Volume 24 - Issue 1

Lindsay Brown: An Interview

By Stephen N. Williams

Lindsay Brown is General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) since 1991. Prior to that he served as IFES Regional Secretary for Europe and staff worker for UCCF. In this piece he talks to Stephen Williams about theology in the world wide student work.

SW      Lindsay you have been General Secretary of IFES for … I’ve got this figure of seventeen years in my head for some reason!

LB        Actually, seven years, but I started working as Regional Secretary in 1982, almost seventeen years ago, and then I became General Secretary in 1991. It feels like seventeen years Stephen!

SW      Has that been a period of growth for IFES on the whole?

LB        Yes, I think it has been a time of remarkable growth, particularly because of the political changes in the late 1980s in the formerly Communist world, which opened up opportunities for Christian witness in the student world, not only in post-communist countries, but also in some countries that had a more totalitarian system of government. Nepal would be a case in point where there was a very small student work before about 1989. In that Hindu kingdom students saw demonstrations on television in Eastern Europe and went on to the streets and called for greater democracy. King Birendra opened the situation up politically, so Christian witness was able to expand considerably from 1990 onwards in a situation where there had been significant repression beforehand. I would guess that since 1989 we have been able to begin student work in somewhere between 25 and 30 countries around the world, the majority of which had a Communist background. Before then it was very difficult working in those countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Central Asian Republics, Belarus, Albania etc.

But even before 1989, under the previous General Secretary, Chua Wee Hian, student work in the eighties expanded in a number of countries around the world, including in Southern Africa, countries like Angola and Mozambique where work began in the midst of civil war. So there has been probably more accelerated growth since 1989, but there was steady growth occurring before then.

SW      In these places, has there often been a rich evangelical or theological inheritance to draw on, or have people found themselves making their own way afresh, as it were, and having to work out the application of biblical truths in contemporary situations without really much of a background?

LB        I think that the latter has been the case in most post-communist States. If we take Russia for example, there are several things to note about the cultural and theological background at the time of the changes in 1989 and following.

Firstly, it was virtually impossible from the 1920s onwards for evangelical Christians to study any academic course in university, whether it was theological or otherwise. So though you had people who had the academic ability, almost none of the people in positions of leadership in the Church, as pastors or elders, had formal academic or university training.

Secondly, there was very, very little literature available in the Russian language before 1989. There were probably only in the region of about sixty or seventy evangelical books available at that time, the majority of which tended to be the translations and testimonies of books that were felt to be helpful to people in the West, and publishing was carried on in a rather piecemeal fashion by Western individuals or agencies, translating occasional books here and there: but very little work of theological note was available from an evangelical perspective. What was available was material published from the Russian Orthodox background, but in terms of an evangelical contribution, there was a minimal amount available, and very, very few commentaries. Most of the books tended to be biographical books of Western individuals like Nicky Cruz or Corrie Ten Boom. So at the level of formal theological training and at the level of literature—two of the keys, I would say, to the formulation of theological perspective in a culture—the church in Russia really was very, very weak. In contrast, there is a very different situation in China; many books have already been published in Mandarin and in Cantonese in Taiwan, Hong Kong and other Southeast Asian countries. There are many able Chinese theologians teaching in Seminaries and Bible Colleges outside of China too. There is a much greater corpus of literature and theological training available to help the church. This wasn’t the case in Russia before 1989 and added to that, of course, very few Western Christians who had theological stature as theologians spoke Russian or understood Russian, so even when the gates opened, very few people from outside of the culture were able to go in and teach through the medium of the Russian language.

So people have been trying to find their way forward since 1989. In Russia several small scale publishing houses have started up. Several small Bible Colleges or theological institutions have begun to take root, but things are still at the very initial stage, and I would say there is evidence of some tension in the evangelical community, probably between younger converts, some of whom are students or even some individuals who are in academic positions in universities, and many of the church leaders who come from humble roots and are godly men, but are not used to grappling with some of the major theological or intellectual issues of the day. So there is some tension between the rising generation and the already existent one.

SW      Can you tell me more about that tension? Is it tension in terms of personality, to some extent, and approaches and ways of holding to certain Christian truths, or is there actually conflict of opinion here, so that the evangelicalism of that younger generation is theologically different? Is it that kind of tension?

