Last year, I wrote a series of articles that argued for “multi-directional leadership” as opposed to “one-directional leadership.” The one-directional leader is like a shepherd who is skillful in spotting and thwarting threats to the sheep that come from only one direction of the field. This leader recognizes either the danger of liberalism or the threat of fundamentalism and gets energized by fighting a one-sided battle, while unintentionally leaving the flock vulnerable to problems coming from the opposite side.

A multi-directional leader, in contrast, can fend off threats from more than one direction. They hold up the Scriptures and fearlessly proclaim truths that get to the root of our sins, failures, and dysfunctions, no matter what political or theological categories get crossed. They do not let fear dictate their theological statements or determine their cultural posture. We need leaders with the dexterity and discipline to challenge problematic positions no matter where they come from.

Last month, I argued for multi-directional leadership that would apply to debates over racial discrimination and some of the proposed solutions to ongoing injustice.

Example of John Stott

In the first article of my series last year, I pointed to John Stott as an example of multi-directional leadership, specifically his view of the mission of the church. Stott believed it was wrong to ignore social ministry (a temptation he saw in conservative circles), but he also observed how social ministry could swallow up the urgency for verbal proclamation of the gospel (a tendency he saw in centrist and liberationist circles). He was neither a conservative warrior trained to spot only the dangers of liberalism, nor a progressive proponent trained to fight only the follies of fundamentalism. His scriptural commitments alerted him to problems he saw coming at the church from multiple angles.

In 1968, when invited to address the World Council of Churches, Stott chastised the attendees for what he perceived to be a dangerous imbalance in prioritizing social ministry to the exclusion or diminishment of verbal evangelism. He went toe-to-toe with those who were watering down the mission into social work.

But in the years that followed, Stott also faced head-on those who thought the Great Commission was primarily or exclusively about evangelism without sufficient attention given to the church’s social ministry, including Billy Graham through an address at Lausanne at 1974 and a sharp debate in a committee meeting that followed in 1975.

My point was not to promote the particulars of Stott’s position but instead to lift him up as an example of a statesman who was able to foresee and respond to threats to the church’s witness that came from different directions. In one assembly, he could push hard against a reductionist social gospel, and in another assembly, he could push hard against a reductionist fundamentalism.

Other Examples of Multi-Directional Leadership in the Ministry of John Stott

A new book by Tim Chester, Stott on the Christian Life: Between Two Worlds, explores other areas in which Stott was alert to problems that could plague the church from multiple directions.Stott on the Christian Life: Between Two Worlds (Theologians on ...

Fundamentalism and Liberalism

In the 1950s, standing against liberals in the Church of England who were scorning “fundamentalism,” Stott defended those who maintained belief in the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith, claiming the reasonableness of a Christianity dependent on divine revelation. He opposed the rationalists of his day who thought Christian dogma results in “stifling the mind.”

In the same decade, Chester writes, Stott distanced himself from an anti-intellectual fundamentalism that stood for “the bigoted rejection of all biblical criticism, a mechanical view of inspiration and an excessively literalistic interpretation of Scripture.” Stott, along with Graham, Ockenga, Henry, and other neo-evangelical leaders in the 1950s and ’60s, gave shape to the evangelicalism we know today, a movement that seeks to avoid the pitfalls of both a separatist fundamentalism and a compromised liberalism.

Hyper-intellectualism and Anti-intellectualism

In the 1960s and ’70s, Stott made passionate appeals for the development of a Christian mind—arguments that became the classic Your Mind Matters. He believed evangelical Christians had succumbed to an anti-intellectual spirit.

But in the same work, he observed the danger of an arid “hyper-intellectualism” that removes emotion and affection from the Christian life and turns the faith into merely a series of doctrinal affirmations without warm-hearted love for God and neighbor. “God never intends knowledge to be an end in itself but always to be a means to some other end,” he wrote.

