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Weekend Reading: Balanced Christianity by John Stott

February 28, 2014

Balanced Christianity by John StottEarlier this week I wrote about extremes – specifically relating to law and grace. I made the argument that we should not necessarily look for some middle ground or moderate position, but rather the truth in both extremes.

This is the underlying message of John Stott’s classic work, Balanced Christianity (expanded edition, 2014, InterVarsity Press). Originally published in 1975, this short work draws attention to what Stott calls “one of the great tragedies of contemporary Christendom, a tragedy which is especially apparent among those of us who are called (and indeed call ourselves) evangelical Christians. In a single word, this tragedy is polarization…” (emphasis his) He correctly points out our substantial agreement in the historic doctrines of the faith, yet we choose to make no allowance for those who disagree with us on matters of lesser importance.

The introduction sounds like he is setting up an argument for some sort of trans-denominationalism, but that is not really what he does. Stott does not argue that our differences do not matter, just that we have more to unite over than to divide over.

To be sure, our differences do matter. If they did not, we would not hold them as differences. This is especially true when it comes to doctrinal differences. It is fair that these distinctions keep me from being a member of the same local church as those who practice infant baptism. It should not prevent me from accepting them as fellow believers and fellow evangelicals. It should not prevent us from worshiping together. It should not prevent us from shared outreach and social action. We are still brothers and sisters in Christ. We can choose to not focus on our differences, but rather on the things we hold in common.

Stott identifies and briefly examines four areas of polarization within the Christian church in general, and evangelicalism in particular. It is truly fascinating to me that while he wrote this almost 40 years ago in 1975, the four areas of polarization are still sources of conflict within the evangelical church and Stott’s words still ring true today. The four areas of polarization Stott provides a short analysis of are:

Intellect & Emotion: Stott says, “Some Christians are so coldly intellectual that one questions whether they are warm-blooded mammals, let alone human beings, while others are so emotional that one wonders whether they have any gray matter at all.” Either extreme is too far in that direction, but camping out in the middle where there is some logic and some emotion is not the answer. We are created as rational image bearers of a rational God, in his image. But God also feels. Scripture describes God as having deep feelings of love, anger, compassion, and sorrow. Stott comments, “If it is a serious peril to deny your intellect, it is a serious peril to deny your emotions.” If the polarization existed in 1975, it certainly exists in today’s evangelicalism.

Conservative & Radical: One of the things I really like about Stott and this book is embodied in the beginning of this statement: “We must begin by defining these terms. By conservatives we are referring to people who are determined to conserve or preserve the past and are therefore resistant to change. By radicals we are referring to people who are in rebellion against what is inherited from the past and therefore are agitating for change.” By our cultural, political, and/or religious definition(s), I am conservative; according to Stott’s, I am not conservative. While it is absolutely true that we must remain conservative in matters of Biblical theology, we must avoid the trap of conservatism in every area of life. On the one hand are those who want no change of any kind for any reason; on the other hand are those (Stott refers to them as radicals) who question everything and want “thoroughgoing reform, even revolution.” It appears the only option is to polarize over this, but the reality is we are called to be both conservative and radical. We must be conservative in our theology, in biblical truth. We must be radical in sharing that truth with those around us. Methodologies change over time. They must be evaluated and reevaluated against scripture. We do not “do church” as the disciples or the early church did. There must be room at the evangelical table for those who change more slowly and those who are more welcoming to change. We need not polarize in this area.

Form & Freedom: Stott identified a move in 1975 (it was not new then, nor has it diminished) calling for a new and unstructured kind of Christianity without the structure and baggage inherited from previous generations of the church. He identifies three main expressions of this way of thinking.

…first, that many are looking for churches without a fixed form. Groups of Christians, now meeting in many parts of the world, are breaking away from tradition and doing their own thing in their own way. Second, there is a desire for worship services without order, in which the minister no longer dominates everything but congregational participation is encouraged, in which the organ is replaced by the guitar and an ancient liturgy by the language of today, and in which there is more freedom less form, more spontaneity less starch. Third, there is a rejection of denominationalism and a new emphasis on independency. The younger generation is quite content to cut the cords which tie them to the past and even to other churches of the present. They want to call themselves Christian without any denominational label. (emphasis his)

Personally, I do not have major issues with the first two observations. Tradition, unlike biblical truth, must be evaluated and can be changed. Since I hail from a church tradition without a formal liturgy and hold tightly to the priesthood of the believer (and personally prefer guitar to organ), the second is also somewhat acceptable. The third is troubling. We have things that tie us together. Those should be recognized and celebrated. To be clear, denominational loyalty must not come before loyalty to scripture, but associations are important. Form is important. The problem is when form does not allow for the movement and work of the Holy Spirit. Stott makes the case that scripture calls for structure in three areas. First, there is a structured church with leadership, membership, and some forms. But there is flexibility in all this for freedom. Second, there is formal worship. There is room for exuberant worship alongside more reverent worship. “Some believers seem to assume that the chief evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit is noise. Have we forgotten that a dove is as much an emblem of the Holy Spirit as are wind and fire?” Third, there is a connectional principle. We often focus on independence—autonomy—to the point we forget our local church is part of God’s larger universal church.

Evangelism & Social Action: This fourth polarization identified by Stott is the one that, in my opinion, has been most improved since the original publication of this work. While it is true that mainline churches still try to affect change in society and politics without the benefit of evangelizing that society, and while it is true that some “evangelicals” are only interested in evangelism, a great many evangelicals have come around to the truth that evangelism and social action can be two sides of the same coin. Stott notes, “If Jesus so loved the world that he entered it by incarnation, how can his followers claim to love it by seeking to escape from it? As Sir Frederick Catherwood has written, ‘To try to improve society is not worldliness but love. To wash your hands of society is not love but worldliness.’” Once again, the answer is not to find some middle ground. Jesus did not give us the Great Commandment (Mark 12:29-31, especially 31) and then override it with the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). We are not to pick the one we find easiest or the one we most relate to; we are to strive to keep both. Our love for others and our desire to see them have a relationship with God trough Christ Jesus must co-exist.

The sixth and final chapter of this wonderful little book, and the chapter that makes this an “Expanded Edition”, is a reprint of an interview of John Stott conducted by Roy McCloughry in 1995 for the British magazine Third Way. The interview was republishing by Christianity Today. This is easily the longest chapter in the book. While it is interesting and helpful, it is not as inspiring as the previous chapters, nor does it contain the depth. Topics of the interview include Stott looking back over more than 50 years of ministry; the way society, the church, and the author’s ministry have changed in those years; changes in Stott’s own Anglican Church and the evangelical movement; and a host of other issues.

Balanced Christianity by John Stott is one of those more modern classics that should be read by most everyone who professes to be a believer, and certainly should be read by those with a position of leadership and influence in the church.

Have you read Balanced Christianity? What did you think about it? If you have not read it, does this review help convince you to? Leave your comment below!

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