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John Stott: Evangelical Pope or ‘Monk’?

Thursday, 6 May 2021  | Gordon Preece

Time magazine once named John Stott the Evangelical Pope. It was a good headline, but Stott was not primarily the Evangelical Pope, as he would be embarrassed to be called, not even a bishop, being believed to be too Evangelical in the UK, and knocking back the Bishop of Parramatta position in 1972 and later invites to the role of Sydney Anglican Archbishop after Marcus Loane. But rather than an Evangelical Pope, Stott was, to my mind, an Evangelical ‘monk’, fulfilling the vows of poverty, chastity and peaceableness in a way that shaped and birthed institutional reform amongst Evangelicals world-wide. Though Time also named him one of the 100 most influential people alive, Stott’s influence was not the influence of wealth, sex and power like many others listed, but of poverty, chastity and obedience. ‘He remained celibate his whole life, lived modestly, and poured royalties from book sales into the work of raising up church leaders in developing countries’, as Justin Brierly wrote in Christianity Magazine.

As Protestant and evangelical as he was, I don’t want to over-claim with this characterisation of Stott. In his The Incomparable Christ (2001 pp. 92-93), while positive about the Benedictine Rule, he rejects the picture of Christ the Monk and monasticism’s permanent withdrawal from the world and double standard view of Christian life – the perfect and the permitted life. But rather I will, in avoiding hagiography, in line with Stott’s desires, and biblical sanction, seek to draw attention away from the man to certain evangelical or gospel-based monastic-like disciplines he exercised. These are in line with Scripture’s description of all Christians as saints, sanctified by Christ’s death and resurrection (1 Cor 1: 2, 30). Stott took no formal monastic vows, but I’ll note the informal influence of the first two, in particular, poverty and chastity, in Stott’s life. I’ll also add a third in line with his reported statement ‘that if he were young and beginning his Christian discipleship over, he would establish a kind of evangelical missional and monastic order. Joining it would be men vowed to celibacy, poverty, and peaceableness’ (Christianity Today, 12th August 1988).

First, poverty. Stott, like saints Anthony and Francis, had a privileged background. His father, Sir Arnold Stott, was a major in World War I and distinguished Harley St medical specialist. Young Stott was born with a silver medical instrument in his mouth. As head boy at Rugby school, and somewhat effortless double firsts at Cambridge, he could easily have been a diplomat. But he wrote to his father at 20 that ‘My desire is to see the world a better place, and I will not spare myself’. He didn’t; in his curacy at his family church All Souls, he grew a beard, donned an old coat and slept rough for several nights, to see what it was like for the poor to be on the receiving end of sometimes cold Christian charity.

Stott, like many who advocated a renewal of monasticism long before the contemporary call for new monasticism, lived a genuinely simple lifestyle. A famous exchange with his close friends, Billy and Ruth Graham, at Lausanne in 1972, helped win them and many more over to the Lausanne declaration affirming simple lifestyle. His discerning biblical question was whether riches would be a barrier to showing hospitality to others. The ‘Evangelical Pope’ and ‘Evangelical Queen’ Ruth Bell Graham (Billy’s wife) disagreed over the proposed introduction of the following statement into the Lausanne Covenant:[1] ‘Those of us who live in affluent circumstances accept our duty to develop a simple lifestyle in order to contribute more generously to both relief and evangelism’. Mrs Graham significantly opted for ‘simpler lifestyle’ over ‘simple’, introducing a note of relativity into the discussion of an appropriate level of affluence for Christians. The Grahams, whose transparency regarding money and ministry ethics is exemplary, lived in an expansive North Carolina estate, while Stott lived in a tiny two-bedroom flat in London. The royalties from Stott’s many best-selling books still go to his Langham Trust, to educate and buy books for developing world pastors and may be one of his most-enduring global legacies.

