Vinoth Ramachandra

True Leadership

Posted on: February 28, 2021

This year the global Church celebrates the birth centenary of one its greatest twentieth-century leaders, John Stott (1921-2011).

Although I heard him as a speaker and read some of his books during my undergraduate years in London, it was only in the final year of my postgraduate study that I got to know him personally when he invited me to join the reading group that met quarterly in his flat. One of my vivid memories of that group was going to watch a film (the title eludes me) by the renowned Swedish existentialist Ingmar Bergman. Stott was so deeply moved by the film that he insisted on taking us all to a nearby church where he knelt before the Lord’s Table and poured out his soul in contrition over all his flawed relationships.

It is such integrity and vulnerability that leave an indelible impression on young people’s minds. And it is the memory of Stott’s character, far more than his books or preaching, that I recall whenever I grow discouraged by the hypocrisies or arrogance of so many in leadership positions today.

Much of Stott’s “British public school theology” was challenged by his visits to the non-Western world and his friendships with non-Western Christian leaders. He actually listened to us, unlike so many others who only came to propagate their views and to “train” us. Commitment to the poor, and a growing engagement with social and political ethics, came to the fore in his later writings, much to the consternation of his conservative friends. His eclecticism and willingness to engage in dialogue with Roman Catholics alienated him from many in his own country who believed that there was nothing they could learn from others in the global Body of Christ.

When Stott invited me to give the London Lectures in Contemporary Christianity of 1998 (lectures which eventually became a book Faiths in Conflict? Christian Integrity in a Multicultural World), he took me out to dinner to explain the aim of the lectures and urged me to “Please help us evangelical Christians to see our blind-spots.” Here was a 77-year old man desiring to be taught by an obscure non-Westerner roughly half his age and with, hitherto, only two books to his credit! I was amazed. I have not met any other leader, before or since, who has expressed to me such a desire.

Stott shunned all adulation and the near-idolization that many heaped on him, not least in the USA. While continuing to hold him in great respect, there were, of course, aspects of his theology with which I disagree. Some of these are common to the Western evangelical culture he inhabited, such as being too rationalistic in his reading of the Bible and a tendency to treat the apostle Paul almost as a “second incarnation”. His exposure to the Eastern Church Fathers and the best of the monastical tradition in the West was severely limited.

In one of his most important books, The Contemporary Christian, Stott called for a “double refusal” on the part of the Church. Both Escapism and Conformity should be replaced by a posture of “double listening”: listening both to the Word and to the World. This was central to the development of a Christian Mind. He wrote: “We listen to the Word with humble reverence, anxious to understand it, and resolved to believe and obey what we come to understand. We listen to the world with critical alertness, anxious to understand it too, and resolved not necessarily to believe and obey it, but to sympathise with it and to seek grace to discover how the gospel relates to it.” (John Stott, The Contemporary Christian: An Urgent Plea for Double Listening, pp. 27-29)

This is well said; but it does not go far enough. For, surely, the aim of our listening to the world is not only to find relevant ways of communicating the gospel to that world but also to learn from the world (or, more accurately, from God’s actions in the world) a fuller and deeper understanding of that gospel itself. The apostle Peter’s listening to Cornelius relating his personal journey (Acts 10 & 11) would be a paradigm example from the early Church. What is happening here is a “double conversion”: Cornelius to Christ and Peter to a deeper understanding of Christ.

As the Church historian Andrew Walls famously put it: “It is as though Christ himself actually grows through the work of mission… As he enters new areas of thought and life, he fills the picture. It is surely right to see the process as being repeated in subsequent transmission of the faith across cultural lines.” (Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith, p.xvii)

Listening to the world also involves more than reading influential secular texts. It includes deep personal encounters with men and women outside the Church and also being plunged into the pain, confusion and creativity of all humanity. This is where the hermeneutics of “double listening” must lead. And the development of a “Christian mind” cannot occur by leap-frogging the rich Christian intellectual traditions that have emerged in the world Church through prolonged conversation with all other human intellectual enquiries and a faithful immersion in wider human communities. So, it is not simply a matter of “the Word and the World” but “the Word in its long engagement with the World”.

So, in this centenary year, even as we give thanks to God for such a remarkable servant of the Church, we should neither pay mere lip-service to John Stott’s legacy nor idolize him. Perhaps the best way to honour him would be to imitate his integrity and teachability.

9 Responses to "True Leadership"

Vinoth, Thanks for this. Well said. I never had the privilege of meeting Stott or even hearing him speak. As I get older and read more of Stott and engage with those he influenced, I appreciate him more and more. He also has significant legacies through Langham, Lausanne, and IFES.

It is interesting to read this tribute from a distinguished journalist who did not share Stott’s Christian beliefs

shalom
Ross

Thanks Vinoth for these powerful words on John Stott, a learner indeed. His words at the Billy Graham Congress on World Evangelism in Lausanne – 1974 still speak to me. ‘Let the Earth Hear His Voice’ is still relevant for today…

Steve

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[…] be more to come in 2021 about John Stott, I’ve no doubt, since this is his centenary year. This post by the incisive Sri Lankan theologian, Vinoth Ramachandra, is notable because he is never prone to flattery or empty soundbites (not least when it comes to the flaws of […]

Thank you Vinoth for this piece on Uncle John. I appreciate your telling us to “neither pay mere lip-service to John Stott’s legacy nor idolize him”

Thank you, Vinoth for this wonderful recollection of John Stott.

Thank you Vinoth. Those out of sight remarks and gestures tell a bigger, deeper, and ever-relevant story about someone’s character. Here is how NT Wright put his meeting with Stott in the 1980s: “John invited himself to lunch one Saturday and I was flattered and delighted—I didn’t know him very well then—and though it was clear in retrospect that this was a kind of ‘mentoring’ moment, he treated me as an equal, a partner in the gospel, throughout. He was of course the soul of courtesy. When it was time to go and he proposed that we pray together I was surprised and delighted when this great low-churchman proceeded to get up from his chair, turn round, and kneel down. He clearly knew, what many evangelicals have forgotten, a point C. S. Lewis makes: that what you do with your body both expresses and affects what you are doing with your heart and soul.”

Well acknowledged humility of John Stott. Privileged to have been introduced mainly through his books and met him thrice ( twice in SL). If only those whom he mentored showed us some compassion when we were undergraduates, our (and their) histories would have been different! Only our LORD will understand the nuanced complexities of our sin and being sinned against, the spiritual formations from those experiences, but thankfully we can all be forgiven and think again (metanoia indeed)!

This idea has navigated right into my heart.

I enjoyed very much reading your write up on John Stott. I met him in the late 80’s during my sojourn in London as an accountancy student. His book ‘Basic Christianity’ never ceases to interest me.

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