Here we see multi-directional leadership at work. Over against a liberal Christianity that gave priority to human reason—setting the mind up as the judge of divine revelation—Stott demoted human rationality by showing how it is affected by the fall. Over against anti-intellectual Christianity, whether in the guise of a superficial, emotion-based relationship with God or in the excesses of fundamentalist obscurantism, Stott argued for the pursuit and development of a Christian mind as a vital aspect of discipleship.

Other Examples

We can multiply the examples.

  • When addressing the doctrine of Scripture, Stott warned against overemphasizing the human authorship of the text to the exclusion of its divine authority. He also warned against subsuming the human personality of the authors to a divine dictation theory.
  • In warning against worldliness, Stott calls for a “vigorous nonconformity.” At the same time, he recognizes that Christians can fall into obscurantism—a place of nonconformity that does not bring us into contact with the world we are called to win.
  • Stott’s famous book on preaching, Between Two Worlds, calls for sensitivity to both the ancient world and the modern world. Some preachers would allow the current moment to determine what can and must be preached, while other preachers would present only the truth of Scripture without carefully applying it to our contemporary world. Fidelity and contextualization—both are necessary, without sacrificing one for the other, according to Stott. “We need more fidelity to Scripture and more sensitivity to people,” he wrote. “Not one without the other, but both.”

Developing the Multi-Directional Dialectic

Where does this multi-directional leadership come from? How does a leader begin to think this way?

Chester believes Stott’s dialectic approach was influenced by Charles Simeon, vicar of Trinity Church at the beginning of the 19th century who said, “The truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme, but in both extremes.”

Stott, like Simeon, was not looking for a “middle-of-the-road” approach. He was not a squishy leader who felt disdain for the “idiots to his left” or the “crazies to his right.” Instead, he had the humility to recognize truth and to cling to it tenaciously—allowing the full force of truth’s paradoxical power to have its way. Chester sums it up this way:

“We do not have to worry about over-affirming something as long as we do not let go of its complementary truth. So we have two strong truths which we affirm with all our might.”

This approach resembles the apologetic method of G. K. Chesterton, whose Orthodoxy makes the case for holding together truths that appear as if they are in opposition to each other. It is not merely the case of avoiding extremes (such as, believing the Scriptures are either divine revelation or the work of human authors), but combining extremes (the Bible is God’s Word through and to humanity).

Displaying, Not Distorting the Truth

The key for Stott, and for all other multi-directional leaders, is to recognize the truth when you see it, even if it comes from unexpected directions and sources. Stott was able to find creative solutions and steer a path forward for evangelicals in a number of areas because he listened carefully to the concerns that elicited strong reactions.

“Why did they feel this so strongly?” Stott asked of people who were up in arms about a particular point of doctrine or practice. By listening carefully to critics of one view or another, Stott learned to discern the precious truth that was in danger of being lost, even if he disagreed with some of the complaints. “What is it that they want to safeguard?” he asked. “The extraordinary thing was that in many cases you find that you want to safeguard it too. And then you reach the point of creative development or creative solutions.”

If we are going to be multi-directional in our leadership today, we must be committed to displaying the truth in all its fullness. We must not look for a “middle road” that offends no one, but the path that recognizes without equivocation truths that appear to be on opposing sides, knowing that you will likely get shot at from people who feel more comfortable living in the margins of one extreme or another.

This is the way to be faithful to Jesus and his Word, to display the truth in all its glory. Stott is right: “If the devil cannot induce us to deny Christ, he will get us to distort Christ instead. In consequence lopsided Christianity is widespread, in which we overemphasize one aspect of a truth, while underemphasizing another.” Let’s not settle for a lopsided Christianity or one-directional leadership.

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Editors’ note: Check out Trevin Wax’s new book The Multi-Directional Leader (TGC, 2021), available now for preorder. We invite you to join us—either in person or online—for TGC’s 2021 National Conference. All registrants, including those who register for the livestream, will receive six free books, including Rebecca McLaughlin’s The Secular Creed and Ivan Mesa’s Before You Lose Your Faith. Learn more.