Even Stott’s Wesley-like relative simplicity, in a Western context, can still look lavish to the poor. Yet Stott provides an inspiring example and useful plumbline for personal economic lifestyle in terms of minimising barriers to hospitality:

The moment I am embarrassed either to visit other people in their home or to invite them into mine, because of the disparity between our lifestyles, something is wrong. The inequality has broken the fellowship.[2]

I have heard, but been unable to confirm, that Stott may have eaten only two meals a day, in prayerful solidarity with the poor. Certainly he was very disciplined, but no ascetic; he loved his chocolate.

Stott was a humble servant leader. His visits to Latin America with people like René Padilla showed him the reality of the poor. One day, having dragged their feet late at night through the mud of Bariloche, Argentina, Padilla awoke next morning to find Stott cleaning the mud off Padilla’s shoes. Padilla told Stott to stop, but was gently told: ‘My dear Rene, Jesus told us to wash one another’s feet. I couldn’t wash your feet in Jesus’ way, but I can clean your shoes’.

This sort of servant leadership enabled Stott to learn from the Latinos and majority world and advocate for an integral, holistic form of biblical mission. He risked his reputation for them, particularly at the 1981 NEAC (National Evangelical Anglican Congress) in Melbourne from which my then senior pastor came back to Sydney describing Stott as ‘a dangerous man’. Stott was indeed dangerous, like his Lord, in his Nazareth sermon in Luke 4 which Stott had preached from at NEAC. He tried, in his own words, ‘to bridge the gulf between two stereotypes of those who entirely politicize and those who entirely spiritualize the gospel’. Sadly, there are Australian evangelicals of either side who refuse to walk that bridge of reconciliation with Stott. It’s time we all did. Sadly, too, Stott didn’t return to Australia for 20 years. Thankfully, and hopefully, many from Sydney have been generous in their tributes.

Like John Wesley, who lived on the student allowance he had for his whole life, Stott lived on something like a basic wage, giving away all the profits from his best-selling books to establish the Langham Trust to provide books, theological education and preaching schools for Majority World pastors. He also established All Souls Langham Place as a haven of hospitality for wandering wayfarers, students and others from all over the world, who were discipled and sent back to their places of origin and mission. He set up the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity to engage the great apologetic, ethical and workplace issues of our time, as in his 2006 book Issues Facing Christians Today. He did this, not in an ivory tower way, but in a way that arose out of disciplined 24/7 discipleship that sought to re-evangelise and disciple England, fulfilling Archbishop William Temple’s unfulfilled wartime vision that the working people of England would be reached with the gospel.

Second, Stott’s commitment to chastity or celibacy made him a great model of Christian singleness, perhaps the male equivalent to Mother Theresa. Though a lifelong bachelor, Stott’s was not an absolute in-principle commitment, but one based upon his own gifts and call, as he read ‘Each person has his or her own gift of God's grace’ (1 Cor. 7:7). Stott never exalted singleness over marriage. But his singleness and single-mindedness for the Gospel and people enabled him to give so much time, hospitality, friendship and mentoring to the non-Christian, the international student, the poor. Poverty and chastity and charity and chastity were closely connected in Stott. In ‘John Stott on Singleness’ he says:

In spite of rumors to the contrary, I have never taken a solemn vow or heroic decision to remain single! On the contrary, during my 20s and 30s, like most people, I was expecting to marry one day. In fact, during this period I twice began to develop a relationship with a lady who I thought might be God's choice of life-partner for me. But when the time came to make a decision, I can best explain it by saying that I lacked an assurance from God that he meant me to go forward. So I drew back. And when that had happened twice, I naturally began to believe that God meant me to remain single. Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, I think I know why. I could never have traveled or written as extensively as I have done if I had had the responsibilities of a wife and family.

Stott recognised in himself the single’s plight of loneliness but suggested a scriptural and pastoral solution:

…each local church will have a plural oversight. See, for example, Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5. So in All Souls Church in the heart of London we have always had a team ministry, and we have found it an enormous enrichment. I have also been greatly blessed by Frances Whitehead, my faithful secretary for more than 40 years, and by the “apostolic succession” of my study assistants.