LB        Well, I think one of the areas in which the tension is most evident is in the whole area of the development of what we might call the Christian mind, by which I mean an attempt to apply Christian truth to every area of society. Something happens in a culture when the church and the culture are highly restricted. It seems to me that if a church is restricted in its forms of worship or its activities for a lengthy period of time, what tends to happen almost imperceptibly, is that the church leadership tends towards legalism, perhaps adding additional definitions of what it means to be a Christian to the core of the faith, (e.g. not wearing ornaments, such as rings or earrings, or not drinking any alcohol, or these kind of micro-ethical issues which are secondary). So legalism tends to build up over a period of time in some of those churches which are restricted by the State. When new believers come in then to that situation, they sometimes struggle to identify these restrictions with the new-found faith they have experienced personally and find in the Scriptures with its emphasis on liberation in Christ. So tension can occur at that level.

And then if you have a diet of teaching which tends to overly spiritualise stories in the Bible, not expounding passages in the context of the whole book, and not seeking to apply the gospel to the workplace or in the area of our sexuality, the sciences, the arts and so on, you tend to find a church which is quite restrictive and where new believers are frustrated in not seeing the relevance of the gospel to every area of life. But that’s a hangover from living under a totalitarian system, and perhaps from a lack of training and equipping of some of the leaders.

SW      Let me see if I’ve picked up correctly what you are saying here. It seems to me that you are encouraged by many of the developments among people of the younger generation for at least three reasons, if I’ve got it right. One is that they are developing a Christian world view in their thinking. Secondly, they seem to be able to distinguish quite well primary from secondary issues, unlike what sometimes happens under more restrictive situations. Thirdly, and I would like you to comment on this, they have a wider conception of what salvation in Christ means, than some of the other generations, by the sound of it. Is that correct?

LB        It is a patchy situation; it’s perhaps more complex than what you have said might lead some to feel. I wouldn’t want to state overly negatively the contribution of Christians in restricted environments, but there is a downside to it as I’ve highlighted. It wouldn’t be true either to say that all Christians since 1989, in these situations, have been much stronger in those few areas you summarised. But in general, I think those are lessons that the church is beginning to learn and apply since perhaps 1989 and some of the younger generation coming through, particularly students and young graduates, are seeking to work in some of these areas, but it does sometimes evoke a cultural tension and perhaps a theological tension in churches where you still have some in positions of leadership whose notion of what constitutes an evangelical lifestyle is perhaps narrower than the New Testament would lead us to believe.

SW      You have obviously had very wide experience over a number of years, and it is interesting that with all your knowledge of the differences in these situations, you find several features in common. Can I move on to some common questions, because I have heard you say before now, that there are two dominant issues for IFES theologically, aren’t there? The question of pluralism (the question of other religions) and the question of nationalism. Now I heard you say that a few years ago; is that more or less still the case? Are these the two dominant issues?

LB        No doubt there are other issues too, but it seems to me that these are two of the key issues globally at the moment. I think that it is very evident that the issue of nationalism has presented a big challenge to the church in recent years, and in my mind in a global village where people’s national identity is undermined, and where they feel less secure faced by market forces and other things which undermine national identity, they tend to become more defensive of their national roots, and this has led of course to inter-tribal warfare in a number of countries around the world. We are fully acquainted with ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia and the same kind of thing in tensions between Hutus and Tutsis in both Rwanda and Burundi. In both cases, in both those latter two countries, unfortunately some church leaders were even implicated in the fighting. I expect this is going to be a problem in a number of other places in the years to come.

As far as the question of pluralism and its close relative, syncretism, is concerned, this of course has been a major issue for some years. I think particularly in the West we see it manifested, especially since the sixties, in the growth and influence of Eastern mysticism, particularly from the Indian sub-continent and its emphasis on syncretism. More recently, the growth of Islam in the liberal West has led people, with the growing number of immigrants in places like Britain, France and Germany, to perhaps play down the distinctiveness of Christian claims with the aim of hoping that these different cultural groups can settle down and live harmoniously together. But I think this challenge will expand even further in years to come. We can see it there in Africa, not so much with Islam and Eastern mysticism, but with the resurgence of interest in African traditional religions and the attempt by some theologians to wed biblical truth to African traditional religion. Some theologians are grappling with the issue of how they can develop a theology which is African in a way which is distinctive from perceptions of Western forms of theology. In our work, many of our leaders are concerned to reflect on how we can develop a form of theology which is both African and evangelical, so actually in the last years we have begun publishing houses in both French-speaking and English-speaking Africa, with the deliberate aim of encouraging some of our capable graduates to write books, which seek to apply biblical truth to African problems, because even books written in English or French from the West don’t actually touch the nerve of what are the key issues in Africa as a whole.

