What happens when two of the most influential evangelicals of the 20th century don’t see eye to eye on an issue with important theological and practical implications? A public showdown. That’s what happened with John Stott and Billy Graham in the mid 1970’s regarding the role of social ministry in the mission of the church.

The year was 1974.

2500 evangelicals from 150 countries and 135 denominations were in Lausanne, Switzerland for the International Congress on World Evangelization. In his biography of John Stott, Godly Ambition, Alister Chapman describes the background for the confrontation:

The central purpose of the congress was to galvanize evangelicals to finish the task, to ensure that the gospel finally reached every corner of the earth. Its theme, emblazoned above the podium, was “Let the Earth Hear His Voice.”

By the time of Lausanne, Stott had come to the conclusion that God called his people to care about society and politics as well as evangelism. Many at Lausanne agreed with him, especially people from churches associated with the WCC (World Council of Churches), where social and political issues were high priorities. However, the belief that preaching the gospel was all that really mattered was still common, especially in the United States. Talk of social action brought to mind the dreaded social gospel, which many saw as a chief culprit in the theological drift of America’s historic denominations.

At Lausanne, Stott wanted evangelicals to take social action seriously. The twist in Stott’s message to the congress was his argument that the Great Commission itself demanded that Christians pay attention to people’s physical and social needs, as well as their spiritual ones. He did this by focusing not on the standard version of the commission, namely Jesus’ command to go and make disciples of all nations as recorded in Matthew’s gospel, but rather on John’s account of Jesus telling his disciples that as his Father had sent him, so he was sending them. And just as Jesus’ mission had involved caring for people’s bodies, as well as their souls, so should that of the church.

The Lausanne Covenant reflected Stott’s vision. It was primarily focused on evangelism, but included a secondary section on social responsibility. As time went on, however, it became clear that the committee tasked with continuing the work of Lausanne was not fully on board with the Covenant’s inclusion of social ministry.

… Stott discovered that the powers that be in this American-led movement had not really accepted the covenant’s dual emphasis on evangelism and social action… Stott was adamant that Lausanne should be about social action, as well as evangelism. The committee had already been stacked against him, however.

So, as Stott arrived in Mexico City in January 1975 for the first meeting of the continuation committee he knew it would be an uphill battle.

Billy Graham addressed the meeting on the first night. “What I counsel…” he said, “is that we stick strictly to evangelism and missions, while at the same time encouraging others to do the specialized work that God has commissioned the Church to do.”

Stott stayed awake for several hours that night, formulating his response to Graham’s proposal. By morning, he had decided to confront Graham, who was bankrolling the meeting and the movement. As business began, Stott stunned everyone by saying that he would resign from the committee if Graham’s vision for the movement prevailed. Stott demanded that the Lausanne Covenant’s emphasis on the social implications of the gospel be reflected in the organization’s ongoing work. Stott and Graham had known each other since Graham’s crusades in England in the mid-1950’s and they had become personal friends. But Stott’s challenge was still bold.

The committee was shocked. Many in the room disagreed. For them, social concern had occupied just one paragraph of the covenant and little of the congress’s discussions, whereas evangelism had dominated both. Many evangelicals still saw the world very much as Stott had done back int he 1950’s: caring for people’s physical needs was important, but getting them saved was much, much more so. But losing Stott would have been a big blow. Some felt he was blackmailing the committee.

How was this disagreement resolved? It wasn’t. Not totally anyway. Here’s what happened…

In the end, they locked Stott and Peter Wagner, a Fuller Seminary professor who wanted Lausanne to focus on strategies for evangelism, in a room and told them to come up with a compromise. The result was a weak reference to “the total biblical mission of the church” in the committee’s statement of purpose. Graham made sure that his relationship with Stott was not breached, writing to him in April to say that “there is no man that I respect, love, admire and would gladly follow more devotedly than I would you.” It was a mark of Graham’s humility that he did not use his enormous capital to press his point at the meeting at Mexico.