In addition, single people are wise to develop as many friendships as possible, with people of all ages and both sexes. For example, although I have no children of my own, I have hundreds of adopted nephews and nieces all over the world, who call me “Uncle John”. I cherish these affectionate relationships; they greatly lessen, even if they do not altogether deaden, occasional pangs of loneliness.[3]

Thirdly, Stott’s peacableness, if not a traditional monastic vow, was a required practice. Monks were exempted from military service. Stott was ‘an instinctive pacifist’ in the 1940s, a hard time to be one. In his Issues Facing Christians Today he is at least a ‘nuclear pacifist’. But it’s more the personal and ecclesial level of peacableness I want to focus on. In him it was personal characteristic, exemplifying a key New Testament virtue: ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone’ (Rom 12:18). Stott was the key leader of evangelicalism within the Church of England. He challenged evangelicals to be active in their mother church instead of shaking the dust off their feet and leaving for exclusively evangelical denominations.

In two major ecclesiastical events Stott played a pivotal role as peacemaker in the C of E. When he was chairing the National Assembly of Evangelicals in 1966, at a convention organised by the Evangelical Alliance, Martyn Lloyd-Jones made a surprise call heard as calling for evangelicals to unite and exit their 'mixed' denominations. He believed that true fellowship must be based on evangelical views on key doctrines such as the atonement and scriptural inspiration. Lloyd-Jones was a leading figure in the Free Churches, and evangelical Anglicans saw Stott similarly. Stott used his role as meeting chair to publicly refute Lloyd-Jones, on the basis of Church History and Scripture. But soon after Stott met with the great Doctor to sort out their differences, apologising if he’d misused his chair’s privilege. He did the same with Billy Graham when they once publicly differed.

The year after, Stott influenced the first National Evangelical Anglican Congress, held at Keele University, to pledge full participation in the Cof E, rejecting Lloyd-Jones’ separationism. These alternative positions, and the resulting split, continue largely unchanged to this day, sadly.

Another controversy saw Stott, under the influence of the great Greek scholar John Wenham, publicly espouse the concept of annihilationism, the belief that hell is incineration into non-existence, not the traditional Evangelical commitment to everlasting conscious torment. Stott proposed it somewhat tentatively, arguing only that it ‘the ultimate annihilation of the wicked should at least be accepted as a legitimate, biblically founded alternative to their eternal conscious torment’. This led to a heated debate among mainstream evangelicals: some savaged Stott while others supported him, analogous to the recent debate over Rob Bell’s Hell. If only something of Stott’s moderate tone had been heard in the recent debate about Rob Bell’s position, instead of John Piper’s twittering ‘Farewell Rob Bell’, as if he were the Evangelical Pope. Stott also affirmed the ordination of women deacons and presbyters, but not their being in positions of headship. Stott’s moderation enabled Bishop Tom Wright, an egalitarian, to be equally moderate and minimise the potential splits among English Evangelicals over the issue. Would that the same were true among Australian Anglican Evangelicals!

Stott was able to be such a source of unity in Anglicanism and global Evangelicalism, through Lausanne, and including the World Evangelical Alliance, because he knew the difference between saving gospel or credal truths and secondary matters or adiaphora – matters indifferent. He was not a ‘gospel plus’ man. In Evangelical Truth Stott pleaded for unity and liberty to work together for the gospel (Phil 2:27), citing the proverb popularised by Richard Baxter: ‘unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, charity in all things’. In these days of so many single issue Evangelicals, how we need biblically balanced leaders of the Christ-like stature of Stott, shaped by the gospel disciplines of poverty, chastity and peaceableness.  As one commentator aptly describes him, he had ‘a serenity, gentleness, sincerity and beauty so often lacking in the Church. And yet there was also firmness and conviction: he was one of those who truly walked with the Lord, day by day’ (archbishopcranmer.com/). May we too walk the same way.

Gordon Preece is Director of Ethos.

This article was first published in Equip magazine in August 2018. Reproduced with permission of the author.

[1]   Timothy Dudley-Smith, John Stott: A Global Ministry (Downers Grove IL: IVP, 2001), 216.

[2]   John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, 4th edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 183.

[3] John Stott and Al Hsu, ‘John Stott on Singleness’, Christianity Today online, 17th August 2011.

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