Remembering the past is good and biblical. That’s why the Word repeatedly calls us to remember God’s great acts of deliverance, such as the Exodus and the Cross. That’s also why the pastor of Hebrews warns his congregation to remember the faithless Israelites who wandered in the desert for 40 years (Heb. 3:16-19). Remembering bolsters our faith in God even as it cautions us against disobedience by reminding us of the consequences.
But nostalgia is the enemy of faith. By lamenting the good ‘ole days, nostalgia tempts us to forsake the present day as beyond the scope of God’s redemption, out of reach from his intervention. And hagiography is the handmaiden to nostalgia. When we venerate the saints of yesteryear as titans of faithfulness, without paying proper attention to their sins, we elevate them to a status only God possesses. As they increase in our memory, God must decrease. Even Jesus seems unfit to tie their sandals.
Thankfully, Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). He worked through flawed men like Abraham and Elijah, Peter and Paul. And he works through our flawed heroes of recent history. That is the much-needed reminder provided by two recently released books, among the first scholarly treatments of great 20th-century evangelical leaders John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Yes, we can—-indeed, must—-draw inspiration from their examples of steadfast faith when many others abandoned the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ. But we must also remember them for who they really were, imperfect men whose visions clashed, and learn from their mistakes.
Unity or Secession?
Stott and Lloyd-Jones lived consequential lives guided by God’s unmerited favor. Alister Chapman tells us in Godly Ambition how Stott, educated to assume a favored position in the British Empire, eventually invested in educating and empowering leaders in the Majority World. And the many scholars who contributed to Engaging with Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Life and Legacy of “The Doctor” explore several dimensions to his life, from his lifelong hunger for revival to his painful split with fellow Puritan admirer J. I. Packer.
Lloyd-Jones, the longtime pastor of Westminster Chapel in London, grew increasingly discouraged during the course of his life watching the Church of England’s theological trajectory. Independent evangelicals like Lloyd-Jones and many of us today tend to assume the worst of such state churches. But Stott and Packer, reared in the age of empire and schooled in the historical role of the favored church, continued to hope for reform along the lines of what the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter cultivated in Kidderminster in the 17th century.
Lloyd-Jones spoke in October 1966 at the second National Assembly of Evangelicals about his desire for visible unity to match evangelicals’ spiritual unity. He lamented, “We meet like this, I know, in an occasional conference, but we spend most of our time apart from one another, and joined to and united with people who deny and are opposed to these essential matters of salvation.” He continued, “I am a believer in ecumenicity, evangelical ecumenicity.”
While intended as a call to unity, his address struck many Anglicans as an ultimatum for secession. Indeed, Stott, who chaired the event, warned the crowd not to respond to Lloyd-Jones and make a “precipitate decision.” Raising the stakes, he argued, “I believe the Scripture is against [Lloyd-Jones] in that the remnant was within the Church and not outside it.”
How differently nostalgia remembers their stories. Lloyd-Jones, an ardent critic of ecumenism along the lines of the World Council of Churches, has been lionized as a zealous defender of truth for the sake of a pure church. But many have neglected his longing for evangelical cooperation, inspired by a love for the transatlantic awakenings of the 18th century that so shaped the spiritual heritage of his native Wales. Stott, meanwhile, has been recently eulogized as gentle Uncle John, the passionate bird watcher. Yet the man who expended decades of his life fighting the advance of liberalism in the Church of England, costing himself the bishop’s mitre, has become in our memory a paragon of lost evangelical statesmanship. Truth is more complicated than memory.
Nostalgia doesn’t do subtlety. We pound the third dimension out of our heroes, turning them into cardboard cutouts suitable for display at our favored conferences. We don’t so much learn from them as deploy them in our contemporary polemics. Beside the fact that we dishonor their legacy, we forsake a great opportunity for humble appropriation. Lloyd-Jones failed in his call. Divisions in British evangelicalism deepened. Those fault lines are still visible today. Could he have done anything differently? Learning from the Packer episode, how should we handle deep disagreement with longtime friends? Is even loose evangelical fellowship necessarily elusive until Jesus’ return, despite his prayer in John 17?
Stott even recognized to some degree his culpability in the split. He later apologized for abusing his chairmanship of the National Assembly of Evangelicals meeting to rebut Lloyd-Jones. But Uncle John knew how to ensure his views carried the day, even if others sometimes resented his tactics. Many remember Stott’s commitment to social action, immortalized in the Lausanne Covenant. Billy Graham, whose global ministry and fundraising made the gathering possible, initially counseled focus on evangelism and missions. But when Stott threatened to resign from the Lausanne Committee unless his views were adopted, Graham stood down and advocated compromise. Graham, in fact, went so far as to affirm his respect, love, and admiration for Stott, even though his British counterpart jeopardized the Lausanne unity he worked so hard to foster. Could Stott have registered his protest by others means? Did he need to resort to such hardball tactics? How do we know when threats are warranted?
Our heroes, then and today, endure tremendous pressure with limited human capacity to perceive the full consequences of their decisions. It seemed right for Stott and Packer to stand by the Church of England and against Lloyd-Jones in 1966. But as Chapman documents, Stott eventually tired of Anglican politics and refocused his attention on more encouraging developments in the global church. Packer, following his ecclesiological hero Baxter, committed to reforming the church from within. But in 2008 his church in Vancouver broke with the Anglican Church of Canada after that body blessed same-sex relationships. Had Lloyd-Jones been right all along about the futility of working within theologically mixed denominations? History tells alternative outcomes of this dilemma, but these are the questions we must confront, lest nostalgia rob us from valuable wisdom.
It does not insult our heroes to suspect their imperfection. Rather, we insult their God and cloud our faith with the fog of nostalgia if we ignore their mistakes. We end up the losers, because our own day will never measure up by comparison. But if we remember our heroes for who they were—-sinners redeemed by a glorious Christ—-we’ll learn their lessons and deepen our faith in a God who can powerfully work through us, too, even in this wicked day.