When I think of John Stott and Peter Wagner locked in a room, I only wish they’d locked a tape recorder in there with them. For more information on Stott’s life and ministry, I recommend Godly Ambition by Alister Chapman.

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21 thoughts on “When John Stott Confronted Billy Graham”

  1. Karen B. says:

    Fascinating story, Trevin, thanks. What’s interesting is that the tension between evangelism and evangelism & social ministry was still very much present at Lausanne 3 in Capetown in 2010, which I had the joy of attending.

    In fact, John Piper rewrote a portion of his exegesis of Ephesians 3 the night before his talk to tackle the topic. In exegeting Eph 3 he proposed a statement that he hoped the Lausanne delegates could adopt. Here is the key excerpt from his talk:

    [quote] One truth is that when the gospel takes root in our souls it impels us out toward the alleviation of all unjust suffering in this age. That’s what love does!

    The other truth is that when the gospel takes root in our souls it awakens us to the horrible reality of eternal suffering in hell, under the wrath of a just and omnipotent God. And it impels us to rescue the perishing, and to warn people to flee from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:10).

    I plead with you. Don’t choose between those two truths. Embrace them both. It doesn’t mean we all spend our time in the same way. God forbid. But it means we let the Bible define reality and define love.

    Could Lausanne say—could the evangelical church say—we Christians care about all suffering, especially eternal suffering? I hope we can say that. But if we feel resistant to saying “especially eternal suffering,” or if we feel resistant to saying “we care about all suffering in this age,” then either we have a defective view of hell or a defective heart.

    I pray that Lausanne would have neither.[/quote]

    from here:

    http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2010/11/18/we-care-about-all-suffering-in-this-age%E2%80%94especially-eternal-suffering/

    More on the “Lausanne 3 controversy,” including an excerpt from an article by Robert McQuilkin here:

    http://reformedbaptist.blogspot.com/2011/04/robertson-mcquilkin-discusses-john.html

    I highly recommend watching Piper’s talk on Eph 3, here:
    http://conversation.lausanne.org/en/conversations/detail/10970#.UYo-iMr5CSo

    1. pduggie says:

      Isn’t it really a problem for Calvinists at this point? The number of people we can declare the message to that will save from eternal suffering is unknowable to us.

      but the number of people we can help with social action is knowable.

      You can run into a James 2:16 situation where warnings about wrath to come are undermined by a lack of interest in present suffering. What if attention to present suffering is the most effective way to gain a hearing for the message of wrath to come?

      1. Mark says:

        The exact number of people that will be saved from eternal suffering is unknowable to anyone, whether you’re a Calvinist or an Arminian. But that doesn’t hinder either an Arminian or a Calvinist from preaching the gospel, does it? It doesn’t.

  2. pduggie says:

    John Stott, the original missional legalist.

    (not really, but if you follow some ways of thinking)

  3. Nate says:

    Thanks Trevin for the really interesting story.

  4. Michael says:

    I remember when Lausanne 1974 was meeting. Since then I have noticed two things that have happened among Evangelicals that have both done much harm: the attempts of some to gain intellectual respectability and others to gain social respectability. In this process they have sold their birthright by giving up the Scriptures as the Holy Spirit inspired record of God speaking and giving up the preaching of the whole counsel of God in favour of good works to address the physical sufferings in our world.

    Compassion is not something optional but what use is compassion that concerns itself primarily with the here and now, with the social and physical circumstances of the millions who do not follow Jesus Christ. William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, can not be accused of lacking compassion. Yet in his book “In Darkest England and the Way Out” (1890) he wrote, “No change in circumstances, no revolution in social conditions, can possibly transform the nature of man.” Booth saw clearly that the greatest need of desperate and destitute people was to meet with Christ and that for them the new birth was indispensable.

    Western politicians and human rights activists, who proclaim that man can be changed through social changes, are preaching a false gospel. Sadly many Christians have followed them and become totally absorbed in addressing the sufferings of people and neglecting the primacy of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have far too often heard people equate showing compassion with communicating the gospel. This is simply not true. People only come to faith through hearing the gospel and putting their faith in Jesus Christ – not through experiencing deeds of compassion. Jesus fed and healed many in Judea and Galilee, who when challenged by his preaching turned their backs on him.

