Killer suit, isn’t it? Balanced Christianity: a call to avoid unnecessary polarisation is a 1975 booklet, the earliest expression I’ve seen of John Stott’s both-and approach, which seeks to embrace both poles in order to avoid polarisation. The strength of this lies not in the ‘both-and’ notion (which on its own would leave us in limbo) but in Stott’s prophetic identification of our own tendencies as evangelicals: where are we too extreme or out of kilter?
Stott’s starting point is the maxim, ‘In things essential unity, in things doubtful liberty, in all things charity’.
Although we all agree on the biblical basics, Stott wants to see us identify the unspoken things which influence us: ‘Although our apprehension of biblical truth depends on the illumination of the Holy Spirit, it is inevitably coloured by the kind of person we are, the age in which we live and the culture to which we belong.’ What things are we investing with truth that may be more cultural than scriptural?
From there, Stott calls for balance in four areas:
1. Intellect and emotion. What is the proper place for thinking and for experience? Of course it’s both-and, but Stott takes up the historical evangelical emphasis on vital piety, saying, ‘Nothing sets the heart on fire like truth.’ The more we rightly seek truth, the more passionate we must find ourselves. He applauds Martin Lloyd-Jones’ definition of preaching as ‘logic on fire’, ‘theology coming through a man who is on fire’.
2. Conservative and radical. How should we consider change and tradition? Of course it’s both-and, an unswerving commitment to Scripture coupled with a fearless biblical criticism of culture, as epitomised by Jesus himself. Yet Stott is more specific: our pressing issue is to distinguish between Scripture and culture. He cites Jim Wallis’s criticism of ‘the disastrous equation of the American way of life with the Christian way of life’. Our danger is ‘to be too conservative and traditionalist, to be blind to those things in church and society which displease God and should therefore displease us…’ This puts Stott on quite a different tack to today’s pop conservatism. Precisely because culture is imperfect, all of us should be seeking biblical change instead of merely reacting to what happens around us.
3. Form and freedom. How should we structure church, ministry, worship and relationships? In this case, Stott is interested in what sort of structures we may retain, especially given our tendency to ignore (our own) history. Structure is connected with fellowship and unity! ‘Scripture gives us no warrant to seek unity without truth. But then it gives no warrant either to seek truth without unity. Independency is right. But so is fellowship in the common faith we profess.’
4. Evangelism and social action. Stott highlights our characteristic evangelical fault — in this case, ‘We have often talked and behaved as if we thought our only Christian responsibility towards non-Christian society was evangelism.’ He applauds our increasing attention to the doctrine of creation and to the ethics of neighbour-love. While individual believers or congregations do not each need to be equally involved in both evangelism and social action, ‘the local Christian community as a whole should be concerned for the local secular community as a whole’.
For discussion: What rings true today in your context? What’s different?
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.