This article is part of the This Day in History series.
Action and Listening
On this day in history John Stott, one of the most influential Christian leaders of the twentieth century, was born. This year marks the centenary of his birth.
Once discharged from the hospital, Stott’s parents brought him back to their home in the London suburb of West Kensington. A month later the family moved to No 58 Harley Street. Arnold Stott, John’s father, was a doctor and Harley Street was—as it continues to be—the most prestigious place in London for a doctor to practice. Arnold Stott’s star was rising and he would go on to be physician to the Queen, eventually being knighted for his services.
By any definition, John Stott was born into a world of privilege. As a child, he was cared for by a nanny. He would attend one of England’s elite schools before studying at Cambridge University. His father hoped Stott might pursue a career in the diplomatic service. Stott was a wealthy man and part of a privileged class of society that was brought up with the assumption that it would rule.
But other forces were at play in Stott’s life. Stott was converted in his final years at school and this radically changed the orientation of his life. From now he used his education and influence for the cause of Christ—as curate and then rector of All Souls church in central London, through university missions, through his many books, and as a global evangelical statesman.
In his early ministry, Stott could be somewhat patrician. But this was a privilege in the service of Christ. Stott was unbending in his submission to the lordship of Christ in every area of life.
One of the causes Stott championed was the importance of social action. In the 1960s and 1970s, social action was often viewed with suspicion by evangelicals. At best it was considered a distraction from evangelism; at worst it was seen as a sign of liberal theology. But Stott would not let these factors deflect him from what he believed was taught in Scripture. The response to these dangers was not to ignore what Scripture taught, he believed, but to hold fast to the fulness of the Bible’s teachings. In this case that meant resolutely advocating both evangelism and social action.
Perhaps the main reason why Stott was able to use his privilege to glorify his Savior was his commitment to listening. First and foremost this meant listening to the voice of God in the words of Scripture. Stott championed the authority of Scripture at a time when this was considered intellectual suicide.
But it was not just the Bible to which Stott was concerned to listen. He spoke of the need for “double listening”—listening to both the word and the world.
I believe we are called to the difficult and even painful task of “double listening”. That is, we are to listen carefully (although of course with differing degrees of respect) both to the ancient Word and to the modern world, in order to relate the one to the other with a combination of fidelity and sensitivity. 1
The goal was to bring the authority of the word to bear on the needs of the world. But Stott was clear that listening to the world also meant having the humility to reevaluate our own understandings of Scripture. Christ speaking through his word is always our ultimate authority. But for this very reason, we must be willing to resubmit our thinking to its authority. For Stott, too, listening was an act of love. It was a way of granting dignity and respect to the other person or group.
During Stott’s time as a pastor in London, double listening meant listening to the radical movements of the 1960s. There are strong parallels to today’s generational, political, and ideological divide. Stott’s privileged background naturally placed him on one side of that divide. But he was committed to reaching across the generations.
We need to listen so that we might love our neighbor and so that we might submit our thinking to the authority of Christ in his word.
In later years listening for Stott meant listening to the voices of church leaders from the majority world— long before post-colonial perspectives became a trendy academic concern. He listened because he wanted to love people and because he wanted to learn from people. But his listening also earned the trust of the many leaders across the world who affectionately called him “Uncle John”. He came from the country and the class that had colonized their world. Yet he managed to overcome this because he listened with humility—and also because there were times when he used his privilege to give ensure their voices were heard.
Today we are wrestling with the challenges of systemic injustice, and some of us are unsure what to do with our privilege. Of course, there are no easy answers. But the example of John Stott gives us a good place to start: with listening to one another. We need to listen to one another across racial boundaries and political divides. We need to listen beyond the echo chambers of our social media bubbles. Above all, those with power need to listen to those without power. We need to listen so that we might love our neighbor and so that we might submit our thinking to the authority of Christ in his word. John Stott’s call for double listening remains as important as ever.
- John Stott, The Contemporary Christian: An Urgent Plea for Double Listening (Leicester: IVP, 1992), 13
Tim Chester is the author of Stott on the Christian Life: Between Two Worlds.
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