Saturday, May 21, 2011

Evangelism, Politics and the Mission of the Church: Where John Stott Led Us Astray

John Stott was a hero of mine when I was 17 years old. If memory serves, I would have been 17 in December of 1973 when I attended Urbana '73 as a high school senior. John Stott was the Bible Study leader that year and his expository preaching impressed me beyond measure. I had never heard preaching like that. It was powerful and authoritative, but not because of the charismatic personality of the preacher or because of rhetorical tricks or emotional manipulation. It was powerful because it was so obviously a mere "bringing out" of what God's Word said that it carried with it the authority of God himself. It made me want to give my life to doing that as my main work.

So John Stott had a huge impact on my life and particularly my decision to forgo scholarships to two secular universities in order to attend Atlantic Baptist College that next Fall in order to begin preparation for pastoral ministry.

1973 was a fateful year in church history. It was the year of Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War. It was the year of yet another unprovoked war of aggression by the Arab nations against Israel and the Arab oil embargo. The Cold War was raging and world Communism was on the march. Many in the West were calling for compromise or even capitulation to Communist ideals.

I was politically naive at time and susceptible to left-wing ideas. I would soon read Sider's Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and Jim Wallis' Sojourners magazine, as well as The Politics of Jesus . Rather than putting them in their historical and cultural/political context, I naively read them as apolitical people discovering deeper truth in the Scriptures with no agenda and no cultural pressures driving them in a socialist direction. Gustavo Guttierez had published A Theology of Liberation in 1971 and the World Council of Churches meeting in Bangkok in 1973 brought to a climax a process of re-defining salvation as political/social liberation. It would be a year later, in 1974, that John Stott would play a leading role in the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization.

Stott was the chair of the drafting committee which produced the Lausanne Covenant. At Lausanne, a number of third world evangelical theologians, such as Rene Paidilla, who had been influenced by the rise of liberation theology and felt the need to respond to it, created a controversy over the relationship of evangelism to social action.

Looking back 40 years later, one wonders if Evangelicalism was not somewhat unnerved by the aggressive propaganda of the WCC, liberation theology and third-world Marxist movements which claimed that the Church was "irrelevant" and, worse, supporters of the oppression of the poor. Using dependency theory and a Marxist critique of Capitalism, they pressed the claim that if the churches were not engaged in class warfare and the anti-capitalist struggle, then they were no better than the oppressors of the poor and, in fact, on the side of the evil oppressors. Evangelicals, whose record of social service had been exemplary, were put on the defensive because they were not politically engaged in the anti-Capitalist struggle. Simply doing education, agricultural and medical work in the service of the poor no longer "counted."

At Lausanne, there was much debate about the need to redefine the Gospel to include social action (politics) in the basic definition of the mission of the Church. In his book, Christian Mission in the Modern World, published in 1975, John Stott capitulated to this way of thinking.

This book is remarkable for a gigantic inconsistency at its heart. On pp. 133ff Stott describes the process by which the WCC moved from a commitment to evangelism as the heart of the mission of the church, to a claim that personal evangelism and social action were both equally part of the mission, to a a view of mission that was in practice almost exclusively political/economic. This process is traced in the documents the WCC produced between 1961, when the International Missionary Council was merged with the World Council of Churches in New Dehli to the meeting in Bangkok in 1973 when salvation was defined as liberation. The process included an uncritical acceptance of the Marxist critique of capitalism and an evaluation of the Marxian definition of social justice as compatible with and, in fact, the true teaching of Scripture. Clearly, Stott is unhappy with some of the radical implications of accepting the Marxian critique of religion, but he accepts it as to a large extent valid. This is incoherent.

Therefore, Stott suggests basically that we Evangelicals ought to take the first step along the path taken by the WCC by elevating social action (political action, class warfare) to a level of equal importance and priority as personal, verbal evangelism, but he warns against taking the second step of letting politics crowd out evangelism. But it is difficult to see why he thinks Evangelicals will be able to hold back when the WCC was not able to do so. This is the contradiction of the book: if we see that the WCC journey led to disaster, why not propose a different course rather than proposing to go only half way down the WCC path?

Stott's tremendous credibility with Evangelicals gave him a huge amount of influence over the movement. He admits that at the Berlin Congress on World Evangelization, an event sponsored by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1966, he had held to and proclaimed the traditional view that evangelism is the central mission of the Church and the heart of the Great Commission. Social service (compassionate service) and social action (political struggle) both belonged to the sphere of discipleship - the teaching disciples to obey all things Jesus taught us which occurs after conversion proper. As such, they are among the many things from parenting to art to creation care that should be part of the Christian life. But the unique mission of the Church is first and foremost to evangelize - to preach the good news of salvation through the shed blood of Christ - and then Christians should be discipled to do good works with social service and social action among them.

But in The Christian Mission in the Modern World, Stott says he has changed his mind. Social action (politics) can no longer be regarded as merely one of the areas in which Christian discipleship must be worked out after conversion, now it must be viewed as integral to the Gospel itself. It must be seen as being as much the mission of the Church as preaching the Gospel of sin and salvation. This is a watershed in the development of Evangelical theology and I believe it is the root of the Evangelical Left and the widening gulf we are witnessing today between traditional Evangelicals and those who are attracted to progressive politics as the true mission of the Church.

