John Stott on speaking out about contemporary issues

Over the Christmas period, I read John Stott’s book I believe in Preaching. The book may be 40 years old, but I found it immensely helpful, encouraging, as well as challenging. One chapter in particular stood out for me as being especially helpful, which is called ‘Preaching as Bridge-Building’. This chapter is all about how preachers must build bridges from the Bible to what’s going on in the world today. It’s not enough simply to “preach the Bible”, but we must apply the Bible to what is going on in people’s lives today.

What really spoke to me was how the book spoke into the current situation about the coronavirus and lockdown. If you’ve been around for a while, you will know that I have been a very vocal critic of the church’s non-response to the lockdowns. I have found it baffling why churches have not seriously grappled with questions of government, freedom, public health, truth, censorship, and so on. These are big issues which people are wrestling with, and yet many churches have left these issues unaddressed.

It was into this context that I found John Stott’s wisdom immensely helpful. Let me quote you a few parts of the bridge building chapter which I think are particularly relevant.

The ultimate relevance of Christ

It should be plain from these quotations that the One we preach is not Christ-in-a-vacuum, nor a mystical Christ unrelated to the real world, nor even only the Jesus of ancient history, but rather the contemporary Christ who once lived and died, and now lives to meet human need in all its variety today. To encounter Christ is to touch reality and experience transcendence. He gives us a sense of self-worth or personal significance, because he assures us of God’s love for us. He sets us free from guilt because he died for us, from the prison of our own self-centredness by the power of his resurrection, and from paralyzing fear because he reigns, all the principalities and powers of evil having been put under his feet.

This paragraph is wonderful. “To encounter Christ is to touch reality and experience transcendence” – I love that phrase. It made me think of another book I’ve read recently – Francis Schaeffer’s A Christian Manifesto. Schaeffer says that Christianity is not simply true but it is the truth. There’s a subtle but important distinction: Jesus is the rock on which all truth is built. There is no truth in the world apart from God’s truth.

The upshot of this is that Jesus is relevant to every single situation. There is no issue in the world about which Jesus is indifferent. Nothing is too big or too small.

I wonder sometimes whether we as a church have made Jesus too small. J.B. Phillips famously wrote a book called Your God is Too Small, and I think that’s still true today. We have made God too small, we have relegated the gospel to personal morality and made it unable to speak into bigger issues going on in the world today.

Christ and social issues

Christ is not just relevant to our own personal morality, but to the bigger questions of States and governments:

The question of the Christian attitude to the evil-doer and the enemy cannot be confined to the realm of personal ethics either. It immediately raises questions about the state and its officers (legislators, policemen, judges).

As soon as you start talking about right and wrong, you have to move beyond the individual to a society: societies have a concept of right and wrong as well! For example, when the Same-Sex Marriage bill was moving through parliament, a lot of churches stood against it and got involved. Churches saw that marriage was not a purely private thing but had implications for the whole of society.

We also have a responsibility to stand up in situations of injustice:

[These issues] press upon us from every side – human oppression and the cry for liberation; poverty, hunger, illiteracy and disease … civil rights and civil liberties, dehumanization by the technocracy and the bureaucracy…

These are the questions which fill our newspapers and which thoughtful university students debate all day and all night. How then can we ban them from the pulpit? If we do so, in order to concentrate exclusively on ‘spiritual’ topics, we perpetuate the disastrous separation of the sacred from the secular (implying that these are distinct spheres and that God is concerned only for the one and not for the other); we divorce Christian faith from Christian life; we encourage a pietistic Christian withdrawal from the real world; we justify Marx’s well-known criticism that religion is an opiate which drugs people into acquiescing in the status quo; and we confirm non-Christians in their sneaking suspicion that Christianity is irrelevant. All this is too high a price to pay for our irresponsibility.

Stott argues here that Christians cannot simply avoid speaking about issues of justice – such as ‘civil liberties’ and ‘technocracy’ – two issues which have been very much at the forefront over the last couple of years. (For example, see what I’ve written about freedom and technocracy). He argues that we must oppose dehumanization wherever we find it:

This respect for human beings as Godlike beings is fundamental according to the Bible to our attitude to them. It moves us to oppose everything which dehumanizes human beings, and to support everything which makes them more human.

That which dehumanizes human beings is offensive to God. Of course, the gospel is the most humanizing thing, and we must make a priority of proclaiming it. But it is also right to speak against that which is offensive to God.

