In 1980, just before I was fired as editor of a now-forgotten and utterly forgettable evangelical magazine, I scored an interview with John R. W. Stott, the closest evangelicalism has ever come to a theological rock star. Stott, the longtime rector of London’s All Souls Church at Langham Place, was characteristically gracious and patient with a young and aspiring, but untutored, journalist. When, as a courtesy, I provided Stott with my lightly-edited transcript of the interview, providing him the opportunity to polish and burnish his comments, his only response was permission to wield my editorial pen “a bit more fiercely.”
Such was the gentle, unassuming, and unpretentious character of John Stott, who passed away this week at the age of 90. In an age of megalomaniacal preachers, Stott stood decidedly apart, and in an era when American evangelicals were rushing into the political fray in support of right-wing politicians, Stott sought to remind them of the demands of the gospel. In his opening address at the 1974 International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland, Stott—with characteristic humility—demolished the decades-old shibboleth that evangelicals should concern themselves only with evangelism and not with social amelioration.
“Here then are two instructions, ‘love your neighbor’ and ‘go and make disciples,’” Stott said, referring to the words of Jesus:
“What is the relation between the two? Some of us behave as if we thought them identical, so that if we have shared the gospel with somebody, we consider we have completed our responsibility to love him. But no. The Great Commission neither explains, nor exhausts, nor supersedes the Great Commandment. What it does is to add to the command of neighbor-love and neighbor-service a new and urgent Christian dimension. If we truly love our neighbor, we shall without doubt tell him the Good News of Jesus. But equally, if we truly love our neighbor, we shall not stop there.”
The other remarkable characteristic of Stott was that he was no sectarian. As a priest in the Church of England, he chose to remain there rather than head off in a separate direction in search of some chimera of evangelical purity. In many ways, the defining moment of his career came back in 1966 when Stott was chairing the National Assembly of Evangelicals. In the course of the proceedings, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, another prominent evangelical, made the case that evangelicals within the Church of England should defect and start their own group. Though not slated to speak, Stott, as chair, eloquently rebutted Lloyd-Jones, and most evangelicals chose to remain in the Church of England.
In contrast to many American evangelicals, Stott also supported the ordination of women.
Without any question, American evangelicals have profited from the life and work of John R. W. Stott. His book Basic Christianity, first published in 1958, remains something of an evangelical classic. But evangelicals could appropriate much more from this extraordinary man: his views on social responsibility, his attitude toward women, his aversion to sectarianism, and, most of all, his gentle and irenic manner.