Wednesday, October 18, 2006

It was forty years ago today...

On the 18th October 1966, Dr Martin Lloyd-Jones (see here and here for previous posts on MLJ) gave the opening address at the EA-organised Second National Assembly of Evangelicals. The context was that the First Assembly had set up a Commission to look into the ecumenical movement and attitudes amongst evangelicals towards a future United Church. The Commission had asked MLJ to speak on the subject of evangelical unity, knowing his views beforehand.

After MLJ’s address (which turned out to be an appeal for greater church-level unity between evangelicals, asking them to prize their own unity greater than their denominational affiliation) the Chairman, Rev. John Stott, stood up and expressed his disagreement with MLJ, based mainly on his fear that some younger evangelicals would secede from their denominations overnight in response to the Doctor’s address (there is still much debate over whether or not the Dr necessarily meant for evangelicals to leave their denominations, clearly that was the impression of some). What ensued was an increasingly deeply felt rift amongst evangelicals over the issue of unity and, especially, involvement in ‘mixed denominations’. What had been intended as an appeal for unity ended up sparking off a deep and long-lasting division. In particular Stott and MLJ took increasingly different attitudes towards the mainline denominations, with MLJ increasingly feeling he could no longer work with those who would compromise with the ecumenical movement, and Stott spearheading the 1967 Keele revolution in Anglican Evangelical church politics.

Not wishing to re-open old wounds (isn’t it great that in many ways the ecumenical movement has come to nothing since 1966?), but, because evaluation of the period has tended to evaluate Stott’s politics more favourably, I’m going to blog some of the highlights of MLJ’s address from 40 years ago. Although debate rages on as to what MLJ wanted evangelicals to do, and although undoubtedly part of his thinking was coloured by his own background, and whilst there is no doubt he made mistakes in the way he handled the crisis afterwards (as did Stott, as did Packer), I for one think the Doctor says some striking things in his appeal for unity. Many of his evaluations remain pertinent for today, and raise questions that evangelicals have yet to find adequate answers to. The sad events that ensued from his appeal must not be allowed to obscure these probing questions which demand our attention today as much as forty years ago.

First up then, a couple of quotes[1] (any emphasis added will be mine) about the state of evangelicalism with relation to issues of unity;

‘Can we deny the charge that we, as evangelical Christians, have been less interested in the question of church unity than anybody else?...Surely, with our view of scripture and with our knowledge and understanding of it, we, of all people, ought to be the first to preach the vital necessity of church unity; but we are the last to do so. Not only that, the position is that we are confused and divided among ourselves.’

‘The most pathetic thing of all, to me, is that our attitude towards the question of church union is always a negative one. You can be sure that every time you read the report of an annual assembly of any one of the branches of the Christian church in this country you will find that what evangelicals have been doing at these assemblies is make protests…We are always negative; we are always on the defensive…’

‘…and added to that is our silence in the light of things that have been happening round and about us. It is to me a tragedy that, as evangelicals, we have been silent several times this very year when certain things have taken place. Certain visits have been paid to certain places. And on many other issues we remain silent. It has been left to some eccentrics among evangelicals to make the protest, and we have said nothing.’

[1] All quotes come from ‘Evangelical Unity- An Appeal’ in D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Knowing the Times, (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1989) pp. 246-257.

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