So I believe that one of the key ways forward is in the encouragement and the promotion of Christian writers and Christian literature, who really seek to apply biblical truth to the cultural context in which they are serving and working in Africa and elsewhere. So syncretism and pluralism I think are issues right across the world, manifesting themselves in different ways.

SW      Is it the case that when you ask questions about pluralism and other religions you can draw on an evangelical heritage of thought, but with something like nationalism it is much harder to do that and we have to do our thinking afresh? Is that correct or is that a misapprehension on my part?

LB        Well, it’s very interesting—as you know, Stephen, we had a group dialoguing in Wales just a few years ago on this whole issue of working towards an evangelical theology which had a positive approach to ethnic or national identity without leading to full-blown nationalism. As we tried to grapple with this issue, we looked around for a corpus of literature from other cultures, where theologians had done some thinking on the whole question of a biblical approach to nationalism, and for me one of the most striking things about the exercise was the scarcity of literature available on this subject. There were very few books in English and we hardly found anything available in other languages. I would say that I have noticed in the last five to ten years a growing body in literature in French from the African context, particularly from writers in Rwanda and Burundi and other countries which have been touched by this problem. There are some young bright theologians reflecting on and writing about a biblical approach to nationalism. Some more literature is becoming available now, but until the last few years there has been very little available.

SW      It seems to me, and I wonder how you would react to this, that because the Reformation had to do with differences in doctrinal theology rather than ethics or moral theology, evangelicals with their roots broadly in the Reformation, have seemed to concentrate on doctrinal theological issues because those are the distinctives of evangelicalism, so that really because issues in social ethics did not divide Catholicism and Protestantism in the Reformation and because evangelicals have often. I think, concentrated on the distinctives, there has been a neglect in the whole area of thinking through issues in ethics, because that would be an ecumenical kind of enterprise. Would that seem right to you?

LB        I think that is a very helpful and fresh summary. Actually I have to confess I haven’t seen it quite that way before. What did intrigue me was a visit to Rwanda and Burundi last December, when I talked with some of the key young leaders about this issue. They felt as they looked back at the East African revival over the last fifty years or so, that there had been a fatal flaw in perhaps the way some of the early missionaries worked. They felt that many of these early missionaries had rightly emphasised the necessity of man being reconciled with man, but they did not always follow through, because of their determination to preach the gospel evangelistically. Thus they did not seek to help the new believers to see the ethical implications of the gospel in terms of reconciliation between man and man, or man and woman, so that you had many people who professed faith in Christ, but who nevertheless harboured resentment against their neighbour from other ethical backgrounds. That probably fits in with what you have said about the Reformation context in Europe several hundreds of years ago, because there the battle I suppose was over the whole question of clarifying where the Roman Church had gone wrong in terms of its understanding of the core of the gospel, but perhaps we needed to go on from there to see how we can be not just light in society but also salt as well. In this century I think a number of evangelicals have really tried to help us in this respect. I understand from Oliver Barclay’s important book on evangelicalism in Britain over the last fifty years that the phrase ‘Christian Mind’ was used by Professor Lamont from Scotland in the 1930s. But others like Harry Blamires, John Stott and Samuel Escobar have popularised the phrase ‘the Christian mind’ much more and I think helped us perhaps on a global scale, most notably through the Lausanne Movement, but also since then, to really try to work harder at applying Christian truth at the level of ethics as well as doctrine.

SW      Lindsay—what you have said on the basis of your experience is extremely helpful. Can I ask you a more personal question? I know you have been involved for a number of years in this work, one way or another. Has your own interpretation of evangelicalism changed or developed, expanded at all perhaps because of your sensitivity to the need to contextualize the gospel in different countries, or has it basically remained unaltered?

