago, but when I heard he had passed away, I decided now was as good a time as any to read another one of his books I’d picked up at a used book sale a while back: Christian Mission in the Modern World. The book, published in 1975, has chapters focused on mission, evangelism, dialogue, salvation and conversion, and in each he describes some of the prevailing views at the time as well as what he considers a biblical understanding of each.
I was personally interested in what he had to say about the long-time evangelical debate over the relation between evangelism and social action. The book was released shortly after the groundbreaking Lausanne Congress of 1974, at which Stott was the “chief architect” of The Lausanne Covenant, a document that remains influential among mission-focused evangelicals to this day. In response to the social gospel of liberal, Mainline churches and the individualized gospel of conservative, Fundamentalist churches, the Covenant had this to say — on behalf of evangelicals — about the importance of Christian social responsibility:
We affirm that God is both the Creator and the Judge of all people. We therefore should share his concern for justice and reconciliation throughout human society and for the liberation of men and women from every kind of oppression. Because men and women are made in the image of God, every person, regardless of race, religion, colour, culture, class, sex or age, has an intrinsic dignity because of which he or she should be respected and served, not exploited. Here too we express penitence both for our neglect and for having sometimes regarded evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive. Although reconciliation with other people is not reconciliation with God, nor is social action evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation, nevertheless we affirm that evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty. For both are necessary expressions of our doctrines of God and man, our love for our neighbour and our obedience to Jesus Christ. The message of salvation implies also a message of judgment upon every form of alienation, oppression and discrimination, and we should not be afraid to denounce evil and injustice wherever they exist. When people receive Christ they are born again into his kingdom and must seek not only to exhibit but also to spread its righteousness in the midst of an unrighteous world. The salvation we claim should be transforming us in the totality of our personal and social responsibilities. Faith without works is dead.
Those were, and are, bold words. And I think they go a long way to correct the errors of both warring tribes. In the book he goes into a bit more detail about all of this, saying that even for those Christians who affirm that both evangelism and social action are essential, there are three main ways of thinking about the relationship between the two: (1) social action as a means of evangelism, (2) social action not as a means of evangelism but as a manifestation, and (3) social action as a partner of evangelism. A version of the third one, he says, is the best:
As partners the two belong to each other and yet are independent of each other. Each stands on its own feet in its own right alongside the other. Neither is a means to the other, or even a manifestation of the other. For each is an end in itself. Both are expressions of unfeigned love… If we love our neighbor as God made him, we must inevitably be concerned for his total welfare, the good of his soul, his body and his community… Love has no need to justify itself. It merely expresses itself in service wherever it sees need.
It seems to me that while Stott may have articulated all of this for the church more than 35 years ago, and though he has now passed away, his nuanced voice is as important as ever and we have plenty yet to learn from him and to put into practice in our world.