If Stott is right in 1975, he was wrong in 1966. And if he was wrong in 1966, then most of the Fundamentalist movement from B. B. Warfield to J. G. Machen to Billy Graham and C. F. H. Henry was wrong and, in particular, the Fundamentalist and Evangelical critique of the Social Gospel is wrong. Instead of accusing the liberal Social Gospelers of apostasy, the most they should have said is that they over-emphasized politics and under-emphasized evangelism.

But this cannot be right because the problem with liberal Protestantism is not that it under-emphasizes a Gospel message it still believes and preaches occasionally; the problem is that it no longer believes the Gospel at all. This is apostasy and it is not theoretical or some sort of prediction for the future; it is all around us today. Back in the 1920s it might have been argued that the prediction that the liberal denominations would utterly abandon the Gospel was over-pessimistic and hypherbolic. But we live in the 21st century and now vaguely humanistic ideas of tolerance, inclusion and moral relativism have completely crowded the Gospel out of many liberal denominations. It is no longer a prediction, but a fact of history.

The amazing thing, however, about Stott's 1975 call to expand the mission of the Church to include politics alongside evangelism just as the WCC had done 10 years earlier and the Social Gospel had done earlier in the first half of the 20th century was that Stott made this call after the evidence was in and the verdict of history had pronounced negatively against this course of action.

In the 4th century the difference between the Nicenes and the Arians was just one iota (the Greek letter "i"). The Greek term "homoousios" meaning "same being" defined the orthodox doctrine of the deity of Christ and provided the basis for the doctrine of the Trinity, while the Greek term "homoiousios" meaning "similar being" was Arian heresy. The Gospel was at stake then and, I believe, it is at stake today.

The difference between saying that politics is part of the mission of the Church equal in importance to evangelism, on the one hand, and saying that evangelism is the heart of the mission and politics is just one of many areas in which the Lordship of Christ must be worked out by the disciple, on the other, may seem minute and technical. But I believe it is absolutely fundamental to a biblical and orthodox definition of the Gospel and the mission of the Church.

The Marxist ideology that defines class warfare as fundamental to history is the source of the error, in my view. Marxism put third world Evangelicals on the defensive by claiming that the Evangelical Church was complicit with the oppression of the poor if it did not take the Marxist side in the class struggle. Evangelicals were too quick to accept the Marxist premise that class warfare is fundamental to history. Since Evangelicals did not challenge the fundamental Marxist heresy at this point, they were twisting themselves into pretzels trying to avoid the charge of being complicit in the oppression of the poor. It seemed to many Evangelicals that if they could not prove their sympathy for the poor, they would never be able to evangelize effectively. So their motives were good; they just didn't think deeply enough.

Instead of accepting the Marxist critique of capitalism in the first place, Evangelicals should have challenged the premise that economics determines everything and that class warfare is therefore fundamental to history. Evangelicals should have rejected the Marxist understanding and substituted a biblical view that history is determined, not by economics, but by human worship of or rejection of God.

With Jonathan Edwards they could have viewed revival as the fundamental indicator of Divine Providence in history and therefore the true meaning of history. They should have realized that we cannot accept half of Marxism because it is a totalitarian system of thought before it is a totalitarian system of political economy. They should have refused to consider themselves complicit with the oppression of the poor just because they were not engaged in class warfare against the capitalist class.

In fact, they should have re-affirmed the position that Marxian socialism always and everywhere leads to poverty, tyranny and scarcity whereas free enterprise leads to prosperity, freedom and an increase in human dignity. That they could not do this was tragic for poor people. Socialist ideology has held much of the third world down in poverty and degradation for far too long and if Evangelicals are complicit in anything they are complicit in not challenging the pessimistic, Malthusian ideology that defines Marxism and prevents true development of the economy to the benefit of all.

But the key reason to critique Marxism is not that it does not work (although it cannot create wealth), but rather that is is theologically heretical. It works with a Rousseauian view of human nature as intrinsically good but corrupted by society and as infinitely plastic and therefore susceptible to social engineering designed to create a Utopia on earth. This is the fundamental Marxian heresy and it leads to a re-definition of salvation as earthly, political liberation and a secularization of Christian eschatology. Sin becomes unjust economic structures and salvation becomes the implementation of socialism. The Church becomes a political organization and a tool of the Revolution with no intrinsic value except insofar as it serves the political goals of the Marxist revolutionaries in their war against the capitalist system.

This heretical view of human nature leads necessarily to violence, repression and totalitarianism. When social engineering fails to produce the desired results, instead of abandoning the ideology the tendency is to double down on the engineering and turn the screws tighter. This is how a naively optimistic ideology leads inevitably to oppression and slavery. And "Christian Marxists" are complicit in this crime against humanity and the tragedy is that they, of all people, ought to know better.

Will Evangelicals go the way of the WCC? Almost certainly a major segment will do so, although there will likely be another split in the movement just as there was in the early 20th century when Evangelical Protestantism split into Fundamentalism and Liberalism. We are living through this split and every Evangelical church and institution is choosing sides.

Although it pains me to say so, I think John Stott was wrong in 1975. He is still a hero to me for many reasons. He is a godly, spiritual, humble, honest and generous man and one of the great Bible expositors of the 20th century. But he was right in 1966 and wrong in 1975. He did so much to show us where the WCC went wrong but he failed to point out a direction we could take to avoid ending up in the same bog of apostasy. The Evangelical Left is in great part his legacy and this is sad beyond words.

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