    I believe both Graham and Stott were in agreement with William Booth. Was it perhaps Stott’s reaction against neglect of compassion and lack of involvement of Christians that made him push for this formulation? Why did he overlook that Christians, from the birth of the Church, have been on the forefront of showing compassion to those suffering?

  5. Solomon Tingsam Li says:

    If this was a reaction to Anthony Bradley’s statement on the matter, then I think it misses the point.

    The mission of the church is the Great Commission. That’s the message of Bradley. How it manifests in different places is different. Some people in suburbia live good and quiet lives which testify to God’s faithfulness. Others in the city do a lot to better the city.

    But this focus on the city has driven us away from the suburbs. And that is the problem. They are all opportunities for the mission of God. There is not one better than the other.

    We would do well to be humbled at the fact that ministers are called to all those churches by God… and appreciate the ministries equally.

  6. Ian Smith says:

    One glaring omission I feel that this article gave no attention to was the historic context in which the Lausanne Congress was called–many older voices in the WCC (among the Mainline churches) were declaring that the task of evangeliziation was accomplished, and that churches should no longer send missionaries to make disciples, but should instead focus their entire energy on social causes.

    The Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization was a reaction, a response to an over-emphasis on social action among Mainline protestants. We have subsequently seen how this has all but shipwrecked many denominations and organizations as they have pandered to the PR campaign against proclamation missions from academic and social circles.

  7. Is there a role in the mission of the Church for “social ministry” or “good works” or whatever you want to call it? Some Christians/churches are so focused on these (which is actually the heresy of liberation theology/social justice gospel) that they ignore the necessity of personal holiness and preaching the message of salvation. Others go in entirely the opposite direction: they’re so afraid of “salvation by works” that they focus solely on personal holiness and preaching the gospel while avoiding good works. Where’s the balance?

  8. Reggie says:

    Thanks for the story. I’ll have to research John Stott and his history.

  9. Jose Marti says:

    John’s and Billy’s reputations of humility and commitment to the unity of the Gospel would be considered rare in this day and age. Now, a disagreement like this would (as we have already seen) be handled via Twitter. The Body of Christ has lost an ability to dialogue about important issues such as these. Whether it be privately and discreetly, or in public forums in a way that honors Christ.

  10. JohnM says:

    “Some felt he was blackmailing the committee.” That was exactly what occurred to me as I read. Shall we say good on Billy Graham for having the humility to let it go, or bad on all of us that we gravitate toward personality cults with “indispensable” leaders?

  11. Joel Linton says:

    Read Evangelicalism Divided by Iain H. Murray to get a better perspective on what happened.

  12. Sue says:

    After serving overseas for quite a few years, I think John Piper hit the nail on the head. We need to care about both physical suffering and spiritual suffering. This article reminds me that I need to daily ask God to cleanse my heart from all selfishness and wickedness so that I may be ready to give answer to those who ask about the hope I have. I may answer verbally or answer in my actions toward others. Either way, I hope my answer is glorifying to God.

  13. Adam says:

    It seems that John Piper was right. One need not necessarily choose one or the other. “Eternal suffering” is primary if not just for logical reasons (aka eternal suffering is a bit longer than our 3 score and 10) but of course not excluding the temporal suffering of this age. (As a cross-cultural missionary in central Africa I found out that the preaching types are without exception the long-term grass-roots supporting of social concerns. The ‘social do-gooders only’ do not typically last long nor endure suffering in remote places.)

    Yet, was Stott at this time an annihilationist? Could this have had something to do with his lack of empathy with Graham? Or did he just want balance? How did Stott’s false teaching/view of annihilationism influence him?

    Maybe a Stott scholar could comment on this.

    Thanks!

    1. Adam says:

      A quick caveat on my own comment about ‘do-gooders only’ in central Africa….This has only been my experience in a limited place in the world. I realize this is not the truth everywhere.

