The Living Church

Year Article Type Limit by Author

The Living ChurchMay 5, 1996In Worship and Witness by RUSSELL LEVENSON, JR.212(18) p. 8-9

In Worship and Witness
John Stott talks about today's church

Dr. Stott: What is most troubling in the modern church is a 'feeble-minded capitulation to what is fashionable or politically correct.'

The Rev. John R.W. Stott is widely recognized as one of the leading evangelical preachers and teachers in the Anglican Communion. In addition to serving as rector emeritus of All Souls' Church in London, he is the founder of the Langham Foundation and is the president of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. He has conducted teaching missions worldwide and is the author of more than 35 books. He was interviewed recently when he conducted a teaching mission in Birmingham, Ala.

Q: You were ordained five decades ago. How has your ministry changed in the last half century?

A: I have had the unusual experience of being attached to the same church for 50 years, five years as curate (assistant), 25 years as rector and 20 as rector emeritus. All Souls' Church, Langham Place, occupies a strategic position in the heart of London's West End and reaches out to its very diverse population.

Q: Your writings have influenced two generations of clergy and laity. Of all of your works, with which are you most pleased and why?

A: More of my heart and mind went into the writing of The Cross of Christ than into any other book, because the cross is the center of our Christian faith and life. I could not myself believe in God at all if it were not for the cross. By the cross God not only justifies us, he also justifies himself in a suffering world.

Q: Any future projects planned?

A: I am the editor of the New Testament Bible Speaks Today Series, and have just turned in an exposition of 1 Timothy and Titus. Now, InterVarsity Press has asked me to draw from my diaries and to consider writing some reflections on today's Christian scene.

Q: Where should the church focus its energies today?

A: Not on its own domestic concerns, but on a needy world, reaching out in compassion to the alienated, the hungry, the homeless and the lost.

Q: Where is it wasting its time?

A: Wherever it becomes preoccupied with maintenance instead of mission. A self-centered church is a contradiction in terms. The church is called to live ex-centeredly, giving itself to God in worship and to the world in witness.

Q: A great deal of American preaching focuses on issues (i.e. inclusivity, abortion, environment, human sexuality, race relations, etc.) and yet, there is also a backlash of folk saying stressing issues is killing the central power of the gospel. Do you find yourself agreeing with one side or the other, or is there a fine line?

A: I understand preaching as a bridge-building activity, relating the word to the world, and spanning the gulf between them. It does not matter on which side of the divide one begins, so long as both sides are involved in the process.

Q: Perhaps the most divisive issue in the Episcopal Church today is human sexuality, in particular the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of non-celibate gay persons. Any thoughts on the issue?

A: A Christian view of human sexuality in general and of homosexuality in particular should not begin with the six texts usually quoted (three in the Old Testament and three in the New), but with Genesis 2:24, which is the biblical definition of marriage. It shows that heterosexual, monogamous marriage is the only God-given context for sexual intercourse.

Q: During his recent lectures at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, Wolfhart Pannenberg said, "If protestant churches accept homosexual pastors and pastors with gay partners, they can no longer claim to be churches based on the authenticity of the Bible with the heritage of the Reformation..." Do you agree?

A: Yes, I do agree. It is not just a question of Genesis 2:24, but the fact that Jesus himself quoted this text and gave it his own divine endorsement. The church has no liberty to disagree with its Lord.

Q: What troubles you most about the modern church?

A: Its feeble-minded capitulation to what is fashionable or politically correct. The church is called to be like a rock in a mountain stream, not like a reed shaken by the wind.

Q: What are your thoughts on the current status of biblical scholarship in the church?

A: There is a welcome, growing desire to go beyond sterile, negative criticism to positive canonical study, seeking to understand scripture (the treasure committed to the church's trust) both in its original meaning and in its contemporary application.

Q: Tony Campolo recently said the real hope for the future of the church will be found in the mainline. Your thoughts?

A: I am neither a prophet, nor a son of the prophets, but I guess he may be right. Certainly there is great potential in the mainline denominations if only they will return to Christ and to scripture.

Q: In recent years, you seem to have spent time distinguishing more clearly between evangelicals and fundamentalists. Why?

A: No, it is not recent. For 50 years and more, I have urged that authentic evangelical Christians are not fundamentalists. Fundamentalists tend to be anti-intellectual, to have a dictation theory of inspiration, to be literalistic in their interpretation, to deny Christian social responsibility, to condone racial prejudice, and to be totally negative toward ecumenism.

Q: In your travels, you have seen a great deal of hunger and poverty in the world. Is there a difference in First World and Third World Christianity?

A: Jesus certainly taught that "life's worries, riches and pleasures" can choke spiritual life and hinder spiritual growth (e.g. Luke 8:14). So wherever materialism is not a temptation, one often finds that Christians are more vigorous and vibrant in their faith.

Q: You have written of the church's great blind spots of the past, (the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery, etc.). What do you feel the blind spots of the 20th-century church are?

A: Some years ago I would have begun with our evangelical slowness (in contrast to catholic and ecumenical people) to condemn weapons of indiscriminate destruction. Indeed, this is still an issue. Next, we evangelicals have also been dilatory in expressing concern for the protection of the environment, whereas we should have been the first in the field. Thirdly, world poverty has not yet sufficiently burdened our conscience or affected our economic lifestyle.

Q: What is the greatest threat to authentic Christianity and spirituality?

A: "Worldliness," that is to say, our tendency to surrender to the beliefs, values and standards of non-Christian society. Instead, we are called to a radical non-conformity to the prevailing culture.

Q: What counsel do you have for Christians who seem to find themselves increasingly at odds with the "world?"

A: Rejoice! If we were not at odds with the secular world, there would be something grievously wrong with us. If we are at odds with the world, it may be because we are taking seriously Jesus' call to his followers to be counter-cultural. "Do not be like them," Jesus said (Matt. 6:8).

Q: You have said that Christians should find other interests besides simply the church and religion. You, for instance, are an avid bird watcher. Why?

A: We seem to have a good doctrine of redemption, but a bad doctrine of creation. Yet God has given us in nature and in scripture a double self-revelation. So nature study and Bible study should go hand in hand. Both are explorations into the revelation of God.

Q: When do you feel closest to the presence of Jesus?

A: Sometimes in private prayer, when claiming his great promises like "I will make myself known to him" (John 14:21), but even more in public worship, when I am caught up with the visible congregation and with angels and archangels in the praise of God.

Q: What is the greatest food for the personal faith of the Christian?

A: Quoting Deuteronomy, Jesus himself declared that human beings live not by bread alone but by God's word. I am an impenitent believer in the discipline of daily Bible reading and meditation.

Q: What is your greatest hope for the church today?

A: That it will renew its loyalty to the authentic Christ of the New Testament witness, the God-man, the unique Savior and Lord; that it will not only proclaim him but embody him in holiness and love, so that it will be salt and light to the world.

Q: As the church enters its third millennium, what counsel do you have for its clergy and laity?

A: The fundamental question before us all is "Who is the boss?" Is Jesus Christ the Lord of the church, with authority to teach, direct and empower it? Or is the church the Lord of Jesus Christ, with liberty to manipulate his teaching, selecting what it likes and rejecting what it doesn't? "Jesus is Lord" was the earliest and most basic Christian creed. It remains the chief criterion of Christian authenticity.

The Rev. Russell J. Levenson is associate rector of St. Luke's Church, Birmingham, Ala.