In Memory of John Stott: Christian and, therefore, Steward

John Stott: 1921-2011

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]

My college career began with 9/11 and ended with my reading John Stott’s book Human Rights and Human Wrongs: Major Issues for a New Century. Both were formative, but they were, as you might imagine, wildly different.

One was a violent upheaval of the world as I knew it; the other was a biblically grounded encouragement to step into the actual, broken world. One was rooted in fear, hatred, and uncertainty; the other was rooted in love and trust and confidence in One greater than the author. One skewered the hopes of my college-freshman self; the other returned my hopes to me, nourished, strengthened, and multiplied.

What the two experiences did have in common was a cogent expression of the cultural moment. The violence of 9/11 and our confused reactions in its aftermath revealed a burgeoning ideological war and the existence of a population that most of us had been ignorant of until it literally exploded into our consciousness. In Human Rights and Human Wrongs, Stott, though nearing his eighties, tuned into the ideological and global movements that in part fomented 9/11 and would define the era we have been living in since: pluralism, globalization, moral relativism, wealth inequality and the oppression of the poor, human rights, and the mismanagement of creation.

Stott, who passed away two weeks ago at the age of 90, did not write such relevant, even prescient, work because he tried to stay relevant; he was simply alert to and engaged with both the world and Scripture. Thanks to this alertness and his ability to articulate the role of the Christian in a globalizing, threatening, and threatened world, all that had been deconstructed for me with the fall of the twin towers was rebuilt in new, more complex, and ultimately richer ways.

An integrated—and integral—faith

One way Stott put things together for me in the midst of a world falling apart was in his provision of a holistic understanding of God’s restorative kingdom. Christ’s conquering of sin and death, Stott preached, has cosmic implications beyond the salvation and sanctification of the individual.

After Stott’s passing, Christianity Today featured a list of comments on his life and ministry from Christian leaders around the world. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury, said this:

Without ever compromising his firm evangelical faith, he showed himself willing to challenge some of the ways in which that faith had become conventional or inward-looking. It is not too much to say that he helped to change the face of evangelicalism internationally, arguing for the necessity of “holistic” mission that applied the Gospel of Jesus to every area of life, including social and political questions. But he will be remembered most warmly as an expositor of Scripture and a teacher of the faith, whose depth and simplicity brought doctrine alive in all sorts of new ways.

Stott synthesized things, instead of separating them. In his perspective, there weren’t church issues and global issues; there were issues common to humanity that could (and should) be addressed by the church as a community of humans with a particular calling and hope.

A respect for stewardship and simplicity

Similarly, Stott’s writings introduced me to the biblical principle of shalom, wherein our calling is not only to be in right relationship with God, but also with other people and the creation in which we all live. How fitting, and enlivening, to discover that in a world growing increasingly complex and overwhelming, God’s reconciliation is robust enough to meet the challenge.

Stott considered the of stewardship of creation, in particular, to be an important part of the well-rounded Christian life. A personal love for birds led him to author (and illustrate, with his own photographs) the book The Birds, Our Teachers, which compiles lessons gleaned from birds in such areas as repentance, self-esteem, gratitude, and joy. Stott also became a friend of the Christian international conservation organization, A Rocha, which honored him with the following words on its Web site:

But perhaps even more important, for A Rocha, was John’s conviction, clearly articulated in his preaching and writing, that God has given human beings the responsibility to care for the earth on his behalf. When our work began at a field study centre in Portugal, many evangelicals were puzzled by the concept of Christians committing their lives to the study of nature and the protection of threatened habitats. John understood.

Likewise, Stott’s personal commitment to simplicity and humility (he lived his whole life—first as a member and then as a rector—in the congregation of All Souls Church, Langham Place in London, in spite of opportunities to ascend the church’s hierarchy) prompted him to publicly encourage these values in the lives of all Christians, in obedience to the gospel and for the sake of the poor and the land. An Evangelical Commitment to Simple Life-style is one public result of his holistic reflection and teaching on our responsibility to others and creation. It came out of an issue-based Lausanne Congress meeting that took place in 1980, the International Consultation on Simple Life-style, and opens with the following synthesis of belief and service: “ ‘Life’ and ‘life-style’ obviously belong together and cannot be separated. All Christians claim to have received a new life from Jesus Christ. What life-style, then, is appropriate for them? If the life is new, the life-style should be new also.”

A firm foundation for hope

While I was, when I first read his work, and still am grateful for the fact that Stott addressed such issues explicitly, I am equally grateful that he consistently admonished followers of Christ to live and serve not according to issues or political agendas or cultural trends, but in response to biblical truth and the example of Christ’s ministry on earth. It was from this firmest of foundations for any good work that he drew the following conclusion about stewardship in Human Rights and Human Wrongs:

If therefore our dominion over the earth has been delegated to us by God, with a view to our cooperating with him and sharing its produce with others, then we are accountable to him for our stewardship. We have no liberty to do what we like with our natural environment; it is not ours to treat as we please. “Dominion” is not a synonym for “domination,” let alone “destruction.” Since we hold to it in trust, we have to manage it responsibly and productively for the sake of both our own and subsequent generations.

It is also because of this example of rooting global, political, cultural, and environmental engagement in the core of the gospel that I have hope for Christians’ role in our demanding context. The tenth anniversary of 9/11 is approaching, and with it will come much commentary on how our world has changed and become more complicated and bewildering in the last decade.

I draw much comfort and encouragement from the fact that though we have lost John Stott in one capacity, we have his example of plunging, unafraid, into that complicated—often crushing—world as people of God’s holistic and hopeful shalom.

Be encouraged

In his final book, The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling, Stott addresses the subject of death, a moving chapter in light of his own passing. In his classic, cohesive style, he articulates a thunderous hope for the whole of creation:

Furthermore, what is true of the resurrection body will in some way apply to the new heaven and new earth. Jesus called it a “regeneration” (palingenesia, Matthew 19:28). For the body is to be resurrected; the world is to be regenerated. And as there is to be a blend of continuity and discontinuity between the two bodies so surely will there be between the two worlds. The whole creation is going to be liberated from its bondage to decay (Romans 8:18-25). These great expectations will be part of the eternal life into which death will bring us. It is this that is proclaimed in many cemeteries and on many tombstones: mors janua vitae—death is the gateway to life.

It comforts me and brings a smile to my face to imagine John Stott enjoying unparalleled birdwatching in his new life. And I am grateful that in his temporal body on this old earth he lived according to a robust faith in the new, setting an admirable example for us to do the same.

Further Reading

If you are unfamiliar with the life and work of John Stott, I highly recommend discovering him for yourself in order to receive a dose steadfastness and clarity in muddled times, and to be strengthened by the hope of Christ. Here are some resources for getting started:

Kendra Langdon Juskus is a writer and editor and the managing editor of Flourish.

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