Speaking against the government

From the very earliest days of the church, Christians have stood up against the government:

They [the apostles in Acts 17] were proclaiming the supreme kingship of of Jesus, and this necessarily meant denying to Caesar that which he coveted most, namely the absolute homage of his subjects, even their worship. It meant, further, that King Jesus had a community of subjects who looked to him for directions about their values, standards and lifestyle; who knew they had a responsibility to be the world’s salt and light; and who were prepared, whenever there was a collision between the two communities and their two value-systems, to defy Caesar and follow Christ, even at the cost of their lives.

Christians have always acknowledged that there is a Lord above any earthly lord, to whom belongs our ultimate allegiance. Saying ‘Jesus is Lord’ is a deeply political statement, because it says that any earthly government is not the ultimate power. In fact, in those days, you were required to say ‘Caesar is Lord’ – so the apostles were in fact making a very charged political statement!

As Christians we must always be prepared to say when we think the government have got it wrong or when they are over-reaching. We must grapple with a Christian understanding of government. Too often over the last couple of years, Christian leaders have gone to Romans 13 (which talks about obeying the secular authorities) without thinking through what the rest of the Bible says about the secular authorities.

Saying nothing is saying something

It is not possible to say nothing about contemporary issues.

What is certain is that the pulpit has political influence, even if nothing remotely connected with politics is ever uttered from it. For then the preacher’s silence endorses the contemporary socio-political conditions, and instead of helping to change society and make it more pleasing to God, the pulpit becomes a mirror which reflects contemporary society, and the Church conforms to the world. The neutrality of the pulpit is impossible. [My emphasis]

If we do not speak up about issues which people are talking about, then the church will simply go along with whatever the world is saying. People learn their values these days from all sorts of sources – school and university, the media, social media, and so on. The world is constantly preaching its values to us. We as Christians must be prepared to speak up about where the world’s values contrast with the church’s values – even if that means confronting deeply held views in society.

Stott goes on to talk about why we need to say something about issues which people are thinking about today:

This attitude [not speaking out] is understandable, but irresponsible. Christian people are crying out for guidance in these areas. They want to be helped to think about them as Christians. Shall we abandon them to swim in these deep waters alone? This is the way of the coward.

To avoid and duck issues which people are asking serious questions about is cowardly (if understandable). Over the last couple of years I think many people have been asking serious questions about the lockdowns: are they proportional and right? Are human relationships dispensable? Is online church really church? Should a government have this kind of power? All these questions are questions which the Bible can shed lots of light on – but unfortunately many churches have avoided them.

Developing a Christian mind

One of the biggest things we need to do as a church is to develop a Christian mind. A Christian mind is “not a mind which is thinking about specifically Christian or even religious topics, but a mind which is thinking about everything, however apparently ‘secular’, and doing so ‘Christianly’ or within a Christian frame of reference.” A Christian mind is a way of thinking about the world, a way of developing a distinctly Christian perspective on everything going on.

Stott quotes a book by Harry Blamires called The Christian Mind:

Mr. Blamires bemoans the almost total loss of a Christian mind among Church leaders today: ‘The Christian mind has succumbed to the secular drift with a degree of weakness and nervelessness unmatched in Christian history … As a thinking being the modern Christian has succumbed to secularization.’

Bear in mind that Stott’s book was published in 1981! If this was true of 1981, I think it’s even more the case today. Many Christians, even Christian leaders, seem to think in secular categories rather than Christian ones. This is why I think it has seemed so logical and obvious to change almost everything about the church for the purpose of safety. There’s nothing wrong with safety in itself, but it should have a proper place and not an ultimate one. The way that safety has become so important could only happen within a deeply secular culture like ours.

Let me finish with one final quote:

We who are called to be Christian preachers today should do all we can to help the congregation to grow out of dependence on borrowed slogans and ill-considered cliches, and instead to develop their powers of intellectual and moral criticism, that is, their ability to distinguish between truth and error, good and evil. Of course, we should encourage an attitude of humble submission to Scripture, but at the same time make it clear that we claim no infallibility for our interpretations of Scripture. We should urge our hearers to ‘test’ and ‘evaluate’ our teaching. We should welcome questions, not resent them.

Part of the task of a Christian leader is to help people think for themselves, that is, not to simply obey whatever the pastor says but develop a Christian mind to discern the Lord’s will (Ephesians 5:17). We need to educate people in the Christian faith, not simply reset their moral compass every week. I’ve been saying for a while now that we need to do more than ‘preach the Bible’, we need to catechise people. That is – we need to teach them the Christian faith. People have got questions and issues, and what we do is look at the Bible together.

One of the things about the last couple of years which has really got to me is that way that questions and debate have been discouraged, even forbidden (I talked about this a little in my post on truth). This is not the way that the church should be – we should seek to submit everything to Scripture. That is the way that we grow to maturity in Christ, grappling together with the difficult issues in our lives and in the world in the light of Scripture.


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