LB        I think my passionate commitment to the authority of Scripture and to the necessity of having a primary commitment to evangelism and the proclamation of the gospel, has remained unchanged. At the same time it’s probably true to say that given my own background, I came into the work with a fair degree of suspicion about the importance of seeking to apply the gospel in the area of social involvement and issues such as justice and human rights and so on, partly because some of my inheritance is the tensions in the British church in the early part of the century over the respective roles of evangelism and social concern in terms of Christian witness. I think as I have dialogued, particularly with evangelical Christians working in Latin America and Africa, and also to some extent with some folks from East Asia from the Philippines who lived under President Marcos, and others more recently who lived under President Suharto in Indonesia, I have come to see that it is well-nigh impossible for Christians only to proclaim the necessity of reconciliation between man and God and not to spell out the implications for the gospel in terms of concern for our neighbour at the level of human rights, at the level of concern for people when they are in the mire of poverty. I like the balance of Charles Spurgeon, the famous Baptist preacher who said: ‘If you see a tramp in the street, by all means give him a tract, but put it in the middle of a sandwich.’

For me the challenge is to maintain the commitment to sitting under the authority of Scripture and passionate proclamation of the gospel in an undimmed fashion, while at the same time, seeing that these other aspects of testimony and witness are vitally important. I suppose I like Jesus’ model in the Scriptures, where he preached to the five thousand and then he fed them: maybe I was, as an evangelical in the 1970s, like the disciples at that time, who said after he had preached to them: ‘Now send them away’. I think Jesus gently tried to help them to see that gospel preaching has primacy, but you must care for people’s physical needs as well and feed them. And it doesn’t seem to me that there is a sharp separation of that combined mandate in the Scriptures, and Latin American Christians and Asian Christians and, to an increasing degree. African brothers and sisters, are helping me in this respect. When I talked with some of the leaders of the work in Africa, as they review student work over the last forty years, they are beginning to ask themselves this. ‘Why if we have some of the biggest student movements in the world, as in Nigeria for example, where there are more than 30,000 students who are involved in the IFES movement, why are we having such a minimal impact in our society? Why aren’t we having a deeper impact at the level of government, formulation of policy, and so on?’ They are coming increasingly to the conclusion that maybe they have been involved in proclaiming a gospel which has emphasised reconciliation between God and man, but hasn’t gone further in applying the Scriptures at an ethical level. Maybe they have proclaimed the light of the gospel but not sufficiently the saltiness of the gospel and now they are saying not that it’s one or the other, but we must do both passionately under the authority of Scripture.

SW      In saying that I’m sure you believe you’re recapturing not just a biblical theology and message, but also an evangelical inheritance which had been lost. Can I ask you one final question Lindsay? As IFES goes on, we pray in the blessing of God, into the new millennium, what changes, if any, do you foresee, and is there anything that you would especially like to see within IFES which you could share with us in this interview?

LB        Well. I think that some of the major challenges of the future are these. Our calling when we first began fifty years ago was to pioneer evangelical evangelising indigenous movements in every country in the world. Now evangelical movements exist in 140 countries; there remain 27 without student movements. More than 20 of those have Islamic governments, so obviously one of our greatest challenges must be how to develop indigenous evangelical student work in the Muslim world. That is probably likely to remain a challenge for some years to come, because where the church does take root, it tends to grow slowly. I think the second challenge would be relating to the whole question of ongoing renewal of vision. As movements get larger, as we have in terms of expanding to many different countries, and as movements get older, they tend to become rather flabby and lose their focus on essentials. We have always emphasised our primary goals as being those of evangelism or bearing witness to Christ in the university, secondly formacion, a Latin-American word for the formation and development of the individual in all areas of Christian lifestyle and ministry. Thirdly, there is cross-cultural mission. What tends to happen as a movement gets older is that it loses the focus on evangelism and cross-cultural mission, so we need to emphasise the need for constant renewal in the area of evangelism and mission. I have already mentioned helping other movements to think through how to make a deeper impact on their cultures in terms of the application of Christian truth to every area of life. I like the statement of Abraham Kuyper that great theologian.

“There is not one centimetre of human existence, to which Christ, who is Lord of ALL, does not point, and say,” that is mine!”.

SW      Thank you, Lindsay. And let me say how much I and many, many others have appreciated and been very grateful for your tremendous personal contribution through IFES to our Christian witness in the modern world.

Stephen N. Williams

Stephen Williams is professor of systematic theology at Union Theological College in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and served as general editor of Themelios from 1995 to 1999.