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.