In this terse book, Stott addresses what he calls in the opening chapter a “tragedy” in “evangelical Christians” – “polarization” (7). This is the tendency toward one pole or the other in any issue. Whether that is for theological or temperamental reasons, “We should avoid them” (12) and find a balance. In the following four chapters, he gives four examples of polarization.
First: “Intellect & Emotion.” The two polar opposites are “a dry and lifeless hyper intellectualism, an exclusive preoccupation with orthodoxy” (17) compared to “anti-intellectualism and a surrender to emotionalism.” (13) His middle ground is, “The truth is that God has made us emotional as well as rational creatures” (17). “Both therefore belong to an authentic human experience” (22).
Second: “Conservative & Radical.” The two extremes are “people who are determined to conserve or preserve the past and are therefore resistant to change” (24, cf. 26) compared to “people who are in rebellion against what is inherited from the past and therefore are agitating for change” (24, cf. 26). Stott advocates being like Jesus who was both – “although in different spheres” (27) – conservative in his attitude to the Scriptures, but radical in his biblical scrutiny of everything else. “What we are called to is a wise discernment, informed by a biblical perspective, so that we are appreciative of the legacy of the past and responsive to the mood of the present. Only then can we apply to all culture (in church and in society) a radical biblical criticism and seek to change what under God we believe could be changed for the better” (36, cf. 29, 30, 33, 34, 35).
Third: “Form & Freedom.” The two counterparts are a structured kind of Christianity compared to an unstructured. This shows itself in three areas: the church and its ministry, formal worship, and relations with other Christians. Stott’s solution is to have both. “There is a necessary place in Christ’s church for both the structured and the unstructured, both the formal and the informal, both the dignified and the spontaneous, both independency and communion” (44).
Fourth: “Evangelism & Social Action.” The two ends of the spectrum are spreading the gospel, “the proclamation of the good news of salvation” (49) compared to social gospel “to redefine salvation in almost entirely social, economic, and political terms” (48). Stott’s argument for balance is because “God made humans spiritual, physical and social beings,” defined as “body-souls-in-community” (50). “Therefore the obligation to love our neighbors can never be reduced to the loving of only a bit of them. If we love our neighbors as God created them (which is God’s command to us), then we shall inevitably be concerned for their total welfare, the welfare of their bodies, their souls and their society” (50-51). He does note that no one can do both equally, since God has given everyone different gifts.
The last chapter is an interview with John Stott from 1995. Stott reaffirms what he wrote in the first edition of this book from 1975.
In reviewing this book, one question kept coming to mind: Who decides what is the polarization and the balance? Stott says that Scripture should, especially in the chapter on “Conservative & Radical,” but then he uses his own thoughts and experiences as the deciding factor.
In his opening chapter, Stott lists his adiaphora. Some are actual adiaphora, things neither commanded nor forbidden by God in Scripture. However, he also includes in this list of “matters of lesser importance” the likes of “how far evangelical Christians may involve themselves in a ‘mixed’ denomination without compromising themselves and their faith … [and] who qualifies for baptism.” He states that “although we shall wish to continue arguing our own conviction from Scripture according to the light we have so far been given, we should not try to press our position dogmatically on other Christian consciences, but give each other liberty in mutual love and respect” (8-9).
Some other questionable things I found in need of more explanation: (Emphasis is mine.)
- On conservatism, “[A]n exclusive preoccupation with orthodoxy, is not New Testament Christianity” (17).
- Citing the episode on the road to Emmaus, he said, “Whenever we read the Scripture and Christ opens it up to us so that we grasp fresh truth in it, our hearts should burn within us” (22).
- On cultural change, “[W]e should be in the forefront of those who propose and work for its progressive modification in order to make it more truly expressive of the dignity of humanity and more pleasing to the God who created us” (31).
- On relations with other Christians, “… Scripture gives us no warrant to seek or secure unity without truth. But it gives us no warrant either to seek truth without unity. Independence is right. But so is fellowship in the common faith we profess” (44).
Stott summarizes his book as:
We need to emphasize both the intellectual and the emotional, remembering that nothing sets the heart on fire like truth; both the conservative and the radical, resolved to conserve Scripture but to evaluate culture according to Scripture; both the structured and the unstructured, for each can supplement the other; and both the evangelistic and the social, for neither can be a substitute, a cloak or an excuse for the other, since each stands on its own feet as an authentic expression of that love for our neighbor to which God the Lord still calls his people. (54-55)
This book is helpful to note the extremes in Christianity today and maybe in ourselves today as well. If they are there, evaluate them in our church and ourselves. Are they there because of a biblical reason? Are they there because of a personal reason?
That being said, this book cannot be wholeheartedly recommended. While there may be a few things to glean from it, e.g. the church does not alter or change the eternal gospel (25); there is much that is Stott’s own opinions, e.g. defining how emotion should look. (20-21) His principle of finding a balance between two polarizations based on Scripture is appropriate, he does not always follow that principle. For a confessional Lutheran pastor, this book may not be too useful. For a similar principle of balance between polarizations, Daniel Deutschlander’s The Narrow Lutheran Middle is recommended.
John Stott (1921-2011) was an Anglican cleric born in London, England. He was active in the public ministry at All Souls Church in London from 1945-2007. He is considered one of the leaders of the Evangelical movement, especially within the Anglican Church. He founded what is now called the Langham Partnership in 1969, an international non-profit organization “to see churches equipped for mission and growing to maturity in Christ through the ministry of pastors and leaders who believe, teach, and live by the Word of God.” He was also the chairman of the drafting committee for the Lausanne Covenant in 1974. He wrote over fifty books in his lifetime. Time magazine named him eighty-second of the one hundred most influential people of 2005. His obituary in Christianity Today is subtitled “An architect of 20th century evangelicalism shaped the faith of a generation.”
Balanced Christianity, by John Stott. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2014. 96 pages.