      But I find that the accusation by “do-gooders only” that evangelist types don’t care about people to be experientally the exact opposite. I have my theories why but I’ll keep those to myself. :)

  14. Paul says:

    This debate between reminds me of the Gnostic Heresy of 2nd century. We overemphasize the spiritual and ignore the physical. Thankfully, we do not have only a spiritual Christ but a whole Christ, fully God and fully man. He was spiritual and physical and he manifested himself to us as a whole man. He fed people. He cared about their needs. He was worried for the people that they might faint of exhaustion in one their journey home. His social actions were merged with his teaching. They were one package.

    It also reminds me of the Liberalism vs. Fundamentalism. Fundamentalists focused on the spiritual: discipleship and evangelism. Liberalism focused on social action. Since fundamentalists want nothing to do with liberals, they avoided social action. Obviously, it is much easier to see where they were short-sighted from this vantage point. I often wonder where we will see our (my) shortcomings. David Platt has often criticized the evangelical church for being wealthy spiritually/physically and being indifferent toward the needs of the poor and the lost.

  15. Michael says:

    I find it disconcerting that so many comments keep ignoring the fact that the primary calling of the Church is to proclaim the gospel. The Church was not called to be a super social welfare organization. While I believe that Christians in their daily lives should be showing compassion and helping as they are best able, this task should not be transferred to local congregations or the Church as an institution and so distract or hamper the Church in her primary calling.

    When Paul wrote to the Romans, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes,” he was speaking of the message of the cross. I have all too often seen – over more than four decades – Christians who as they become more and more socially active progressively neglect preaching this message. Social action does not tell people about Jesus, about his suffering, death and resurrection, about the significance and implications of all this. Social action does not call people to repent and to put their faith in Jesus Christ.

    When Jesus began his ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth, he read words from Isaiah (Luke 4:16-21) that encapsulate his ministry. He spoke of the poor, prisoners, blind and oppressed. But this is poetry and misused when understood literally as a call to social activity. If that were the case then Christians would have to supporting military action against tyrants, demonstrating outside prisons to have inmates freed, gathering all the blind and restoring their eyesight – which makes nonsense of the passage and its context. Jesus was here describing in poetry that incredible change that would happen in the lives of people when they heard him proclaiming the good news (evangelize)and believed his message.

    Jesus had compassion healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding hungry crowds but knew that many of these were only there for the handouts and would turn their backs on him or turn against him when he confronted them with God’s message. This is something that no amount of social activity will ever be able to prevent or change.

    John Stott was spot on when he entitled his commentary to the Ephesians, “God’s New Society” (sadly changed in later editions). Christian congregations should reveal to the world what happens when people love and obey God. Billy Graham was right to recognize that the messed up world should not be allowed to push the Church in certain directions to address social issues and consequently to neglect what is most important. In getting our priorities right, we must follow the natural sense and focus of the Scriptures – especially the New Testament.

    1. Paul says:

      I would like to simply comment on the following from Michael
      “Jesus had compassion healing the sick, raising the dead, feeding hungry crowds but knew that many of these were only there for the handouts and would turn their backs on him or turn against him when he confronted them with God’s message. This is something that no amount of social activity will ever be able to prevent or change.”

      Yes, I would agree that there were individuals who were only there for the handouts but Jesus was gracious to them whether they would accept the gospel or not. He loved them nonetheless with his actions. He showed them the love of God. The social activity was not going to prevent or change these individuals but this did not stop Jesus living out who He was. He was not just concerned with them accepting a Gospel Message, though I agree that this is of utmost importance. Jesus presented the gospel message through his life and death, through his words and deeds and his gracious to both the “righteous” and “unrighteous”. Another example of this is Judas. Jesus knew that Judas was stealing from the money jar but he continued to love him until the very end. He showed him social action and love despite knowing that he would never accept the gospel message. I just wanted to say that social action without conversion is not fruitless. Social action and gospel message which leads to conversion is best.

  16. Justin says:

    Yes, it does seem that only one side of the story is shared here…

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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